AND these are the laws that you should place before them. (Exodus 21:1)
This week’s Parsha is full of laws and must be understood in context. What is the significance of its being placed immediately after the exhilarating Sinai encounter (last week’s Parsha) when its main content is law? There are obligations of an employer to an employee, criminal, civil, and societal law, laws of how to treat the poor, establishing a just court system, sensitivity to converts, Shabbos, Passover, holidays and other ritual and law. Rashi (1040-1105) is bothered by this, as well as the first word of the Parsha, “and.” He explains that when the word “these” is mentioned in the Torah, it rejects that which has previously been stated but when it says “and these,” it comes to expand on what had previously been stated. How do numerous laws expand on the Sinai experience? Rashi, quoting an earlier work, answers by saying “just as the preceding words (the Ten Commandments) were given at Sinai, these (following laws) were also given at Sinai.” Last week we read the story of the giving of the Torah-a euphoric religious experience. This week we read not about a religious experience but rather about dry law. Torts, civil and criminal law with their minutia are mentioned as well as law in other areas of life. These laws regulate every area of human life-interpersonal relationships, business, damages, wages, compensation, obligation of helping the poor, kosher laws, laws of the holidays. What was the point of juxtaposing all this minutia with the Sinai experience?
One might mistakenly think that religious experience is only in the Temple in Jerusalem or perhaps in a synagogue today but when we exit and engage in the world at large, we no longer can have the potential for a religious experience. The truth is that the continuity of Mount Sinai is predicated on what we do when we leave Sinai. Judaism is not just about having some kind of psychic or religious experience. Where is most of Judaism practiced? Home, work, and community are where one can act with integrity as an employee or employer, or treat people at the supermarket with dignity or show kindness to the people with whom you interact. These laws teach us how to confront those you hate; they teach us about the importance of Shabbos and detaching ourselves from our weekly lives one day a week as well as Passover and other holidays and the food you put into your mouth. “AND these are the laws,” means that Sinai was not the only religious experience, but also everything we do throughout our day has the potential to be a religious experience.
Still in all, couldn’t this lesson of Judaism permeating our lives, have been stated somewhere else; why did the Torah need to introduce such technical laws at such an uplifting spiritual experience (the Sinai encounter) when the Jewish people became ‘wed’ to the Almighty. Imagine a couple standing under the chuppah googly eyed and in love, the rabbi speaks about the beauty of the day and of marriage in general and right at that special moment, we start reading a list of rules for the marriage. “Make sure the cap goes on the toothpaste, the toilet seat is kept down; you take out the garbage and pay the bills…and also clean up after dinner; we will visit my parents three times a year, etc. “One might ask, “why are you bringing this up now-under the chuppah- at this once in lifetime moment? Is this the time to exchange the list of expectations? Although it seems strange, this might actually be a perfect time to bring up the future day to day expectations the bride and groom have for one another. A successful marriage is not determined by how the couple feels under the chuppah when they are lovey-dovey and in the supportive atmosphere of family and friends. Successful marriage is made up of all the little acts and effort made in the years following the chuppah and the sensitivity you show to your spouse’s needs.
When we stood at Mount Sinai getting “married” to the Almighty, it involved a covenant and G-d was giving the message that this relationship would be determined by the things done after this encounter. Therefore we are told how to treat the poor, the orphan and the widow. We are instructed how to be “strictly kosher” in our business dealings and how to deal with every aspect of religious life.
“AND these are the laws;” in Judaism there’s no such thing as relegating religion just to the synagogue because it must permeates every area of our life. The rest of the Parsha contains the minutia of the laws but if one doesn’t understand them in the context of when they were given, s/he misses the point. Who you are when conducting business is not only religious dictate, it gives one the possibility of expressing his or her Judaism at the office, while driving home, and every other place you interact with others.
This lesson is especially instructive to American Jews, many of whom associate their Judaism with the house of worship they attend. This is a mistake because we only do one Mitzvah in a synagogue (prayer) whereas the rest of the Torah is performed in the home and with one’s community. Shabbat, holidays, kosher food, tzedakah, lashon hara (not speaking derogatorily about others),Passover, Sukkot, lending money, judging others favorably, not delaying the payment of a worker, and every other aspect of the Torah we observe today is done at home with family and friends or at work, or some other place.
It is a distortion of Judaism to limit spirituality to the synagogue and believe that all spiritual achievement is accomplished there and is completely detached from the world. No, we Jews must understand that the “small” things we do throughout the day and throughout our lives, are part of the way we attach ourselves to Judaism and be connected to Jews who have done so for thousands of years.