Mishpatim: Law and Spirit

tzitzit1There was once a Jewish girl who stopped in Israel on her way to India to seek spirituality. Friends suggested that she go to Neve Yerushalayim to take a class and give Judaism one last shot before seeking other pathways to spirituality. The one class happened to be studying the laws regarding returning a lost item — when is an item considered lost, what if the person gave up hope of its return, what constitutes a legitimate identifying mark to claim the item, to what extent and cost of time and money are you obligated for returning the item… The girl was furious! This is NOT spirituality. She left in a huff and headed off to India.

Six months later she and her guru were discussing a philosophical matter while walking through the village. They came upon a wallet filled with rupees. The guru picked it up, put it in his pocket and continued with his point. The girl interrupted him and asked, “Aren’t you going to see if there is identification in the wallet to return it?” The guru replied, “No. It was his karma that he lost it; it’s my karma that I found it. It’s mine.” The girl implored, “But, he might have a large family and that might be his monthly earnings … they could starve if you don’t return it!” The guru responded, “That is their karma.”

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Mishpatim

You may be wondering what all this has to do with this week’s Torah study. Consider that, according to Rabbi Packouz, Mishpatim is one of “the most mitzvah-filled Torah portions, containing 23 positive commandments and 30 negative commandments. Included are laws regarding: the Hebrew manservant and maidservant, manslaughter, murder, injuring a parent, kidnapping, cursing a parent, personal injury, penalty for killing a slave, personal damages, injury to slaves, categories of damages and compensatory restitution, culpability for personal property damage, seduction, occult practices, idolatry, oppression of widows, children and orphans.”

For most Christians and probably many Jewish people, reading Mishpatim can seem like not only an incredible bore, but completely irrelevant to leading a life of spirituality and holiness…

…until you read the commentary about the Jewish girl seeking spirituality, which I quoted above. Let’s “cut to the chase” and see what the Jewish student in India concluded about her experiences.

The young lady then remembered the class she took in Jerusalem — and realized that spirituality without justice, kindness and concern for others is just a false spiritual high, corrupt emotion. She returned to Jerusalem and ultimately returned to her Torah heritage.

I imagine there are a lot of people who believe spirituality is a rather “warm and fuzzy” and “feel good” state of being where one contemplates self, God, and the nature of the universe, and through this, the wear and tear of daily living can be put to the side as if it were a cast off garment. And yet, as the Jewish student learned, it is nothing of the sort. Spirituality is a “lived” experience that permeates our day-to-day lives. There is not one aspect of what we do, from the moment we wake up until the instant our heads hit our pillows at night where God is not present (and He’s present when we sleep as well) and we are not acting either within his will our outside of it.

This past week, I’ve been commenting extensively on Acts 15 and the implications of admitting non-Jewish disciples of the Messiah into a wholly Jewish religious sect. There is a single sentence within that chapter which has caused much confusion among Christian and Jewish commentators and scholars.

For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Acts 15:21 (ESV)

I’ll give that statement more treatment in my Return to Jerusalem series in the next few days, but we can take a look at it now from the perspective of this Torah Portion commentary. What did James and the rest of the Apostles expect the Gentile God-fearing disciples to learn by going to the synagogue each Shabbat and hearing the Torah read, especially if, as I’ve said previously, the Apostles never desired that the Gentiles convert to Judaism and thus be obligated to the full yoke of Torah?

karmaWhat was the Jewish student supposed to learn by “studying the laws regarding returning a lost item?” When she was in India following the path she thought she really wanted, she discovered the answer.

While there is much in the Torah that has to do with the specifics of living a Jewish life, there is also much more that teaches us, all of us, how to live an ethical and moral life within a spiritual and material world context. The student in India didn’t have to be Jewish to learn that lesson, it could have been learned by anyone. Hopefully, it is being learned by everyone who reads the Bible and studies the mitzvot delivered by God to humanity through Moses and the Prophets.

The “Law” isn’t boring (unless you let it be). It’s all “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Studying scripture is like spending time with God in prayer. It is an act of intimacy. It is like this:

On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Exodus 24:16-18 (JPS Tanakh)

Good Shabbos.

8 thoughts on “Mishpatim: Law and Spirit”

  1. Good word. From the first time I ever read the Torah even before I was a believer, I kept thinking that society would be so much better if people took the law seriously. Of course I don’t believe that we can become the goodly people that the law proclaims without the Spirit of The Lord to help us. But again we are back to the great dance. We can’t obey without choosing to obey, we can’t obey unless we depend upon the Holy Spirit to help us to obey.

    Shabbat Shalom!

  2. Shalom, James… I write a column on the Religion page of my local newspaper and just wrote one entitled, “Ugly Ducklings, Swans, and ‘the Law,'” which deals, in a popular-audience manner, with the Christian misconception of the mishpatim. The column is called “A Well-Rooted Perspective” and is my attempt at familiarizing the predominantly mainline denominational population here in upstate NY with things Jewish; I usually reproduce it bi-monthly in my WordPress blog, “Jacob’s Relief.” I usually combine a very common idea (such as a fable or a movie or Christian holidays, etc.) with a Jewish concept to “blur the line” between Christianity and Judaism. A conspiracy of good, I guess: http://jacobsrelief.wordpress.com/ Shavua tov… ~ Daniel

  3. Paul was supposed to be good at “talking the language” of his audience, which has more to do with using metaphors than linguistic skill. To get a point across to someone, you meet them where they are and once engaged, you can take them where you want them to go. When I was in graduate school (Counseling Psychology), one of my instructors called it “the trickster healer” approach.

  4. A regular, gradual solvent to get expose the beauty of Torah that lies sleeping beneath the built up edifice of theology that has been constructed over the centuries. I like “the trickster healer” idea… the kind of “good chutzpah” that just may turn a hidden key in one’s heart…

  5. Great post, James. The young woman’s first reaction is not unknown among beginning Mishnah or Talmud students. But I’ve been encouraged the past few years by the large percentage who “get it” very quickly.

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