I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Brad Artson, for the wisdom and insight he brings to this week's parashah/Torah reading, Mishpatim. After acknowledging a phenomenon that many have noted in today's society--that personal autonomy has become a much greater driving force than collective values and behavorial norms--Rabbi Artson goes on to note:
"Yet we also pay a price for our autonomy. All this freedom and lack of direction or discipline also produces tremendous loneliness, drifting, and superficiality." (The Everyday Torah/Mishpatim)
It is no small wonder, then, that the myriad of rules that seem to define traditional Judaism (the 613 mitzvot/commandments) strike many people as antiquated and irrelevant.
But Rabbi Artson frames our mitzvot wisely and with perception:
"Judaism celebrates the love between God and the Jewish people, viewing the myriad laws and mitzvot as confirmation of that abiding passion and devotion. Parents who don't tell their children what to eat, what to wear, and when to sleep don't really love their children, regardless of how often they speak of their affection. True love, the kind that nurtures independence of soul and depth of personality requires attention to detail." (The Everyday Torah/Mishpatim)
The mitzvot/commandments of parashat Mishpatim represent that attention to detail. This week's reading includes mitzvot regarding justice for widows and orphans, laws concerning an animal that does bodily harm to a person, the calendar of festivals, prohibitions on sorcery and idolatry, standards of honesty in courts and much more. An amazing variety that expresses the holistic scope of our covenant/brit with God and the potential to infuse everything we do with "kedushah" with holiness.
There is a blessing we recite twice a day just before we declare: Sh'ma yisrael (Hear, Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One): That blessing acknowledges the Torah as a gift from God and expresses our desire to reciprocate through the study of Torah and the observance of the mitzvot. The blessing is referred to as "birkat ahavah", "the blessing of love."
Just as our children flourish when we guide their development with wise and loving rules--things they must do, things they musn't do--so will we, as adults, flourish when we pay attention to the details of our relationship with God. We all know, we adults, that we are still "works in progress." We all know, we adults, that we don't have all the answers and that we are deeply challenged all the time by the decisions and choices that lay before us. We are never left to our own resources by the loving God of Israel; no matter what issues faces us, great or small, the mitzvot/commandments of our tradition are there for us like a safety net, like the loving arms of a parent, to help us be the best we can be.