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Torah Sparks

Parashat Mishpatim (Shabbat Shekalim)
February 13, 2010 – 29 Shevat 5770

Annual (Ex. 21:1-24:18): Etz Hayim p. 456; Hertz p. 306
Triennial (Ex. 23:20-24:18): Etz Hayim p. 474; Hertz p. 219
Maftir (Ex. 30:11-16): Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352
Haftarah (2 Kings 11:17[S] or 12:1[A] – 12:17): Etz Hayim p. 1278; Hertz p. 992

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Because Sunday is rosh chodesh, some congregations add the first and last verses of the haftarah for Mahar Hodesh (Etz Hayim 1216/1218, Hertz 948/950) to the beginning and end of Haftarat Shekalim.

Torah Portion Summary

Parashat Mishpatim is called Sefer HaBrit (the Book of the Covenant because it begins the presentation of the mitzvot, the particulars that define the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In fact, Mishpatim contains 53 of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah. Up until this point, the Torah has been a narrative; from here on, the Torah will present the laws by which the Israelites are to live, with occasional narrative breaks.

The laws of Mishpatim deal with master and slave, capital offenses, personal injury, negligence, theft and property. There are also laws prohibiting the mistreatment of the weak and powerless – strangers, widows, orphans and the poor. We also read about Shabbat, the sabbatical year and major festivals. God repeats the promise that the Israelites will inherit the land of Canaan and warns against worshiping the gods of the Canaanite nations. The covenant is ratified at a formal ceremony of acceptance. Moses and the elders eat a meal and see a vision of God. Moses alone ascends the mountain to receive the stone tablets, remaining there for forty days and nights.

1. All For One and One For All

You shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will remove sickness from your midst. (Exodus 23:25)

  1. “You shall serve” (va-avad’tem) is in the plural form, while “your bread” (lah’mekha) is in the singular. Why the change? When we worship God, each person may pray alone and on his own behalf, yet the prayers of the worshippers join together and become one public act of Divine service. But when we eat, even in company with a great many others, each person still eats only for himself. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1854, Poland)
  2. Rabbi Yaakov said in the name of Rav Hisda: Everyone who sets out on a journey must recite tefillat ha-derekh (the traveler’s prayer). What is tefillat ha-derekh? “May it be Your will, O Lord my God, to guide me in peace, to direct my steps in peace, to uphold me in peace, and to save me from every enemy and ambush on the road. Send a blessing upon the work of my hands and let me obtain grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see me. Blessed are You, Lord, Who listens to prayer.” Abaye said, “A person should always associate himself with the community. How so? Let him pray, ‘May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to guide us in peace, etc.’” (Talmud Berakhot 29b-30a)
  3. The first thing one notices about the confessions [of Yom Kippur] is that they are written in the first person plural: “We have sinned,” “We have transgressed.” In keeping with the Jewish concept of communal responsibility, we confess not only those things we may have done personally, but everything done by anyone within the community. Each person shares in the responsibility for society as a whole. (Rabbi Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holy Days, p. 140)
  4. Almost no prayers in the Jewish prayer book are recited in the first person [singular]; they almost always are offered in the plural. For if people prayed in the first person [singular], their prayers might well be directed either against others or, alternatively, against others’ interests. Thus, when a person prays that he receive a job for which he has applied, in effect he also is praying that the other applicants be rejected. Only when people address God in the plural are they likely to pray for that which is universally beneficial. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, p. 96)
  5. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
    My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
    Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
    So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? (“Mercedes Benz,” Janis Joplin, 1970)

Sparks for Discussion

Why do we pray in the plural? Rabbi Hammer suggests it is a matter of shared responsibility. Rabbi Telushkin sees it as a shield against selfishness. Can you think of other explanations? What is the difference between approaching God as an individual and doing so as a member of the Jewish community?

2. People of the Book

Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!” [na’aseh v’nishma] (Exodus 24:7)

  1. Na’aseh v’nishma means “we will do and we will understand”; Israel pledged both to observe the Torah and to study it. The sages praised the people for putting practice first, but also for making practice a prologue to learning. Why did Israel twice say “we will do,” adding “and we will understand” only on the third time? The first two times [Exodus 19:8 and 24:3], Moses transmitted God’s words orally. ... The third time, however, “he took the record of the covenant [sefer ha-brit, the book of the covenant] and read it aloud to the people.” He brought them the Torah in writing. The people now had a text, and they could copy it and take it home, study, and try to comprehend it. That’s why they responded, “... and we will understand.” (Rabbi Yehuda Henkin,, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, 5765)
  2. He who says that he is interested only in the study of Torah has no reward even for the study of Torah. And the proof? The verse, said Rav Papa, “Study them and observe them faithfully!” (Deuteronomy 5:1): He who is engaged in “observing” the commandments is regarded as engaged in learning them; but he who is not engaged in “observing” them is not regarded as engaged in learning them. (Talmud Yevamot 109b)
  3. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained the power of Torah study to connect Jews to the entirety of the Jewish experience, and to link students to many of Judaism’s greatest thinkers and personalities: “Whenever I start my lesson, the door opens and another old man comes in and sits down. He is older than I am. He is my grandfather and his name is Reb Chayyim Brisker, without whom I cannot teach Torah. Then the door opens quietly again and another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chayyim. He lived in the seventeenth century. His name is Shabbetai ben Meir ha-Kohen, the famous ‘Shach’ who might be present when you study Talmud. And then more visitors show up. Some of the visitors lived in the eleventh century and some lived in the twelfth century, some in the thirteenth century – some even lived in antiquity. Rashi, Rabbenu Tam, Rava, Rashba. More and more come in. Of course, what do I do? I introduce them to my pupils and the dialogue commences. The Rambam (Maimonides) says something. Rava disagrees. A boy jumps up, he has an idea. The Rashba smiles gently. I try to analyze what the young man meant. Another boy intervenes and we call upon Rabbenu Tam to express his opinion, and suddenly a symposium of generations comes into existence.” (Joel Lurie Grishaver, 40 Things You Can Do to Save the Jewish People, p. 223)

Sparks for Discussion

In the well-known midrash, na’aseh v’nishma is understood as “we will do and we will hear” and Israel is praised for accept the Torah unconditionally. However, as Rabbi Henkin points out, na’aseh v’nishma can also mean “we will do and we will understand.” Why does doing precede understanding? Do you think this is the proper order? Is it possible to truly understand the mitzvot without practicing them?

Rabbi Henkin teaches that the key to understanding is having a written text. Do you agree? On almost every page of every traditional Jewish text – Mikra’ot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible), Talmud, Shulhan Arukh, etc. – the actual text occupies a small portion of the page, surrounded on all sides by commentaries from many times and places raising questions, providing explanations, and offering arguments. Why? How does this shape our understanding of Torah? How is studying using digital media different from studying a printed page? Does the use of digital media enhance or detract from Torah study?

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