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Down-To-Earth Spirituality

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Bringing the heights of Mount Sinai down to earth.

Last week's Parsha told of the dramatic giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. It was a spiritual trip so powerful that every Jew literally had an out-of-body experience. The ultimate "wow!"

This week's follow-up, Mishpatim, is one of the longest Torah portions, containing an exhaustive list of over 50 separate mitzvot. Included are laws regarding kidnapping, personal injury and property damage, occult practices, helping the poor and vulnerable, returning lost objects, and alleviating the suffering of animals.

The juxtaposition between the two Parshas is striking: After the spiritual high of Mount Sinai, why would God "bring us down" (so to speak) with all these details of daily life? It's like being all heated up and then thrown into a cold shower. The two Parshas, it seems, are 180 degrees apart.

Actually, they're two sides of the same coin. The spiritual high of Sinai is gratifying, but it doesn't solve one problem of the world in which we live. Spirituality is not achieved by meditating alone on a mountaintop or by learning in an out-of-the-way monastery. Jewish spirituality comes through grappling with the mundane world in a way that uplifts and elevates.

Jews don't retreat from life, we elevate it. On Friday night, we raise the cup of wine – not to get drunk – but to make Kiddush and sanctify the Sabbath day. Spirituality, says Judaism, is to be found in the kitchen, the office, and yes, even the bedroom.

Flash of Inspiration

If that's true, why do we need Mount Sinai in the first place?

Because a powerful spiritual experience is what jump-starts our engines. We've all had such a moment of insight – whether at a Discovery Seminar, or standing atop Masada. But that feeling lasts only a short time.

Maimonides explains this metaphorically:

Imagine you're lost at night, trudging knee-deep in mud through a dark and vicious rainstorm. Suddenly a single flash of lightning appears, illuminating the road ahead. It is the only light you may see for miles. This single flash must guide you through the night.

So too, says Maimonides, one burst of inspiration may need to last for years.

The many practical, everyday scenarios described in this week's parsha send a very clear message: To maximize a moment of insight, we must concretize it, allowing the spiritual insight to take root in the reality of our physical world.

Thus after being commanded in last week's parsha "Thou shall not steal," this week's parsha describes how to prosecute a thief. The lofty level of yesterday is no guarantee we'll retain that level tomorrow. Only through the laws of daily life can we hope to transform ourselves and our world.

Letter vs. Spirit

Modern society professes ideals of justice and compassion. Yet to what extent do these ideals find expression in everyday life? Do we always 'walk the walk'?

The key is legislation. By legislating Mitzvot like returning lost objects and caring for the widow and orphan, the Torah builds a framework for profound personal transformation.

This raises the whole issue of "letter of the law" versus "spirit of the law." "Letter of the law" is performing an act because it is prescribed by the Torah. "Spirit of the law" is performing an act because of an inner emotional sense.

Charity is one example. The Torah commands us to give 10% of our income to charity (the letter of the law), which is intended to develop within us feelings of compassion for others (the spirit of the law).

We should ideally have both. But given the choice of one or the other, which is more crucial?

Let's examine the following case from Dennis Prager:

Two Jews (of equal wealth) are each approached by a poor woman who needs money for her daughter's cancer surgery. One of these Jews, upon hearing the woman's plight, feels a deep sense of compassion, and amidst tears, gives the woman a dollar. The other Jew isn't nearly as moved, in fact he was in a hurry and couldn't talk to the woman. But because he observes the Jewish law requiring 10 percent of income go to charity, he gives the woman $100.

Who is the "better Jew?"

Judaism would love you to give 10% of your income from the heart. It suspects, however, that in a large majority of cases, were we to wait for people's hearts to prompt them to give away thousands of dollars annually, we would be waiting a very long time. Judaism says: Give 10% – and if your heart catches up, terrific. In the meantime, a lot of good had been done.

The lesson of all this? "Doing" is more important than "feeling." This is one of the great lessons that Jews could teach in the post-'60s world which celebrates feelings. "How do you feel about it?" is not the Jewish question. "What do you do about it?" is the Jewish question.

Internalized Lessons

The Talmud says that God approached all the nations of the world and offered them the Torah. Only the Jewish people said "Na'aseh v'Nishma" – we are committed to fulfilling the mitzvot, and also strive to understand their deeper meaning.

Of course, we must strive to do mitzvot with emotional passion and practical, spiritual and intellectual understanding. But in terms of priority, a lack of understanding will not prevent our commitment to fulfilling them.

Another example is daily prayer. People say, "Why can't I just pray on those occasions when I'm inspired?" The answer is that, oftentimes, standing up to pray is exactly the catalyst needed to get inspired. It is a pro-active approach of putting oneself in a framework which nurtures and develops inspiration – rather than waiting for the inspiration to come to you.

The opening line of this week's Parsha is Aileh hamishpatim asher tasim lefneyhem – which can be translated as "these are the laws which you should place inside of them." The Zohar explains that the ideals of Sinai must be internalized and absorbed into our very bones. Whenever we have a moment of insight and clarity, we must channel that energy into a concrete act of renewal and repair.

That, the Torah tells us, is how we bring the heights of Sinai... down to earth.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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