knowing me, knowing you.
At the close of last week’s Sedra Yitro, the Children of Israel are given The Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. This Sedra, Mishpatim, opens with the words ‘And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.’ I remember quite clearly from my time at school that we are not supposed to start a sentence with the word ‘and’ yet we find this verse breaking such a rule. Whilst I realise that The Torah is not bound by general rules of English language and grammar, our great sages do expound on the use of such wording.
The placement of the word ‘and’ denotes the continuation of something. In this case by including it at the beginning of the Sedra, the Torah is teaching us that there is a connection between the Ten Commandments and the myriad of laws that will follow (53 in all).
To elucidate on this point, the last of the 10 commandments states that ‘You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.’ The obvious question is why does the verse need to list a few specific things like an ox and donkey when it concludes with a general note to encompass everything?
The answer teaches us a valuable lesson in understanding jealousy. We all have moments when we look over our shoulder at what others have, it’s part of human nature. However, the Torah is saying that if you are looking at others don’t just look at their fancy car, successful career and nice home; look at ALL their possessions. Look at their hardships and the troubles they suffer, and not just the nice things we see on the surface. We are often far too quick to think the grass is greener on the other side, when we should be focusing on the beauty in our own lives.
Why does the Torah see fit to link this lesson with the laws in this week’s Sedra?
This is because we have to clearly know and understand what belongs to us. The laws in this Sedra cover a broad spectrum of life and daily living, but before we can begin to fathom what is expected of us we need to know who we are. What do we have? What is important to us? We should not be focusing on what we want or don’t have, but on the things that do belong to us.
The Torah is clearly teaching us the importance of appreciating who we are and what we have. Therefore, it uses the word ‘and’ to link the final commandment directly to the civil laws that immediately follow. This is in the hope that, by knowing who we are, we can truly appreciate how to live in a society with others in an appropriate and peaceful way.
After the long journey of our people from the creation of Adam through the tales of our forefathers, enslavement and ultimate redemption from Egypt, the Jewish People arrive at Mount Sinai where God appeared to them. They accepted their destiny with open hearts using the famous words – “Naaseh Ve’nishmah”, we will do and we will listen. This commitment and faith would forever be a sign to future generations, that we took upon ourselves God’s laws, and we are a holy nation endeavouring to best emulate the traits of our Creator.
Last week we read the 10 commandments, given in an inspirational setting and manner and this week we seem to crash back down to normalcy with a list of intensely detailed laws.
The people knew that the Torah was a big undertaking, but with Parashat Mishpatim, literally the Sedra of the Laws (or ordinances), we find an incredible level of detail, with laws accounting for many varied cases both common and uncommon.
But why all these details? Why is our religion centered on a list of dos and don’ts that leave the reader overwhelmed? This Sedra alone deals with issues of slavery, murder, death caused by animal and damages to others to name but a few. Sometimes we are faced with the minutiae of the laws of Kashrut, Shabbat, or even putting up a Succah, and are tempted to shy away from them in fear of the depth of knowledge needed to fulfill the requirements. Many people want to grow, to learn, to be inspired, but find the level of detail intimidating.
The details are crucial and a basic requirement of our religion. Every single one of them has a reason for being, as well as forming the parts of a much greater picture. Every one of our laws, helps and guides us to perfection. Just like, if an email was written to a person but just one dot, letter or line was missing from the address, the email would never arrive to its intended recipient, so too we need these details because they help us to get where we are going.
That being said, one must also realise religion is not “all or nothing”. Not knowing or understanding is not a reason to turn our backs on our responsibilities, rather it should drive us in our determination to grow. Every time we do a mitzva it means something, and as our Sages say, one mitzva leads to another mitzvah.
We should always have a passion for growth and building a connection with God and these detailed commandments are there to help and guide us, not turn us away.