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Peter J. Rubinstein
The Nitty-Gritty of Life: A Comment on Parashat Mishpatim

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  February 20, 2009

Just last week we were elevated by the reading of the 10 Commandments. We are at the point of the Biblical story; seven weeks after the Israelite band of slaves had left Egypt and now stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. There they received the law. There they were commanded to be a people apart, not physically or geographically apart, but morally distinct. Our ancestors were put on notice that common wisdom is not always wise and that while the majority rule applies to democratic elections, the majority may not rule in the court of ethical conduct.

In fact there at Mt. Sinai our ancestors were given glancing insight into their destiny: that they were going to be different; that they had to be darn certain to care about the enslaved, the down-trodden, the faceless victims of bigotry and wrong-doing, and those who were otherwise perceived and treated as the necessary detritus of social and economic development.

So, before the Israelites became too enamored with themselves, their place in history, and their significantly unique relationship to God, they were brought back to real life with the manifold laws which this week’s portion begins to outline. By name, the portion is “Mishpatim” which means “Rules.” These chapters are filled with the specifics: how to treat slaves so that even in a primitive system that allowed for slavery, slaves were given rights to food, family, clothing, and shelter. These chapters place stringent interpretation as to what it means to “Honor one’s father and mother.” We read the punishments for kidnapping, for causing injury, for the safekeeping of ones’ property, and even details about proper treatment of animals even when those animals might be part of the human food chain.

The laws in this portion are not a grand moral vision statement. These laws are the nitty-gritty of behavior, so we ask the question: Why were these rules necessary? Wasn’t the grand vision and overarching principles of the 10 Commandments sufficient? The answer is “no.” Grand statements of principles are not sufficient at all.

Neither God nor our ancestors have delusions about what we are, we human beings. Our history notes the best and worst of human behavior and knows above all that grand concepts are terrific for setting goals but not all that helpful in dealing with the daily occurrences, the urges and longings and lusts and forgetfulness of which we are all capable. We do not have saints within Jewish tradition. Every one of our historic heroes has flaws. Noah behaved poorly after he exited the ark. Moses was given to bouts of uncontrollable temper. Aaron was incubated in self-important sanctity and was a tale-bearer. Even King David from whom the Messiah is supposed to descend is woefully consumed by lust and violence. His son Solomon built altars to foreign Gods.
So these laws help us measure ourselves. They are the guideposts to living properly especially when we are caught up in the perennial explanation for bad behavior: “But everyone else is doing it.”

That is no excuse. In fact it may be the very problem that has brought our society to the chasm through which we are now passing. We are compelled to live our lives well in the small details of it. Helen Keller wrote, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble…for the world is moved along, not only by the might shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.”

Leo Baeck wrote, “We cannot expect ourselves to live the realm of the grandly heroic. We can expect ourselves to perform small acts of decency with extraordinary fidelity.”

That is what we learn today: the urgency of performing small acts of decency with extraordinary fidelity, the need to awaken every morning and do our own ethical check-up to make certain that we do not abide hypocrisy within ourselves or excuse poor behavior because everyone else is behaving even more poorly.
On Mt. Sinai we were given the principles which guide our ways. In this portion we are taught that every step counts. We will be judged by how we live our lives.

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