"And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them."
The Torah has just concluded its description of the Sinai revelation, the receiving of the ten commandments by the entire nation of Israel, in which every man, woman and child heard and saw the "thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud... upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar... " (Exodus 18:16) This experience, of which our sages teach us that the simplest of handmaidens saw a vision of the heavens even greater than that of the prophet Isaiah, has no sooner concluded than, as the Torah reading of Mishpatim commences, the nation of Israel is preoccupied with learning the minutiae of civil ordinances (mishpatim), laws that deal with damages, torts, theft, negligence, murder, manslaughter, and many, many more of the very mundane rule of conduct that, in fact, enable us to live together in peace and prosperity. But this radical juxtaposition from Sinai's world-changing transcendence to the ho-hum of getting along with our neighbor, begs the question. Why? What is Torah teaching us?
In fact, immediately before the Sinai revelation the nation of Israel was also preoccupied with matters of civil law. From morning to night the people were lined up outside Moshe's tent, waiting patiently for him to address their matters of litigation. The Sinai experience was actually bookended by the every day concerns of an entire nation. And this is precisely as it should be.
The point that Torah is making is not that the powerful sensory-transcending total spirit and soul attachment to G-d at Sinai was a one time thing, marooned, as it were, in a sea of everyday mundanities, an all too brief and ephemeral appointment with the Divine, and, if you missed it all you can do is to read about it in a book, but the exact and emphatic opposite. Devaykut - the spiritual attachment to G-d can and should be an every day reality to be strived for, but such a goal can only be attained when those laws that govern how we behave in our social attachments and commitments to others, are scrupulously adhered to. Spiritual wings can only be spread when we recognize and maintain the holiness of our fellow man.
Torah is absolutely consistent concerning this. G-d created this world for us to manage and to preserve. It is how we conduct ourselves concerning the matters of this world that determine the breadth and the depth of our spiritual reach and closeness to G-d. A society void of justice is abhorrent to G-d, a lesson He made clear to Avraham concerning Sodom. Rather than being the busy work when we're not occupied with our direct relationship with G-d, maintaining justice and social responsibility in our communities affords us the opportunity to revisit the Sinai experience even in the midst of our busy lives.
The one-time historical reality of Sinai would soon find a continuous daily expression, first in the mishkan, the Tabernacle, and later in the Holy Temple. The stretching of time and space, the merging of earth and heaven, which took place at Sinai, was a constant, fixed but ever new reality of the Holy Temple. Little wonder, then, that the Great Sanhedrin, the seat of Torah justice where the greatest sages of Israel would rule on all matters, great and small, was located in the very walls of the Holy Temple courtyards. "Ve'eleh hamishpatim - these ordinances" that G-d has set before us, these guard the gates to Sinai and the gates to the Holy Temple.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven come crashing back "down to earth " after Sinai, in Parshat Mishpatim, whose basic laws form the foundation of the Torah-based society Israel is to create. Is there a bridge between these two Torah readings, which, properly understood, communicates our Creator's message to man? That bridge is manifest in the concluding verses of last week's Torah reading. The message: the heavens are fine, but this world, with all its base physicality and nitty-gritty reality, is what really counts. The best tribute and avenue of approach to a G-d who has no end? An altar of earth.