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Parshat Mishpatim Sermon

Sermon by Rabbinic Intern Aaron Sataloff

February 6, 2016

There is a parable from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He says, “Several people were sailing in a ship. One takes out a drill and begins drilling into the floor of the ship. "What are you doing?" the others ask excitedly. "Why should you care?" was the reply. "Aren't I drilling only under my place?" Often, humanity is often its adversary. How frequently do we hurt, anger, ignore, judge, deceive, and hate others? How often are we aware when we do? Earth, this spinning rock floating in infinite space, houses a fractured world. Humanity is imperfect. Yes, we have knowledge, logic, and reason, but this doesn’t solve everything. We as human beings may ultimately understand or know the meaning of a word like “compassion,” but this does not foster compassion or lead us to be more compassionate. In God’s Search For Man, Heschel writes, “Knowledge is not the same as awareness, and expression is not the same as experience...concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.” Like Heschel and many other ethical and moral theorists espouse, Torah must not exist as a dormant concept, idea, or purely academic pursuit, but rather an active practice. We must live Torah. It is not enough to simply contemplate its relevance from afar. I believe that the way we live out Torah is through holy action ­ mitzvot. Holiness is not a task reserved for God. Humanity must play a role in divine, holy agency. We have the capacity to facilitate holiness or wholeness. Everyone on earth has this choice, but God has commanded this of his people. We as Jews are asked, as Heschel says, to “reveal the holy that is concealed, to disclose the divine that is suppressed....[Because] the sacred deed is the divine in disguise. The destiny of man is to be a partner of God and a mitzvah is an act in which man is present, an act of participation where God and man meet.”

This unique task is required of us. It is incumbent upon us to perform sacred deeds. Humanity, civilization, and society, whatever the dimension or medium of human connection, all require it of us, not just God. As Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism says, “In Judaism, the individual is a member of a community with obligations. We are obligated to one another by a system of mitzvot.” Therefore, in deeds, or mitzvot, we experience and live out Torah. We do so not for just ourselves, but also for others. As President Barack Obama has said, we must "value the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.” In doing so, we transform humanity, the vast network of relationships that compose the human experience; even if that transformation is minuscule.

In our Parsha this week, we can blatantly see that God instructs us about our behavior and actions not toward Adonai, but one another. Following the revelation at Sinai, God

legislates a series of laws including indentured servants, murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, civil laws concerning our neighbors properties, mistreatment of foreigners, and not to mention the rules governing the conduct of justice by courts of law. But again, there’s more than just knowledge of laws and rights, we must actually do them. Knowledge is not the same as action. That is why Torah probes us to perform Torah, not just receive it. As it says, “And Moses came and told the people all the words of Adonai, and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said: 'All the words which Adonai has said will we do.' (Exodus 24:3) And then again, a few verses later: “​And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it into the ears of the people. And they said, “All that the Adonai has said, “we will do and we will hear (​Exodus 24:8).”

Mitzvot don’t deal explicitly with God, but rather social order and responsibility. They concern humanity, how to treat other people. These are some of the first laws we receive. The laws that bind not us to God, but us to one another. In Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, says, “Each person is responsible to act virtuously and thus lend purpose and meaning to the world and everything in it, according to his unique nature...His deeds affect not only the people alive in his generation, but everyone from the founding of the Jewish people (Schottenstein, 1999).” We all contribute to the differently. We all have different talents, but each person is a crucial link in a long humanitarian chain of events. Contributing positively to the world strengthened each link in this chain.

Similarly, in Ethics of the Pure Will, Herman Cohen says: “The ethical individual should not remain a particular specific, but the power of totality, by which it is classified, should elevate it to the unity of the moral individual (Cohen, 1904), ” Meaning, the plurality of life, being in relationship to others, elevates a single soul. Being part of totality can thereby create power, forming agency to enact universal justice. “Humanity,” is truly “human unity” ­ An active, rational process of recognizing “You,” the Other, as a recipient of the same divine source, thereby caring for him as one would care for one’s self. It means eliminating the boundaries, eliminating an ego­bound perspective. As it says, “You should not hate your brother in your heart.... you should love your fellow as you love yourself. I am God (Lev. 19:17­18).” Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi comments on this verse in The Tanya, saying: “All Jews are called brothers, literally, due to the source of their souls in the One God, and it is only their bodies that divide them...This is what Hillel the Elder meant when he said about this mitzvah, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah – the rest is commentary. Now go and learn! (Shabbat 31a) (qtd. In Miller, 2003)” 


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