D’var Torah: Parashat Mishpatim

8 Feb
Torah

Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

We arrive at Parashat Mishpatim immediately on the heels of the receiving of the Ten Commandments, which is perhaps rendered more accurately as The Ten Utterances, although the latter does roll off the tongue as easily. Amid clouds, thunder, and lightning, God handed down the Ten core commandments, and yet the reading this week contains a whopping 53 commandments, 23 positive, and 30 prohibitions.

During every reading cycle I am left with a major question on this parasha: How does Parashat Mishpatim connect to the conclusion of Parashat Yitro? Fortunately, Rashi asked the same question 900 years ago. Rashi expounds that generally when we see the word אלה (these) it denotes a separation from the preceding section. However, Rashi brings us Midrash Tanchuma, who also must have sensed a potential trouble spot, to explain that the ואלה (and these) found in Shmot 21:1, is a link to the previous paragraph. In other words, the commandments that we find in the parasha this week were also given at Sinai, lest we come to think that these 53 are in some way divorced from the first ten. Other commentators add that the Torah is also interested in linking the logical commandments with the ones that are not as intuitive, as if to say even the logical commandments were given on Sinai along with those that are less intuitive. Both sets of laws serves to strengthen the gravity of the theophany at Sinai as well as to connect them to the Ten Commandments that were given in Parashat Yitro.

Moving now to a textual problem that grabbed my attention, one that was not addressed by the major exegetes. Shmot 23:25 reads as follows, “And ye shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless thy bread, and thy water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee,” (JPS 1917) which on the surface, at least in English appears to be devoid of any grammatical issues that are in need of interpretation. However, in Hebrew the word “ye shall serve” is plural, where as the rest of the sentence is written in the singular. A Chassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe, resolves the grammatical abnormality. He writes:

A Jew praying, even a single Jew praying alone, is nevertheless praying for, and together with, the entire community of Israel. On the other hand, a thousand people eating together are each eating for the sake of their own selves.

Individuals can become connected to the entire People of Israel by maintaining common practices, calendars, learning, language, and the like. However, even in the largest community, those obligations are still incumbent upon every individual. I began thinking about another set of verses in the Torah when we find a plural “you” and then a singular “you” that are recited together. Almost immediately I realized that within the first paragraph of the Shma D’varim 6:4-9, the commandments are on the individual, while in the final paragraph B’midbar 15:37-41 the commandment is upon the community.

As a full time yeshiva student who is constantly engaged with individual learning, I wanted to apply the Kotzker Rebbe’s understanding of the verses in our Parasha to the verses of the Shma. The yeshiva, and the Jewish people as a whole are enjoined, obligated even, to learn Torah whether its the intuitive or counter-intuitive commandments. Every time people sit together to learn Torah, they fulfill the public aspect of this commandment. However, without personally internalizing the texts, gleaning their lessons, living by them,  and teaching them to our children, no matter how massive the yeshiva or study group, we starve ourselves spiritually, just as the individual who does not eat at a grandiose banquet will also leave hungry.

Shabbat shalom.

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One Response to “D’var Torah: Parashat Mishpatim”

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  1. Feb 2013 — 11th & 12th Month of YHVH’s Calendar | Seeking Truth - 14 SunUTC2013-02-17T19:18:48+00:00UTC02bUTCSun, 17 Feb 2013 19:18:48 +0000, 2012

    […] D’var Torah: Parashat Mishpatim (shibleyhaleket.wordpress.com) […]

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