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Parashat Mishpatim

January 26, 2011

This week I have mid-terms. Oh, no-wait. Not me. I meant my son has mid-terms this week. Not sure what I was thinking . . . except that any time my 13-year-old son has heavy testing, I seem to get enlisted into helping him sort through all the course information that has been administered to him over the past few months. He and I have different ideas of how to process information, however, and as the pressure mounts for my child, so does the sturm und drang that accompany our study session-“I don’t get it!” “I don’t have to know that!” “Just tell me what the answer is!” As the infusion of data overwhelms him like a tidal wave, I lose all confidence that I can ever help him to understand what he needs to know.

I sort of feel the same way when I read Parashat Mishpatim-like I have been hit with a tsunami of information that is impossible to take in all at once. And really-what was God thinking? “After the greatest light and sound show that was The Giving of the Ten Commandments, what are 53 more commandments in quick succession?” Was God trying to slip them through before the Israelites could refuse? How does one actually absorb all of this?

It’s not easy, and I believe that the Israelites respond to this influx of information accordingly. It is no wonder that back in Parashat Yitro they say to Moses, Daber atah imanu v’nishma’a, v’al y’dabeir imanu Elohim pen-namut-“You speak to us and we will obey, but don’t let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:16). It is totally understandable that the People are overwhelmed by the recent Divine Drama.

Unfortunately, the solution that Moses be God’s permanent liaison to the Israelites doesn’t quite cut it and, as I see it, a few problems present themselves in this initial response: a) How can we be a people of the Lord if we are afraid to hear/obey God’s voice, b) fealty to Moses is nice, but will be proven unsustainable as we will see with Korah (Num. 16:3), and c) there is a danger that the people will worship Moses instead of God (“I will grant: I–not by means of an angel and not by means of a messenger” Sifre 42). Setting up Moses as either a buffer or a god does little to assist the Israelites in understanding God’s Law.

But by the end of Parashat Mishpatim, there is a slow evolution in the Israelites’ comprehension. Although, dizzy from this next round of commandments having just been rattled off, their new response is Kol ha-d’varim asher diber Adonai na’aseh-“All the things/words that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex.24:3). It’s a step in the right direction. But is it anything more than a promise to go through the motions; how much information have they actually absorbed?

Amazingly, in only a few short verses later, the Israelites have the wherewithal to announce to Moses, “Kol asher diber Adonai, na’aseh v’nishma“-“All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and we will obey” (Ex. 14:7). This, of course, is our mantra, our Jewish credo; this is the response we’ve been waiting for, which shows both our understanding of and commitment to the job ahead. But how did we get to that point? What happened between verses three and seven that got us to this enlightened state?

The first thing that happened is that Moses wrote down all the commandments (Ex. 24:4). How simple was that? Clearly the Israelites could not process as well when the Law was coming at them at high decibels.

Next, it appears that some time has elapsed(Ex.24:4). At least a day passes giving the Israelites a much needed breather.

Finally, Moses sets up an altar with12 pillars and designates some young men from among the Israelites to make sacrifices to the Lord (Ex. 24:4-5).

This is key. No longer is this information happening at them, but they have taken ownership of the Law and are now an active part of the process. With their personal involvement in incorporating the commandments into their lives, na’aseh v’nishma becomes more than just a motto–each Israelite now becomes responsible for the Law and each other. (“The point between them is that of personal responsibility and responsibility for others.” BT Sota 37b).

I finally let my son wander off and study on his own. They’re his mid-terms, not mine. And hopefully when he looks at his notes, takes a break from the cacophony of information coming from me, and gets involved in the process, he will understand whatever he needs to know to do his best.


Cantor Robin Joseph (AJR ’96) serves Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. She only hopes that her son will continue to “do and obey.”