Every year I always try to think about examining other parts of the text in this portion, but something always draws me back to Exodus 24:7, with its "na’aseh venishma."
In one of my first musings on Mishpatim, years ago, I wrote these words:
There is much in my life that I am "doing" in order that I will "listen." I don’t reject out of hand the viewpoint (best expressed by the Kotzker Rebbe Menachem Mendel) that through the doing of things (i.e. mitzvot) we will be able to "listen" to Gd and hear and understand the meaning of it all. But I do not believe that Gd wants from me only simple obedience. Gd wants the output of Gd’s whole creation – body AND mind; heart AND soul. Shall I be only the Avraham avinu who blindly takes his son to be sacrificed? Shall I be only the Avraham avinu that argues with Gd for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Moshe rabbeinu who protests that he is the wrong person for the job? Or shall I try to be a little of all of them?
As I read through Mishpatim, and its lengthy list of "good (but not necessarily easy) ways to live a good life" (I would call them commandments, or, for the more liberal, suggestions, or guidelines, but I think the words I used say it best) I thought of the commitment that it must have taken to accept them without reservation, to agree to do them without further explanation. To be sure, most of them make sense, even in a modern context. But I imagine some of them were difficult to swallow even back then. In the academy, they teach us to look at the text through the eyes of those who wrote it, or redacted it, or were there at the time. And perhaps their subtle influences have left their marks on the text. But at the core are words not of our own creation, but given by Gd. It takes great faith to live by these words. But I might suggest that, given what we know about our own species, for some of us it might be a greater leap of faith to live by these words believing them to have been written by human beings than it might be believing they were given to us by Gd. Despite my academic training, I remain somewhat steadfastly in the second camp – that dwindling minority that still believe in these words as emanating from Gd. For me, attempting a "naaseh v’nishma" attitude while considering the words of Torah as an entirely human endeavor would be a frightening exercise.
I am struck by the relevance of so many p’sukim in parashat Mishpatim. Those on justice and false witnessing, etc. are certainly poignant in view of many of the things going on in our society right now. I would love to see auto rental agencies take Shemot 22:14 to heart:
"If the article was hired, [the loss] is covered by the rental price."
Does this render Collision Damage riders halachically inappropriate? (Of course, the businessman would argue that the CDW is part of the price.)
We would do well to heed the message in Exodus 22:7: "Do not curse a leader of your people." This applies now, in 5761, as it did when I first wrote this musing a few years back during the troubled times of the Clinton impeachment. However he got there "W" is our leader. When that troubles you, just remember how Yaakov got to be leader. (Of course, it would pain me to think that "W" is where he is because he, like Yaakov, had G"d’s favor. But I digress.) [Looking back from 5769 it feels odd to see these remarks. Of course, in our present situation, even without the scourge of "W" we would do well do not curse our leader. Obama needs all the help and support we can give.]
And one pasuk that I often overlooked before, but which really speaks to me now:
Exodus 23:2 : "Do not follow the majority to do evil."
To be Jewish in this world is to be different. It is to not follow the crowd. Yet we have become so integrated into this society. Many of us have struggled so hard for assimilation, when perhaps we should have just been struggling for acceptance of ourselves in spite of our differences.
But now that so many of us are assimilated, incorporated into this society, how can we follow the commandment to "not follow the majority to do evil." ?
Well, in a speech in Boston a few years ago, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg made the point that the Jewish people have managed to achieve a position of great success in our society, and that we now have the opportunity to begin to wield that influence to be a force for change – for tikkun olam. He told the following story:
"The president goes on TV and warns that the asteroid is three days away. There is panic, hysteria. The pope goes on TV and says: ‘Don’t despair. Xtianity believes in eternal life.’ The head of the Hindus proclaims that his religion teaches that life is an illusion and that his followers will achieve eternal life. The chief rabbi announces, ‘Friends, we have three days to learn how to live under water.’"
Rabbi Greenberg concluded: "You have time to learn how to live under freedom, affluence and power.” First, he says, we must come together as one.
What Yitz says is so sensible. Some Jews choose to follow the commandments by separating themselves from the rest of society as much as possible (and here I am not referring to followers of a particular movement in Judaism-for these kinds of people exist among liberal and traditional Jews alike.) It works, for many of them, and I am not about to criticize them for doing so. But that is not the way for me and many other Jews. I am in this society, a part of it. I must work from within it, as Rabbi Greenberg suggests, in order to be apart from it. Look at how well Chabad manages to do that. The liberal movements do this too, through social action. Who’s to know which is the way that will be the most successful. Gd willing, the traditional and liberal approaches each are a piece of the puzzle of tikkun olam.
I think I have it figured out:
To be Jewish in this world we must do as our ancestors: "na’aseh venishma." What it is that we do, and what it is that we hear may be quite different. But then, with so many Jews all at Har Sinai, it is any wonder they are probably millions of different understandings of what it was Gd said to us there. Small wonder, then, that the great rabbis and sages labored so long and hard to try and create a cohesive system of ways to understand Gd’s words. Let’s not be too quick to dispose of their wisdom for there is much to be learned from it. Some think the key to changing society from the inside is to become as much like them as possible, and to discard the ancient words and ways-for, they say, we cannot change the world if they view us as so different that they simply ignore us or think us fools. But in the haste to be this way, what tools do we leave behind? It is only human hubris that drives us to believe that we, from our lofty modern perch can do any better a job of interpretation than our great rabbis and sages did. Does it make us any less worthy people if we learn from the past rather than always create anew? Whatever we come up with, it will still bear our own marks and influences. This is unavoidable. Even the orthodoxy that so many see as inflexible and unchanging is far more pliant and undergoing evolution and subtle reinterpretation. Their wisdom of the ages is here for us to benefit from.
And now, if you’ll forgive the pretensions, go and study it!
Shabbat Shalom to you and yours,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester. Portions ©1997 and 2001.