Imagine a couple standing under the chuppah googly-eyed and in love. The rabbi speaks about the beauty of marriage and the significance of the day. Then, all a sudden, the bride starts listing her set of rules for the marriage. “Make sure to close the toothpaste, keep the toilet seat down, take out the garbage, pay the bills, and clean up after dinner. We also need to visit my parents at least four times a year.” Seriously! Is she really bringing this up now—under the chuppah— at this once in a lifetime moment? Is this really the best time to exchange the list of expectations?
A similar phenomenon is found in this week’s Parsha, which is full of rules and laws. Here are a few examples; 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, Shabbat, Passover, and holidays. What is the significance of dry, laws being placed immediately after the exhilarating Sinai encounter (last week’s Parsha)? Rashi explains that this section expands on the previous one. But how do technical business, civil, and ritual laws expand on the encounter at Sinai? Why juxtapose them?
One might mistakenly think that religious experience is only in the Temple in Jerusalem or perhaps in a synagogue today but when people exit and engage in the world, they no longer have the potential for religious experience. But the opposite is to be true—the continuity of Mount Sinai is predicated on what we do when we leave Sinai. Judaism is not only about having a meaningful shul experience, it’s about what you do when you leave. Most of Judaism is practiced at home, at work, and in a community. That’s where people have the opportunity to act with integrity as employees or employers, treat people at the supermarket with dignity or show kindness to the people with whom you interact. These laws even teach us how to confront those you hate. They teach us about the importance of Shabbat and the need to detach ourselves from our weekly lives one day a week. The Sinai moment was monumental, but the way to know if it was effective is how people acted when they went home.
But why couldn’t this lesson—Judaism is relevant throughout the day, not just when we are in shul—have been stated somewhere else? Why here, after such an uplifting spiritual experience (the Sinai encounter) when the Jewish people became ‘wed’ to the Almighty. Although it seems strange to introduce these laws now, it might actually be a perfect time to bring up the future expectations. When the bride stated seemingly trivial minutia at the chuppah, she was conveying a message. 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 little acts of devotion and concentrated effort even during the most challenging times. The years following the chuppah and the sensitivity one shows to the needs of his or her spouse will be the ultimate litmus test for how solid the relationship is.
When we stood at Mount Sinai getting “married” to the Almighty, it involved a covenant and the message was that this relationship would be determined by the things done after the encounter. We are told how to treat the poor, the orphan and the widow, as well as be honest in personal and business matters—and there are many other expectations.
Jews have never relegated religion merely to the synagogue. We only do one Mitzvah in a synagogue, prayer, whereas the rest of the Torah is performed in the home, office and 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 community. It is a distortion of Judaism to limit its purpose to the synagogue and to believe that all meaningful Jewish achievement is accomplished there (in an environment completely detached from the world), rather, we 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 remain connected to other Jews as well as those who have done so for thousands of years.