Parashat Mishpatim 5780

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein – 21 February 2020

The Kotsker Rebbe was said (Itturei Torah Vol. 3, 190) to have commented on the verse, ‘You shall be Holy people’ (Ex 22:30) Your holiness shall consist of being truly human not angelic. God has plenty of angels.

My paltry understanding of Jewish angelology is that each one has a particular task. It would not therefore be natural for human beings to even strive to be angels as it is literally not in our DNA. We were born to be multi-taskers. We have to operate on so many different levels, not least that of relationships.

We are multi-functioning in our home, with anyone whom we call family. Some might need to be a daughter, wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, sister, cousin, aunt, great-aunt! The relational job description is looking pretty full, the person specification demanding serious qualifications and experience before we even get out of the home.

Out of the home we go and find neighbours and school friends, work colleagues and leisure acquaintances; Those with authority over us and those who depend on us. Our community and some of us have multiple communities, those with whom we have a mutual bond that demands yet another set of mishpatim, of rules to guide us to be human, to be in relation to each other.

And all that is before we bump into the stranger who dwells in our midst for whom, just in case it is not natural for us to consider them as well, we have constant and regular reminders to be in relationship with them. Even the person who you dislike, even hate for a cause or reason; or perhaps as Malbim suggests (comment on Ex. 23:4-5), you have treated as your enemy even though you have no moral right to hate them. You have not succeeded in conquering your evil instincts and this person happens to be your enemy. Even with them you are in relationship.

How full, how all-consuming relational living can be: How rich, beautiful and varied, yet at times damaging, abusive and harmful. With this in mind, it is so necessary to have guidance to insure that we are able to make the best go of our relationships in life. That is why our law, “…is God’s – and belongs to the whole people who have pledged themselves to observe it faithfully.” (Plaut, p. 532)

To observe mishpatim in our relationships is also to find God, for as Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l, the American Conservative Rabbi, author and social activist, who died at the end of 2014, wrote (For Those Who Can’t Believe, p. 136), “God is not a subject or an object. God is known only in relationship and only in situations that bear upon humanity.”

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