"And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them."
Ordinances - mishpatim - this is the name of this week's Torah parasha which follows last week's description of the Mount Sinai revelation. The Sinai experience was a life-changing, earth-shaking, world-shaping event that is forever etched into every individual's soul and indelibly imprinted onto the collective consciousness of mankind. The unprecedented and unparalleled immediacy of this close encounter between man and G-d is hinted at by the very confounding of the senses through which we normally perceive and process our reality: "And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar... " (Exodus 20:15) Voices were perceived visually, our five senses were conflated, our hearts were overfilled with immeasurable awe as we received directly from the Source of all sources, the Ten Commandments, the ten most fundamental elements of our covenant with G-d.
Surely this is a once-in-creation occurrence, and we hardly expect that the Mount Sinai narrative will be followed by anything nearly so breathtaking. But ordinances? Laws about claims and damages? Torts? The stuff of lawyers and solicitors? It almost seems like a bad joke. What does "I am HaShem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt... " (ibid 20:2) have to do with an ox who gores or a donkey trembling under the weight of its burden?
The Torah is not joking and the Torah's answer to the above question is "absolutely everything." We cannot possible maintain the Sinai "moment" of our direct interface with the Divine, but neither can we carry on as if nothing happened. So how do we take this moment and inform our day to day lives with its eternal message? The answer, again, is mishpatim - ordinances. We can preserve and maintain the holiness of Sinai by living our most mundane, our most humdrum, our most unremarkable moments, those moments which make up our days, and injecting them with holiness. This is done by adhering to our mishpatim - our civil man-to-man oriented ordinances. We make ourselves holy by treating one another with holiness. And this is achieved by respecting one another, our souls, our bodies, our property, our livestock. We are told in the Genesis narration that man was created in the "image of G-d." (Genesis 1:27) Now we can do something about it. Now, via our ordinances, which are emphatically and unequivocally an extension of the Sinai revelation, albeit on a more "human" level, we can actualize our own G-dliness by seeing the G-dliness in others and treated them accordingly. Torah is teaching us that the holiness of our encounter with G-d can and must be matched and reflected in the holiness of our everyday encounters with one another. Torah doesn't merely share this notion with us, it insists upon it. We must build and maintain a holy society, a holy community of man, and we do this by living in accordance with the mundane, ho-hum commandments known as ordinances - mishpatim.
We recall that soon after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds' moment of heightened spiritual awareness and perfect faith in G-d we were beset by a cold snap, namely the cruel attack by Amalek, which caught us in disarray, disunited and lacking cohesion. Now our Mount Sinai moment is similarly being followed by a period of cooling off, namely the transmission of the mishpatim. But in this case, the mishpatim. the ordinances, serve as the antidote to the weakness revealed in Amalek's attack. We are fortified by the ordinances.
But to what end? Can we really build a G-dly nation simply by behaving G-dly toward one another? Can such a society truly take the place of Sinai? Can the recognition of our own holiness replace our relationship with G-d? The Torah's answer, of course, is no. And this is why the Torah section known as mishpatim is, in turn, followed by the call to build the tabernacle, a sanctuary for G-d, so that His presence may dwell within our midst. In other words, the fulfillment of our "civil" obligations as a people can only be met by creating a Sanctuary for G-d. Conversely, we can only create a sanctuary for G-d if we first fulfill our obligations toward one another.
Ultimately, what Torah intends for Israel is a reality even greater than Sinai. The Holy Temple will transform Sinai into an everyday moment of revelation. And its foundations will be anchored in the Torah ordinances which instill purpose into our every day actions and make holy our every day selves.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Yitzchak Reuven and his special guest host, Tzvi Richman go from the soaring heights of Mount Sinai to the roll-up-your-sleeves nitty-gritty of learning and applying Torah laws and lessons to our everyday lives. Living in the absolute presence of G-d that prevailed at the Sinai revelation is not something that we human beings are capable of sustaining or surviving. But we can and must treat one another in such a way that G-d will desire that His presence will dwell among us. The Torah reading of Mishpatim teaches us how to live peacefully with one another. Only when that lesson has been learned can we turn our collective hearts and efforts to the grandest of plans which lays in store: the building of a Sanctuary for G-d here on earth. Also, a short history of freedom, from Sinai to Avraham "Yair" Stern, whose yartzheit (anniversary of death) is this coming Sunday, (25 Shvat).