Why Judaism calls on us to put ideals into practice


Congregation B’nai Amoona. Photo: Bill Motchan

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Our parshah this week, Mishpatim, embraces law after law right on the heels of the Ten Commandments.  Our foremost commentator, Rashi, points out that Mishpatim should be viewed as a continuation of the previous parshah, Yitro.  Why? How?

The very first word of our parshah is V’eileh.  Rashi notes that when the word eileh “these are” begins with a “vav” denoting that it is a continuation or, moseif al horeshonim, an extension of that which preceded it.  Here, it is the law we were given at Sinai.  The Ten Commandments are the foundational ideals that guide us.  How do the seemingly random laws of Mishpatim relate to the monumental principles articulated at Sinai?  For this limited purpose, the answer is Mishpatim elucidates the Ten Commandments.

Judaism never intended for its major principles to remain merely conceptual or in the realm of lofty ideals. Our tradition has always taught that our ideals must be put into practice. Without transforming our principles into defined action we can never hope to attain the ultimate vision enunciated in last week’s parshah that we become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

We are called upon to heal the sick, welcome the stranger, and extend our reach in all areas of knowledge and wisdom for the betterment of the world. The words that were heard by the Israelites at Sinai are placed into a practical format in Mishpatim. The parshityot of Yitro and Mishpatim are placed back-to-back because they are really two sides of the same coin: our mission as a people begins with ideals, but it is absolutely critical that these principles be annotated and incorporated into a system that guides our daily life. The paradigms only have meaning when they are translated into engagement.  After the recent hostage incident at Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas and the ongoing stresses of the pandemic, we need to be reminded to reach out to one another and be there for each other. Take time to engage with one another, not only checking on our physical health, but mental health as well.

Judaism is more than a religion; it’s a way of life.  As Herman Wouk (of the Cain Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, and the Winds of War) noted in “This is My God” (1959, p. 137): “It is a daily commitment in action to one’s faith, a formal choice, a quiet self-discipline.”  Each of us in his or her own way is on the same quest.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.