These are the judgments-mishpatim-which you will place before them. (Shemos 21:1)
Recently I was in New York, and was meeting a friend for dinner one night downtown. I had already had a previous meeting with someone else in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel at 6th Avenue and 50th Street, so it was just a matter of walking a few blocks to 46th Street, and then west.
As it turned out, I was a good hour early, so I decided to walk around the block. I continued west down 46th Street, unaware of where I was going, especially since it had gotten dark in the meantime. As I approached the end of the street and looked up, I was suddenly taken aback and froze. Without knowing it, I had stumbled into Times Square.
It was as if someone had just, all of a sudden, turned on all the lights in the world. Massive light billboards lined every building, throwing out advertising for one thing or another at such a huge scale that all I could do was stand in one spot and look around. I was overwhelmed by the overkill, which seemed designed to do exactly that.
It took me about 10 minutes to recover before I could move on and make my way back to safer, quieter territory. But, the amazing thing was how I was the only one affected by all the glitter, hustle, and bustle. Everyone else just went about their business like nothing was out of the norm, making me feel as if I just gotten off the boat from some third world country. The place is extreme. It is meant to be. It is New York’s version of Hollywood, which also tries to overwhelm with blockbuster movies and more- real-than-life-itself special effects. Even the cost of producing such films is staggering, not to mention the obscene amounts of money that are paid to see them, or to sports figures who happened to be born with talent. And, few people barely bat an eye at any of it.
I had a similar feeling when in the Apple Store there as well. There was an incredible amount of product in the store, people looking at it, and salespeople walking around doing the selling. Amazingly, if you bought something with a credit card, they could swipe it and put the purchase through on the spot, just by using their iPhones. Within seconds, the receipt had shown up in the e-mail of my iPhone.
They even had bags tucked somewhere under the belts, saving the credit card-paying customers a stay in the local checkout counter line-up, where poor, old fashioned cash paying customers had to do time while waiting to complete their purchases. It was an experience to behold, so I sat down on one of the benches there just to take in the scene before moving on once again.
Last week, I read an article in which a well-known correspondent reported how a Haiti official decried how the world was already losing interest in the post-earthquake situation there, and would certainly do so in the weeks ahead. Though it will take years for Haitians to re-build their cities and get back on their financial feet once again, the world will take a lot less time to forget the disaster that just occurred there.
Earthquakes are awesome. Suffering people, not so much. Sudden mass destruction is sensational. Prolonged agony, much less so. In each case, the former talks right to our bodies, and tingles it, like being on a scary ride. In each case, the latter talks to our souls, which may or may not be able to hear anything since in most people they are covered by all kinds of layers of more superficial concerns.
It is the difference between “like a single person with a single heart,” and “with a single heart, like a single person.” When the Jewish people stood at Har Sinai and received the Torah, they were the former. When the Egyptians pursued the Jewish people into the sea to kill them, they were the latter. What is the difference, besides the order of the words?
The difference is that, in the case of, “like a single person with a single heart” unity is the cause, and the common heart is the result. In the case of, “with a single heart, like a single person,” the common heart is the cause, and the unity is the result, which means that unity is only possible as long as the hearts share a common cause, like killing all the Jews.
For such a common cause, even enemies such as Moav and Midian could forget their differences and work together to eliminate the Jewish people. However, once they finished doing that, God forbid, then they would have gone right back to being enemies once again. Their love, so-to-speak, was a love that was dependent upon certain factors, and therefore, as the Mishnah warns, was destined to fall apart (Pirkei Avos 5:19).
Who cared about Haitians before the earthquake? Now the whole world cares about Haitians, because of the earthquake, and since it is love that grew out of an event, once the event is over, then so too does the love leave as well. Decry it all you want, but that is the reality of a world that requires epic events to make it feel alive, and attached to reality, and to one another. Loathe it if you will, but it is the way of the world in which we live.
Can it be changed? Of course it can, but not without much work and sacrifice. In fact, that is the purpose of this week’s parshah, especially on the heels of last week’s parshah. In last week’s parshah, there was a major event, and it was more than awesome enough to draw people out of their everyday mundane personal realities. But, in this week’s parshah, we have maintain such a high level of sensitivity, even without the mega-events.
It’s called mishpatim, or judgments. The 613 Mitzvos and their myriad of details is not only about loyalty, but about achieving and maintaining a sensitivity to life as well. Sensitivity is a function of awareness and appreciation, and both are a function of knowledge. The more detailed one’s knowledge is, the more sensitive he is going to be in life.
