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    Rules, rulings, rulers – Mishpatim

    January 23rd, 2022

    From the heights of the Decalogue, this week’s Torah reading brings us down to the practical details of life on earth.

    Keeping the peace with our neighbours, living in harmony with the family, helping one another, handling quarrels – it’s all part of the social code that makes us a community.

    The sidra begins (Ex. 21) with the rules about setting up a legal system with judges who are wise enough to be capable of keeping us from destroying one another.

    The Jewish legal tradition expects the judges to be fluent in many languages and to understand the needs and nature of all the different human beings who make up the nation.

    One of the Jewish principles is to be wary of gentile tribunals which were often biased and partisan, kowtowing to the rich and powerful, failing in respect for the little person and showing no responsibility to the Divine Chief Justice. Note that in the Psalm for Tuesday (Psalm 82) God judges the judges.


    Na’aseh v’nishma – Mishpatim

    January 23rd, 2022

    Informed of the laws ordained by God, the people say Na’aseh v’nishma (Ex. 24:7). The translation of these words is normally “We shall do and we shall hear”.

    There is a Talmudic passage (Shabbat 88a) which says that the Israelites were awarded a royal crown for each verb.

    The logical question is why the words come in this order, doing before hearing.

    An answer is that hearing implies understanding, and if God had to wait until a person understood the reason for every law it would take too long, and there would be no merit in fulfilling the law.

    In addition, some laws are hard to understand and indeed the understanding of such laws is elusive. The great spiritual achievement is to fulfil the law first and pray that understanding will come.


    Kashrut & other people – Mishpatim

    January 23rd, 2022

    One of the laws in the reading this week is that of kashrut. Keeping kosher seems to be a law that applies between man and God, so what is it doing in the midst of a section of laws between man and man?

    In one sense, it is a theme that functions between a person and him- or herself. Keeping kosher is a mark of strength of character. You know what sort of person you are if you have the will and conscience to choose to eat kosher.

    Another consideration is that though our food regimen comes from God, we have to be able to trust the human beings who administer it. If you can trust the shochet, the mashgi’ach and the retailer, you are not only assured that the food is religiously acceptable; you have also shown that you can have confidence in other people.

    It goes without saying that the professionals who provide the food have to be honest and reliable and realise that other people have to be treated correctly and fairly.


    The first commandment

    January 16th, 2022

    Though we use the phrase, “The Ten Commandments”, the Decalogue is ten Words or Principles. The first says that there is One God and He brought us from bondage to freedom.

    After proclaiming His existence, why does He speak of His deeds?

    Because the crucial thing is not just that He is, but that He has a relationship with the people of Israel and He acts within history. His deeds prove His power and confirm His nature. They show what He is capable of doing and indicate why He does it.

    Without this information, we might have found it hard to be certain of His existence. As the Torah says in Parashat Ki Tissa (Ex. 33:19-20), we cannot see Him, but we can see His deeds: He is not visible or tangible, but He is powerful.


    They saw the thunder

    January 16th, 2022

    An array of noisy phenomena accompanied the Revelation on Mount Sinai. There was thunder. There was lightning (Ex. 20:15). But strangely, the thunder was seen and the lightning was heard, the opposite of what normally happens.

    In the Mechilta, the rabbis draw our attention to what took place. They say, “They saw what is normally heard, and heard what is normally seen”. Both seeing and hearing are modes of sensory perception. The moment was so elevated that the experience transcended the usual way of the world.

    If anyone had asked the Israelites to articulate what took place they would not have been able to give a straight answer. They would probably have said, “How did we know what occurred? We just knew!”

    According to Ibn Ezra, their experience at the great moment was a miraculous combination of all their senses.