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Parashat Mishpatim 5782

January 27, 2022

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A D’var Torah For Parashat Mishpatim
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

Parashat Mishpatim includes the mitzvot pertaining to one who is responsible for guarding something owned by another. Similarly, it speaks of the responsibility of one who borrows something from another (Exodus 22:9-14). Without going into detail, the Torah points to the difference in obligation depending upon whether the “shomeir,” the one who is watching the item, has been paid for his efforts or not. It also depends on the degree of reasonable concern and/or negligence that the person demonstrated. Obviously, these laws have great application in the lives of people who wish to live together in peace.

There may also be great spiritual significance to this idea. But in order to discuss it, let us first digress.

A few weeks ago, when we read the conclusion of Shirat HaYam, we listened as Moses and the people declared God to be the King. “Adonai yimlokh le-olam va’ed.” I presume that for them, Melekh implied absolute power. Such a notion of Melekh does not sit well with most people in our time and in our western societies. And yet we refer to God as the Melekh constantly – in every blessing that we say every day.

Perhaps there is a different perspective by which we can understand this word.

It is true that historically the Melekh had absolute power. Yet the power of the Melekh came from a different place than did the might of dictators and military leaders. The Melekh actually owned the kingdom. Everything belonged to the Melekh. Those who lived in the kingdom worked the Melekh’s land, paid tribute to the Melekh, and in return, received (hopefully) protection from enemies and laws to create an orderly society. But still, it all belonged to the Melekh, and, in fact, the Melekh could take it at any time. Indeed, everyone in the kingdom enjoyed that which was actually “on loan” from the Melekh.

Perhaps this is a more meaningful way to consider God’s malkhut. It is not so much about power as it is about the fact that everything we have is really God’s, and it is on loan to us. That may not sound particularly appealing to us. Would we not rather own our stuff? And yet, if you think about it, we are always more careful and mindful of that which is borrowed or on loan than we are with that which we own. Surely, I will drive a car which I borrowed from you with particular care, more carefully than I would drive my own car – because I know that I have to return it. And I want to return it in good condition.

The laws of our parasha – the mitzvot of being a “shomeir” may now come into spiritual focus. Our very lives are the souls which are “on loan” from God. We are shomerim of an aspect of the divine that we know God will claim back at some point in time. We could dance through the halakhic back and forth as to exactly what type of shomerim we are. We are borrowing a neshama and with it we can accomplish amazing things- not the least of which is love. We are shomerim of our souls, and the parasha teaches us clearly that we must be careful. The Melekh will call our souls back and they must be returned undamaged.

Undamaged? That’s impossible.

Yet as the halakhot of shomeir teach, one must not be neglectful or derelict. And as shomerim, we must do our best to keep our souls in shape. Perhaps we can best understand how to do this by thinking about how we keep our bodies in shape. The body must have nourishment, rest and exercise.

We exercise our soul with mitzvot. Mitzvot are the exercises that keep our souls healthy. The mitzvah of teshuvah reduces fat – as guilt is nothing more than the fat that weighs the soul down. Rest is Shabbat. The body must rest so that muscles do not cramp and organs do not wear out and fail. Similarly, the soul needs the rest of Shabbat lest it cramp or fail from exhaustion. And like the body needs the proper food on a regular basis, the soul is nourished by words of Torah – for as the soul is divine, it requires nothing less than the divine to feed it.

So as proper shomerim, we do these things in order to know that when the Melekh will call back our souls, they will be in the best possible shape. We will have been neither derelict nor negligent. But we cannot be perfect. Shabbat is very difficult. None of us call do all the mitzvot. And there is some Torah that we know we will not be able to digest.

And so the end of our parasha gives us good advice. As the covenant at Sinai is concluded, we know that the people called out, “Na’aseh VeNishma!” We will do and we will hear. We are familiar with the oft offered comment that teaches that we were committing to the mitzvot on faith – even before hearing them.

But allow me to suggest an alternative commentary. Na’aseh – we will do everything in our power to observe the mitzvot. But when we cannot – Nishma – we will still listen. We will learn and keep in our consciousness even (and especially) those aspects of Torah and mitzvot and we cannot do.

Then shall our souls be in their best shape. And may it not be until 120, but when the Melekh calls them back – we will have been great shomerim.

Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.