Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1-24:18

CoverDesign_MishpatimWhat is the deeper story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperative and 30 prohibitions?

As Jewish historian Jacob Katz (born November 15, 1904, in Magyargencs, Hungary, and died May 20, 1998, in Israel) insisted in his book Halakhah and Kabbalah: Studies in the History of Jewish Religion, its Various Faces and Social Relevance (1984), halacha is inextricably intertwined with Kabbalah. In other words, Jewish law is intertwined with Jewish mysticism, and there are many examples of mainstream halachic practice being informed by Kabbalistic customs.

As Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle of the Bay Area participants have been learning through our study of the Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, the mystical masterpiece is set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings. The mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Last week, CBS launched a new Shabbat pamphlet that features original cover art inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. The artwork that accompanies this post is an abstract representation of Exodus 24:17 ("And the appearance of the glory of G-d was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses came within the cloud.") Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.