Parasha Mishpatim

Let Holiness Suffuse our Lives
There are times in our lives when the presence of G-d is almost palpable – standing at the Grand Canyon at sunrise, witnessing the arrival of our children, experiencing the tenderness and concern of a community at times of loss.  A bar or bat mitzvah is usually one of these experiences in the life of the parent.  In it we sense something eternal, a connection to our past, a promise for the future.  We even have a special word in English for these moments – “numinous” – moments that are filled with the sense of divinity, of Godliness.  These are the peak experiences of our lives.

Such must have been the experience of the Israelites that we read about last week in the Torah portion.  They are gathered around Mount Sinai and the presence of G-d is manifest with thunder and lightning, the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking.  This was an overwhelming spiritual experience. The Torah tells us that the people stood at a distance, afraid lest they would die, while Moses approached the thick cloud, where G-d was.    Yet we cannot live at the emotional peaks of our lives.  We eventually have to come down to the plains, and sometimes even to the valleys, where we live our lives.  This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, brings us back to earth, so to speak.  It deals with the ordinary aspects of life, the mundane, everyday encounters, not with the divine, but with one another.  Mishpatim concerns itself with the laws of slavery, of assault, of respect for parents, of theft, of responsibility to our neighbors and our liability in the event of damage.  It tells us we should not mistreat the orphan or widow; that we should be fair to those who work for us, that we should show respect to our leaders.  Mishpatim teaches us that ritual is also important in our lives. We should celebrate our festivals – Passover, Shavuot, and Succot – we should eat Matzah on Passover and engage in the proper worship of G-d on all of the holidays. In juxtaposing the grandeur of Sinai with these laws of everyday life, the Torah is telling us that our spiritual connection to G-d can be found in both the extraordinary moments of life as well as our unremarkable, day to day  existence. We may at times in our lives have “other worldly” experiences of G-d, which surpass the ordinary and can even overwhelm us with their beauty and spiritual power.   But we do not and cannot live our lives on that level.  For most times in our lives, G-d does not come out and grab us. Rather, it is up to us to bring Godliness into our lives and into our world. In living ethically, in living according to the way G-d wants us to live, we can suffuse our lives and the world with holiness. Parasha Mishpatim teaches us that we can bring holiness into our everyday existence.  By performing mitzvoth we transfer the lightning and thunder of our peak experience to the farthest corners of our lives.