And humble too. Humility is not about feeling inadequate in life. It is about seeing life as being larger than ourselves. For example, standing amongst a small group of people, one can feel quite haughty. However, standing amongst thousands of people, one tends to feel awed and set in place.
It works the same way with knowledge as well. If one lives with a superficial understanding of the important things in life, it will be hard to appreciate their worth. But, if one pursues a more detailed understanding of such things and matters, then one can develop an acute sensitivity to their importance, and care for them accordingly.
That’s what this week’s parshah, with all of its many details, is saying to us. It is saying, “Last week you witnessed the giving of Torah on Har Sinai, and it blew you away. However, life is not like that on a daily basis (besides in the movie theatres), so you have to know how to maintain that awe of life on your own, from daily life itself. Mishpatim can do that for you.”
This is why the learning of Talmud, though it may be difficult to master, is so enjoyable and exciting for so many. After all, why should it be more so than any other discipline or any the form of education? The answer is, because it spends all of its time dissecting life into its most basic components, and it leaves one with a sense of awe for life and living.
This is, perhaps, the reason why all of these mishpatim break up the narrative of the giving of the Torah, which resumes at the end of this week’s parshah. It’s as if the many laws and details are the bridge from the events of last week’s parshah to those of this week’s parshah, as if to say, you have to work with these to get to there, to get to the point where you can say, “We will do, and we will understand.”
Called the language of the angels (Shabbos 88a), putting the doing before the understanding is an ultimate expression of humility, something that was made possible by the awesomeness of the Har Sinai Experience. Children do it because they don’t know better, and patients may do it with respect to taking medicine from a doctor they respect. But no one will do so with their entire life, unless the source of the instructions for living is larger than life itself, which Torah clearly is.
This is the message of matzah as well. Matzah is not only about abstaining from chometz; it is about learning how to remain excited about life with a minimal amount of physical pleasure. Bread is like Hollywood, like Times Square: it is bloated reality, something you have to do when the simple things in life fail to satisfy you. Matzah is about getting back to basics, and learning how to see how wonderful they are, no matter how simple they may seem to be.
It is not an easy thing to do, especially in today’s society. There are so many things to have, so many experiences to be enjoyed. Life, today, is not simple at all, but very complex. It just appears simple. What you can’t do at the touch of a button, but what has to go on in the background so that touching the button has the desired effect, something that is often reflected in the cost.
During my stay in New York, I was supposed to receive a check from another state. It did not arrive on time, so I asked that it be cancelled and a new one sent, this time by overnight courier so that I could deal with it before I left for Israel the next day. It was promptly sent by UPS, which would have delivered it the next morning, had the address on the package not been off by one number.
When it comes to UPS, you don’t want to make a mistake with the address, I learned on a previous occasion. Even if you call them up to correct the error, they still won’t deliver it until you receive a postcard from them, after which time they will deliver it a second time. However, I didn’t have time to wait for one, so I tried to convince them to bend their rules this one time, but to no avail. Even after the sender called them up and made the correction, it was too late for delivery that day, when I needed to deposit it.
But, they told me I could go to their station and pick it up, if I wanted to. So, after checking Google Maps and getting the Public Transit instructions, I set off for what I had thought would be about a 90 minute journey. Little did I know that Maspeth, from Flushing, is about 90 minutes each way, and just about downtown, where I had to be later that day.
What a journey it was, and in the end, thank God, I received my check, and after 3 hours, I was back in Flushing once again. However, as I traveled there and back, I couldn’t help but think about how one number could make such a difference in life, or what it was I must’ve done to warrant such Divine Providence.
In fact, more than likely, I probably took for granted some time that I thought had little significance, and had wasted it. This was God’s way of telling me, “Don’t do it again. UPS could have delivered your package, and saved you a lot of time, if it was time that I saw you were interested in saving. Life is fleeting and your time in New York is coming to an end. Use it meaningfully.”
That is the meaning of mishpatim, and Parashas Shekalim. The word shekel, the name of a currency, is also the basis of the word mishkal, which is used for weighing things. The Half-Shekel that we gave in the desert in Moshe’s time counteracted Haman later on in history, because it represented our return to a deeper level of spiritual consciousness. That is the only way to combat, and defeat, Amalek, whose entire attack is to keep Jews superficial.
Thus, these parshios, Mishpatim and Shekalim, mean use your mind, think things through, and weigh things out. You’ll be surprised what you come up with: usually a better appreciation of life, and a greater sensitivity to what counts the most in life. And that is the only real way to become the very best you possible.
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org