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Mishpatim 5782: Locus of Focus

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! While growing up or raising a family in South Florida, it is practically obligatory to make a yearly (or in case of absolute child neglect, a biannual) pilgrimage to Orlando and visit the world’s only people trap operated by a mouse. After several trips and experiencing the “magic” of two-hour long wait times for rides that only last about six minutes, while battling the heat, humidity, rain, and of course the cries of hundreds of complaining children, I decided I needed to innovate a plan to conquer the challenge of Disney World.

And innovate I did. I created a battle plan utilizing all of Disney’s incentives (FastPasses, early park entry and late park hours for guests staying on property, etc.) and managed to map out every single ride in the four Disney parks that I felt my kids would like. More incredibly, I managed to squeeze them ALL into one day – albeit an incredibly long one.

Of course, neither my wife nor teenage daughters were up for this kind of nonsense. So I took my three boys ranging in age from 8-13 and we ran through all the parks, following my precise “battle” plan, which commenced at 7:30 am and finished at 2 am (by which point we were completely exhausted). By the end of that insanely hectic day, we had hit all four parks and missed only two of the rides that I had targeted because my one hard and fast rule was that I was unwilling to wait more than 10 minutes for a ride.

For many years I looked back at this “achievement” with some pride; in my mind I had actually beaten Disney and avoided almost everything about it that I loathed.

But as I got older I began to wonder if I had missed the point of what Disney was supposed to be. Was the Disney experience really meant to be a challenge to be conquered or should it be a fun, relaxing family vacation? My wife, being a lot smarter than me, intuitively understood that what I was trying to do was going to be stressful and unnecessarily pressured, perhaps even devoid of some of the “Disney magic” that draws millions of tourists in each year. She wisely steered clear of the entire endeavor.

In truth, much of what we do in life is filled with efforts that kind of miss the point of what you were trying to accomplish in the first place.

A few weeks ago I had an unexpected four-day hospital stay. I am, Thank God, fine. I had a bout of pancreatitis, which is basically treated by a complete cessation of ALL food and drink (not even water) and being hooked to an IV fluid drip for three days, until the inflammation subsides.

Unfortunately, hospitals today are rarely about rest and recuperation, but more about monitoring and treating a physical ailment. In my particular case, even though there wasn’t much to do except wait for the inflammation to subside, I was subjected to all the normative procedures for a patient in the hospital such as multiple blood draws and vital readings each day and a constant flow of nurses and orderlies day and night.

In the best of circumstances, I am not a great sleeper; being in the hospital with all the requisite prodding, puncturing, and general distractions, I was hardly sleeping at all. Needless to say, this was not helping my overall health. Between the pain and lack of rest my body was under a lot of stress. Within a day or two my blood pressure shot up to 170/100. The doctors started regularly adding blood pressure medicine to my daily regimen.

Other than this hospital stay, I have never, thank God, had any issues with my blood pressure. Obviously, being on blood pressure medicine wasn’t something I yearned to achieve, and I was fairly aggravated that I had to be treated for symptoms caused by the hospital stay itself. In fact, pancreatitis is usually far less dangerous than ongoing high blood pressure, not to mention that treating blood pressure can be a very tricky balance of medication depending on the individual.

It was at this point that I began to realize that as far as medicine has come in the last century, sometimes even medical treatments manage to miss the point.

There are many examples of this in other areas of our lives as well. I am reminded of the joke about the employee who came to work late. The boss yelled at him, “You should have been here at 8:30!” At which point the employee replied, “Why? What happened at 8:30?”

One of the places in which many people seem to miss the point of what they are trying to accomplish is in the area of religious observance. It is very easy to get caught up in the minutiae of checking every box (like my Disney ride battle plan) that we miss the experience entirely. I have noticed many devoutly religious men come to synagogue late and speed read through all the prayers to make sure they’ve said everything, seemingly forgetting that the purpose of prayer isn’t to say every word in the prayer book, it’s about having a conversation with the Almighty.

In this week’s Torah portion, which is called “Mishpatim – laws,” we have a remarkable exchange between the Almighty and Moses that highlights this point exactly. The Torah reading opens with:

And these are the laws which you shall set before them (21:1).

The great biblical commentator known as Rashi notes that the Almighty told Moses, “Do not think that it is enough to teach them (all the laws) chapter and verse two or three times until it is organized in their (mind) and that you do not have to bother to explain them and make them understand what those laws mean. Rather, you must teach them the reasons for the laws as well. This is why the verse says, ‘you shall set before them’ – it must be placed before them like a set table from which one is ready to eat.”

The Almighty seems to be concerned that Moses would feel that the most important thing to teach the Jewish people is what they have to do and how to do it. In other words, if Moses becomes concerned that he has only a limited amount of time to teach people, who also have a limited capacity to learn, then he may decide not spend the extra time explaining the reasons behind the commandments. Instead, he might just focus on ensuring the people know every detail of how to fulfill the commandments without knowing the underlying purpose of the commandments.

Therefore, the Almighty informs him that it isn’t enough just do the mitzvot (the commandments), the people must understand the reasons as well. Why is this true and what does the analogy to "a set table from which one could readily eat" mean?

The Torah is presenting one of the most important underlying principles of Judaism. There are two purposes in eating: nutrition and pleasure. When God tells Moses to organize it for them as a set table, He is referring to the presentation of the mitzvot.

Food presentation speaks not to the nutritional but rather to the pleasurable aspect. People will pay substantially more at a high-end restaurant where the presentation and ambiance adds to the pleasure of the experience. Though Moses is focused on the commandments as a way to fortify the people, God is telling him that it isn’t enough to just fulfill them; the people are also meant to enjoy them.

Therefore, the Almighty informs Moses that the laws are to be presented in such a way that the Jewish people should garner pleasure from them and thus have a desire to do them. The ultimate lesson here is that the Torah must be transformative. It isn’t enough to give charity; one must become a charitable person. A charitable person feels good and derives pleasure from helping others. The “high” they feel after doing good makes them want to do so again. It isn’t enough to keep Shabbat; one must connect to the spirit of Shabbat and take pleasure in everything it has to offer. A person who connects to Shabbat looks forward to it all week instead of restlessly counting down the hours until it’s over.

In order to truly enjoy the mitzvot, we must first understand the reasons for the commandments. Once we do, then we can begin to see that everything God asks of us is really for our own good. All these laws were given to us in order to provide us with the best possible life. In this way, we begin to anticipate the joyful experience of every one of God’s commandments; only then do we begin to scratch the surface of all the good God has created for us in this world.

Torah Portion of the Week

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

One of the most mitzvah-filled Torah portions, containing 23 positive commandments and 30 negative commandments. Included are laws regarding: the Hebrew manservant and maidservant, manslaughter, murder, injuring a parent, kidnapping, cursing a parent, personal injury, penalty for killing a slave, personal damages, injury to slaves, categories of damages and compensatory restitution, culpability for personal property damage, seduction, occult practices, idolatry, and oppression of widows, children, and orphans.

The portion continues with the laws of: lending money, not cursing judges or leaders, tithes, first-born sons, justice, returning strayed animals, assisting the unloading of an animal fallen under its load, Sabbatical year, Shabbat, and the Three Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot).

Mishpatim concludes with the promise from the Almighty to lead us into the land of Israel, safeguard our journey, ensure the demise of our enemies, and guarantee our safety in the land – if we uphold the Torah and do the mitzvot. Moses makes preparations for himself and for the people and then ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.

Candle Lighting Times

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
— Attributed to Winston Churchill

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Lynn Weiner Hahn

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