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After the Honeymoon (Mishpatim – 02/10/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

After the Honeymoon
Just when you’re falling in love with all the drama and excitement of the weekly Torah readings, everything changes.
When we started reading the Torah in Genesis on Simchat Torah, each weekly parsha had its own riveting narrative: Adam and Eve and the Serpent, Noah’s Ark and the Flood, the love triangle of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebecca’s betrothal, Jacob and Esau’s enmity, Jacob’s struggles with Laban and the city of Shechem, Joseph’s struggle with his brothers, Joseph rising from the dungeons to become Viceroy, the Children of Israel’s descent into Egypt, their seduction into slavery, Moses being sent to redeem the Children of Israel, the raw destruction of the Ten Plagues and exhilaration of the splitting of the Red Sea. The story culminates with the awesome revelation of God speaking the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai.
Yet, immediately after this climactic event, the drama fizzles out. In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, the Torah shifts its focus to elucidating the intricate laws of torts, interpersonal relationships, and prohibitions that guide day-to-day Jewish life.
In the coming weeks, religious architecture and artifacts become the centerpiece as we are asked to construct the Tabernacle in the desert. Then the book of Leviticus follows, which is mostly devoted to detailing the various sacrifices brought therein.
It’s dispiriting to move from the compelling narratives into the technical and legalistic dimensions of the Torah. But in many ways, this mirrors the development of a relationship.
Nothing’s better than the excitement of dating and falling in love, exploring new things about each other and experiencing new places together. The proposal is thrilling, preparing the wedding is exciting, and the wedding itself is blissful.
But after the honeymoon, real life resumes.
This pattern is reflected in the Torah’s recounting of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Fast forwarding past Adam and Eve and Noah and his family, God starts something meaningful with Abraham and Sara. Then there are the trials and tribulation with their children and grandchildren until they land en masse in Egypt. God then calls for them, redeems them and marries them with the vows of Mt. Sinai.
In Mishpatim and the readings that follow come the laws defining the marriage and the building of their home.
When Judy and I were engaged, we used to take dance lessons weekly. We haven’t been able to find time for them since. There’s been a lot of work and family obligations, but that doesn’t mean our relationship hasn’t deepened.
Perhaps this is the intent of the Torah, switching from the exhilarating to the mundane. Once the relationship is developed and committed, it then becomes matured through daily rituals and reminders.
It’s reflected in what Golde said to Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:
“For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow…
For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?”
Our parsha contains one more detail about the Sinai experience that speaks mountains about the prerequisites of a loving relationship. When we were offered to be God’s people and God would offer us God’s devotion, we responded,
וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע
Exodus 24:17 “And people answered, ‘We will do and listen to all that God has spoken”
Our dedication was not only relegated to doing, but also to listening. Sometimes people say one thing, but their emotions, their needs, are really communicating something else. In this loving relationship, one not only wants to be dedicated to doing for the other, but also to truly hearing and feeling the other’s emotions and needs as well.
With parshat Mishpatim, we leave the intrigue of the Torah narratives behind and enter the minutiae of law and construction. But it’s important to appreciate them for the daily connection they provide, for after all, “If that’s not love, what is?”

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