Instructions for a life of holiness

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St Louis.

By Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

In the narrative that makes up the book of Exodus, Parshat Mishpatim strikes one as the nadir of the story. 

Marvels and miracles are revealed week after week, from the bush that was burning but never consumed, to the 10 plagues in Egypt, to the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the obliteration of the Egyptian army, ultimately culminating in the moment of Revelation at Sinai in which the Israelites heard the very voice of God. And we reach an anticlimax as the Torah seemingly pauses to relate to us an additional 53 commandments. 

Yet, in so many ways, Parshat Mishpatim represents the culmination of all that has come before it. 

Within Parshat Mishpatim, we have the pieces that describe what it means to live everyday life as a society. In this portion, we learn about the laws of slaves, the laws of homicide, the laws of striking a parent, the laws of assault, the laws regarding a homicidal animal, the laws regarding damage to livestock, the laws regarding sorcery, the laws regarding apostasy, the laws regarding lending money, the laws of judicial integrity, the laws regarding the humane treatment of an enemy, the laws against bribery, the laws of holidays and so many others. 

Though these pieces may seem to be disjointed, they all relate directly back to Sinai. 

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), the most famous rabbinic commentator on the Torah, takes note that this portion begins with the words, “And these are the rules.” He writes: 

“Every place where it uses the word ‘these’ it invalidates the earlier ones, ‘and these’ adds on to the earlier ones. Just as the earlier ones were from Sinai, so too these are from Sinai” (Rashi on Exodus 21:1). 

What does it mean that these laws are from Sinai?

On a basic level, we can understand Rashi’s words to be taken literally. The Midrash, the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, questions that the Torah opens the words of the Ten Commandments with, “And God spoke all these words, saying …” 

Why does the Torah need to include the word “all”? The Torah could just as easily said, “And God spoke these words, saying …” and we would not have lost any sense of what was transpiring. So what is the significance of the extraneous word “all”? Our tradition teaches that it was not only the Ten Commandments that was received on Mount Sinai but, indeed, the entire Torah and even the Oral Tradition that was to be transmitted through the generations. 

Yet, we can also understand Rashi’s words on a deeper level. If all of the great wonders witnessed in Egypt and in the desert concluded at the moment of Revelation with the Ten Commandments, then our own story might have ended there as well. All of the miracles that transpired in the first part of the book of Exodus, though fabulous tales, were never intended to be singular moments in history. Each of those moments transpired in order that we should become a holy nation. 

As our own news accounts show us each day, striving to be holy for God does not always translate into mindfulness of how we treat others. 

Parshat Mishpatim teaches us what it means to live a life of holiness. Because a life of holiness does not mean a life of asceticism, of avoiding contact with others, of mindful meditation, or even constant Torah study. A life of holiness is a life in which even the mundane tasks are done with integrity. A life of holiness still involves lending money, accidental injury, civil courts and sometimes even enemies. It is those interactions, when performed with respect, righteousness and mindfulness of the sanctity of God and humanity, that have the potential to become our holiest interactions of all.