We live in an age of radical autonomy. Each individual zealously guards their own independence from everyone else. We resent when someone presumes to tell us what is right or wrong, seeks to impose external limitations to our discretion or behavior. In the words of a popular song, we assert, “It’s my prerogative!”
There is much to be said in praise of this enthusiasm for independence. America has succeeded in molding a population that cherishes individuality (within limits) and free thought. Art, democracy, science, and spirituality all blossom with thousands of different faces because of the lack of central controls or direction. Surely that pluralism of expression is a precious heritage.
Yet we also pay a price for our autonomy. All this freedom and lack of direction or discipline also produces tremendous loneliness, drifting, and superficiality. Pop psychology has taken the place of true understanding, and pop spirituality has replaced true religion. Rather than letting God into our hearts or molding our behavior to conform to God’s will, we prefer instead to construe God after our own image and expect God to accede to our own preferences or whims.
Small wonder, then, that Judaism has such a difficult time in contemporary life. Based on the premise that all human beings must serve something, Judaism asserts that we either serve the ultimate source of values, compassion, and love – the Holy Blessed One, or else we become slaves to some lesser tyrant – our drives, our work, our guilt, or some other human being. Only in the service of God, in the yoke of the mitzvot, are we able to find love and justice grand enough to serve as the antidote to human bondage.
This week’s Torah portion is the expression of that assurance. Parashat Mishpatim lists a variety of laws and guidelines meant to shape Israelite life to conform to the lofty ethics and pervasive holiness of God’s will. Rather than perceiving those laws as oppressive restrictions and burdensome obligations, our ancestors exulted in their newfound ability to grow spiritually and morally as agents of God in the world.
The ancient compilation of rabbinic interpretations of the Book of Exodus, Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah, celebrates these laws: “Observe how much God gave commandments on every detail…the Torah gives injunctions to Israel on everything. It can be compared to a prince whom his father exhorted to be careful not to stumble over anything and hurt himself because he was as dear to him as the apple of his eye. God, likewise, exhorted Israel concerning the commandments, because they are more beloved to God than the angels.”
Judaism celebrates the love between God and the Jewish People, viewing the myriad laws and mitzvot (commandments) as confirmation of that abiding passion and devotion. Parents who don’t tell their children what to eat, what to wear, and when to sleep don’t really love their children, regardless of how often they speak of their affection. True love, the kind that nurtures independence of soul and depth of personality, requires attention to detail.
True love requires guiding the young child on the paths of goodness, restraint, intelligence, and persistence. Each of us has a young child inside, some part of ourselves in need of guidance and caring. The mitzvot speak to that deeper part of our own personalities, summoning us to a life of holiness and belonging and shaping our communities to reflect God’s love and concern for all of creation.
Rather than being shackled by these laws, Jews have celebrated the opportunity to use these guidelines to infuse our lives with spirit, passion, and depth. The Mitzvot remain a source of growth, discipline, and identity.
They remain our pathways to our truer self. And to God.
Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson (www.facebook.com/rabbiartson) is the Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.