by Chayi Hanfling of Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM) at UCLA
This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Mishpatim, a portion that details laws and ordinances. It is filled with legal intricacies and minutia, primarily surrounding interactions between human beings. It covers a vast spectrum of human behavior. In this Parsha, we find the laws of damages — when a person harms another through direct or indirect means. We find laws surrounding the criminal justice system, laws regarding charity and lending money and laws pertaining to the treatment of “strangers,” or non-native citizens.
The previous Torah portion, Parshat Yisro, discusses the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. It is dramatic, full of thunder and lightning (literally), and it details an account of a spiritual experience so intense that the Jewish people died as a result and needed to be revived thereafter. Coming off of these intense events and the apex of spiritual experience, we then enter into Parshat Mishpatim and start analyzing the nitty-gritty particulars of the messiness of human interactions. To say that it seems like a spiritual let-down would be an understatement. The Jewish people are riding high on spirituality! Do they really now need to learn the particulars about how they must ensure that others don’t get hurt on their property?
The Torah is teaching us a very profound lesson in juxtaposing these ideas. Feeling an intense rush of spirituality can be a beautiful experience but in it of itself is not what causes the personal growth that Judaism demands of us. Human growth does not primarily happen through solitary meditation or similar spiritual experiences; instead, it is achieved bit by bit, through the daily struggles in our interactions with other people. When we are careful to care for those that are vulnerable, always speak with honesty, are kind to both those that are closest to us and to those that are furthest away, we achieve spiritual growth. These are the issues that Judaism demands we grapple with, following our spiritual revelation. Feel inspired? Great! Now, pay careful attention to the way that you treat others and you will have truly elevated yourself.
One interesting point that emerges from this Torah portion is the level of communal responsibility that Judaism asks of us. We can all agree that it is wrong to actively harm others, but the Torah demands that we do so much more than refrain from harm. If we find a lost object, we are required to pick it up and seek the owner, not to keep on walking and pretend we didn’t see it. If we see someone who needs help- even if that person is not a friend, to say the least-we are required to offer our assistance. These are not things that the secular legal system would hold us accountable for, but Judaism is much more than a legal system. It is a manual for personal growth. And if we truly want to struggle and grow and expand who we are, we must do more for others and take the welfare of others personally. We are not living in isolated worlds. Human interactions are the key to spirituality and this is the message of Parshat Mishpatim!