These are the rules that you shall set before them…
After the thunder and the lightning, the blare of horns and the smoking mountain, after the chaos and the ecstasy and the fear and trembling of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, we get the rules. Parashat Mishpatim is where we begin to move from the sweeping narrative of the Book of Genesis and the first part of the Book of Exodus to the more granular, specific, some-might-even-say overly detailed descriptions of laws and ritual that occupy most of the rest of Exodus and all of Leviticus.
Last month, I had the tremendous gift of spending five days on a contemplative retreat for Jewish clergy. There were no blaring horns, no thunder and lightning, but there were hours of quiet every day, prayer services filled with song and silence, and time spent sitting in meditation and walking outside admiring the beauty of creation. Time on retreat for me is often about letting the noise of the everyday settle enough so I can reconnect with my core self and my core values, the things that are important and not just urgent. After being back in the busy-ness of my life for a few weeks, I can already feel myself losing touch with those reconnections.
In Hebrew, we refer to the Ten Commandments as the Ten Words, and though each commandment is at least two words long in the original, they are word-like in that each commandment is more of an idea, value, or concept than a detailed set of instructions on how to make that idea a reality. “Honor your father and mother” seems straightforward, but how is it different when you are five and when you are fifty? Does “don’t steal” really apply to office supplies? How do we move, as individuals and as a community, from the shared ecstatic experience of Sinai to the mundane and often frustrating reality of living with other humans in all of their (our) imperfection?
The poet Yaakov Moshe writes: “You can get to a place where God is everything and you feel unbounded love. / Eventually, however, you’ll have to go to the bathroom.” (p.17, is : heretical Jewish blessings and poems, Ben Yehuda Press, 2017.)
We don’t get to live our lives on retreat. The Israelites had to move on from Sinai in order to make their way to the Holy Land. Sometimes we do, indeed, have to go to the bathroom. The reality of our existence is that the values that emerge from us in response to our experiences of the Divine are often difficult to sustain in the face of our messy, unpredictable, distracting and challenging lives.
So – we need rules. We need instructions and structure and detailed explanations for how we should treat each other, our shared resources, and the world. Parashat Mishpatim is only the beginning of the millennia-long conversation that Jews have been having with each other and with God about justice, love, freedom, and peoplehood, and the best way to make those things manifest in the world.
Rabbi Megan Doherty is the Director of Hillel and Jewish Campus Life at Oberlin College.