Note: This message was originally distributed on Feb. 22, 2017 to the Hebrew College community, alumni and friends.
Last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro, brought us back to the mysterious encounter at Sinai, where we stood — a trembling people before a trembling mountain — and listened for the commanding voice of the God who brought us out of Egypt.
Parashat Mishpatim offers a striking contrast to the grandeur of that great Meeting at Sinai. The opening verse of this week’s Torah reading signals a seemingly abrupt transition from the majestic to the mundane. V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem. “And these are the laws which you should set before them.” What follows is a long — and, one might be tempted to say, somewhat tedious — list of detailed rules governing human behavior, including a wide range of civil laws regarding property, ownership, damages, and theft.
What has happened to the spiritual heights that we experienced at Sinai?
In a subtle response to this question, Rashi, the great medieval commentator, makes a point of noting that our portion begins with the Hebrew letter “vav” — a straight vertical line, which, when attached to the beginning of a word, means “and.”
“V’eleh.” “And, these are the laws.” How much is contained in the simple conjunction that introduces this week’s portion! Rashi invites us to see the letter “vav” as a thin thread — tying the civil laws of Mishpatim to the sublime revelation at Sinai, urging us never to lose track of the link between law and love, reminding us that our reverence for God is measured and made manifest in our daily acts of kindness and respect for other human beings.
This week, I am delighted to share with you some selected teachings on the subject of halakhah (Jewish law) from members of our faculty at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Follow the links below to learn more about how our founder and rector, Rabbi Arthur Green, understands and translates the true meaning of halakhah, and take a few moments to listen to a masterful teaching on “Autonomy, Community, and Everything in Between: Halakhic Sources on Aiding Others in Transgression” by Talmud teacher, Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg.
As we look towards this Shabbat of Parashat Mishpatim, I hope that these teachings will help us be mindful of the insistent question that calls out to us on this side of Sinai, the question that remains after the thunder and lightning and shofar blasts have subsided, and the question that should accompany us every time we rise from prayer or stand up from studying words of Torah: Nu, now how are you going to treat each other?