A child's wedding, an exotic vacation, a summer at camp; rarely do we feel ready to follow these up with a return to our daily schedule. It is common after a major event to have difficulty getting back into a routine. Surely, the excitement of receiving the Torah at Sinai would affect us in the same way. The thunder, lightning, and masses of people all gathered to witness Divine revelation would have put us all on a spiritual high from which it would be hard to come down. Following on the heels of the ten plagues and the splitting of the Sea, daily life must have seemed just plain boring.
Yet it is Parshat Mishpatim which follows Parshat Yitro . Its 53 mitzvot discuss such "inspiring" topics as the laws regarding slavery, goring animals, bailees, torts, bestiality, and the handling of loan collateral. Is this the proper follow-up to the grandeur of Sinai?
The essence of Judaism lies in the way it infuses the mundane with holiness; a meal becomes a Seudat mitzva . This is especially true of matters relating to money. The Talmud teaches us that a person can be identified B'koso, B'kaaso, and B'kiso -by seeing how he acts when he drinks, when he is angry, and where there is money involved. Meticulousness in religious observance is one thing when it relates to such relatively easy matters as Shabbat, Kashrut , and even Tzniut (modesty). It is much harder to worry about every potential and possible religious violation when extra stringency can often mean less money in your pocket. This week's parsha deals mainly with civil law relating to monetary issues and disputes. Proper observance of these laws is the true test of religious devotion, and the real grandeur of Sinai.
Rashi sensed the difficulty people have in considering business matters as a religious issue. Commenting on the proximity of Parshat Mishpatim to Parshat Yitro , Rashi states that, just as the Ten Commandments come from Sinai and are of Divine origin, so too are the laws of slaves, oxen, and the like. Most of us tend to compartmentalize the different spheres of life. There is the religious sphere of davening , Shabbat, and the holidays, and then there is the real world of making a living and the "secular" side of life. While we readily acknowledge the Divine origin of our rituals, civil law and even "ethics" are often viewed as man-made. Both, however, emanate from the same source, with the basic principles given at Sinai along with a mandate to the scholars of each generation to apply those principles to day-to-day living. Mishpatim teaches us that there is no such thing as "secular" in life. There may be different levels of holiness, but all of life's activities can (and must) be conducted with an awareness that Torah is just as relevant in the boardroom and bedroom as it is in the synagogue.
Pirkei Avot , Ethics of the Fathers, is the Mishnaic tractate which has as its primary focus character development, ethics and morals. In editing the 63 tractates of the Mishna into six orders, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi placed Pirkei Avot in the section of Nezikin (damages), which focuses on monetary matters. It is precisely here that we must stress ethics and morality.
Parshat Mishpatim often coincides with Parshat Shekalim . This is the first of the four special readings which start before Purim and conclude before Pesach. The Maftir describes the collection of a half Shekel from each Jew in order to help defray the costs of running the Temple . According to Rabbinic tradition, both the command to build the Mishkan (tabernacle) and the appointment of a judiciary took place on the same day. Apparently, the Rabbis are stressing the point that we cannot build our temple if monetary disputes-even of only a half shekel-are still outstanding. The path to holiness can only be achieved if our monetary dealings leave no room for dispute. Let us each contribute our personal half shekel as we bring the grandeur of Sinai into our day-to-day routine.