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Parashat Mishpatim

February 14, 2007

What God Wants of Us
By Irwin Huberman

For thousands of years, rabbis, scholars, and commentators have parsed, dissected, and analyzed the laws of the Torah to help better understand one thing:

What does God want of us?

Tradition tells us that we are created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. If only we could grasp the true meaning of Torah, perhaps we could better understand how to be true partners with God in creating a perfect and complete world.

Throughout the generations, rabbis and commentators have debated how to properly follow the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments) contained in the Torah.

Some rabbis and commentators have guided us towards the meticulous observance of each mitzvah, while others have suggested that capturing the essence of the commandments is most important.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, provides fodder for this ongoing discussion. No fewer than 51 mitzvot are contained in the parashah, covering everything from how we ritually serve God, to what we eat, how we treat servants, what happens when we cause someone injury or death, observing the Sabbath, and sacrificial festivals, property law, loans, pledges, charity, truth, and justice.

Throughout the ages, Jews have often failed to achieve consensus on how to ‘properly’ observe many of these mitzvot. Commandments such as the observance of Shabbat have often divided Jews, as different denominations continue to interpret and often disagree with regard to which activities are permitted or forbidden or whether to even think in the categories of permitted and forbidden.

With great passion Jews argued both sides of this debate – whether the observance of mitzvot, such as honoring the Shabbat, should be skewed towards keva (form), or kavannah (spirit or intent).

One of Judaism’s major wisdom compilations, Pirkei Avot (Teachings of Our Sages), reminds us to put a fence around the Torah (1:1). But how do we ensure within our observance that we fulfill the essence of Torah, and not get stuck with the fence?

How do we ensure that while we often engage in heated debates about the kashrut of what we eat, that we devote equal, if not more, discussion and attention towards the millions around the world who have nothing to eat at all?

The Talmud, our compilation of oral law, helps us make sense of this often dizzying list of positive and negative commandments. It reminds us in Makkot 24a that Torah and its commandments are a means to guide us towards Derech Eretz, a path towards good character and appropriate behavior.

It refers us to the prophet Micah, who reminds us of what God truly wants of us.

He has told you, O man what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6-8)

Jewish law can be condensed into three general principles:

  1. Performing justice,
  2. Performing kind acts for others,
  3. Serving God modestly.

In essence, by condensing all mitzvot into three general principles, our tradition reinforces that the Torah’s attention to detail is a means towards an end.

When we read this week’s commandment-laden Parshah we must remeber that mitzvot are steps along that journey, but are not in themselves the ultimate destination. Our Torah provides us with a blueprint for proper conduct and behavior, and instructions about meeting our obligations to God, but it is up to us to infuse Derech Eretz into their observance.

And although Jews differ regarding how to properly meet these obligations, the ongoing tension within Judaism is a healthy one.

We should always remember that while observance of these mitzvot is important, if not commanded, they are a means to help us live as partners with God in a spirit of justice, righteousness and loving-kindness.

Let us neither get lost in the trees, nor lose sight of the forest as we strive to live our lives B’tzelem Elohim.