TORAH TUESDAYS: PARSHAT MISHPATIM
DO THE DETAILS REALLY MATTER?
BY HENNIE BLACK
tHIS WEEK’S PARSHA DISCUSSES AN ABUNDANCE OF LAWS THAT MIGHT SEEM TRIVIAL AND UNIMPORTANT.
TODAY WE LOOK AT THE LEGAL ASPECT OF JEWISH PRACTICE TO ANSWER THE QUESTION, “DO THE DETAILS REALLY MATTER?”
In this week’s parsha of Mishpatim, we are introduced to a series of detailed laws, right on the heels of receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai– a total of 53 commandments primarily relating to civil and monetary law.
The parsha begins with “And these are the laws.” The first rule we learn in English is that we should not begin a sentence with “and.” Why does the Torah do so? Rashi explains that the Hebrew letter “vav” [and] that begins the parsha signifies the continuation of this parsha to the previous one, which described Hashem’s revelation at Sinai with the Ten Commandments. The “and” is to teach us that the detailed laws outlined in Parshat Mishpataim were given at Sinai just as those that were given before; therefore both sets of laws have the same divine origin.
Throughout history, society has instituted laws, which are based on the societal norms of the time. Because of this, these laws evolve and change over time. However, since the Torah laws were given by Hashem, they are unchangeable. All of Jewish law is of divine origin. It is not dictated by time, place or popular opinion.
These laws, coming as they do immediately after the Sinai experience, reminds us that there must be no separation between our religious lives and our daily, mundane lives. All areas of our lives are intertwined.
Holiness can be achieved as much when we conduct ourselves honestly in our business dealings as when we engage in spiritual and ritual matters. This is really the essence of Judaism – infusing the mundane and every day with holiness. The purpose of all the laws is to refine and build our character, molding us into more caring, sensitive and compassionate people.
The parshah doesn’t assume that people live perfect, quiet, utopian lives – it recognizes that issues will come up: people will make mistakes; there will be arguments, damages, crimes, etc. As Pirkei Avot (Jewish Ethics) states, “Turn the pages, and turn the pages, for everything is in the Torah.” The Torah is all about the details that arise in the mundane, and tells us what to do in every situation.
There is a story told of a young man, Josh, who struggled with the detailed laws of Shabbat and wondered, “Does G-d really care if I turn on the light? Does it really bother Him if I rip the toilet paper? Do the details really matter?” He decided to write the rabbi an email hoping to get an answer.
A week passed by and Josh did not hear back from the rabbi. His annoyance and anger grew, so he wrote a second email to the rabbi, expressing his frustration, thinking that perhaps the rabbi didn’t have the answer.
The rabbi finally replied, “It so happens that I answered your email immediately. The fact that you didn’t receive it is itself the answer to your question. I sent the email to josh@gmailcom, leaving out the dot between “gmail” and “com.” I figured that you should still receive the email, because after all, there was only one little dot missing. Does the dot really matter?”
The rabbi continued, “The dot is not just a dot. It means something. It may seem insignificant to me, but that is only because of my limited understanding of how the Internet works. So while I don’t understand why the dot is important, I do know that with the dot, my email is delivered to you, and without it, the message is lost in cyberspace. Similarly, the depth of Judaism is contained within its details and nuances. Every dot really does count. Even when we don’t understand the how and the why, the details do matter.”