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Tzvi Moshe On Mishpatim: Holiness In The Nitty-Gritty

This week’s Parsha is a stark contrast to last week’s. Parshas Yisro is dramatically characterized by its divine special effects, God’s mass-revelation and His giving of the Aseres HaDibros. Mishpatim feels like a cold shower next to Yisro. It deals with the nitty-gritty, intricate laws of commerce, custodial responsibilities and judicial procedure. Mishpatim deals with the most mundane aspects of day-to-day life. It begs the question: What does Hashem want already? Why must He push His way into every detail of my life? How are we supposed to handle the huge emotional drop-off from Yisro to Mishpatim? Hopefully, through a better analysis of the Yisro/Mishpatim transition, we will come away with a clearer and more inspiring understanding of the many details that make up a life that is bonded with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

Shemos Rabbah at the beginning of the Parsha connects our Parsha to last week’s through a Passuk from Tehilim (147:19) “Magid D'varav L’Yaakov, Chukav U’Mishpatav L’Yisrael” ‘Hashem relates his statements to Yaakov, His statutes and laws to Yisrael.’ The Midrash explains that the two segments of this Passuk parallel Yisro and Mishpatim. Magid D'varav L’Yaakov - He relates His statements to Yaakov: this is Parshas Yisro (the connection between D'varav and Dibros is blatant). Chukav U’Mishpatav L’Yisrael - His statutes and laws to Yisrael: this is Mishpatim. Let's delve into an explanation of this.

The Sfas Emes raises an interesting point about the Passuk that ties the two Parshios together. We know that our forefather goes by two names: Yaakov and Yisrael. Yisrael is considered the more elevated and exclusive of the two. Thus, if Yaakov is attached to Parshas Yisro and Yisrael is correlated with Mishpatim (in the way that we saw it broken down by the Midrash above) then it would seem that Mishpaim is the loftier and higher of the two!

On the surface, it would seem that this simply couldn’t be! Yisro is Kolos U’vrakim - thunder and lighting! Mishpatim is Bava Kama - it comes across like a monotonous study in Jewish monetary law; how are they even comparable!?

The Mei HaShiloach answers that the greatness of Mishpatim comes specifically from the mundane nature of its laws.(Fasten your seat-belts and crack open a Zohar.) Why is this so? He explains esoterically that Adam HaRishon started off in a different frame of reality then ours, it was more spiritually tangible. Then with Adam HaRishon's sin with the Eitz HaDaas he altered the fabric of his reality, transferring him to a denser, more physical plane, the same framework of existence in which we live today. All of our commandments are designed to bring a Tikun, to do some spiritual landscaping in this world, in order to re-elevate it back to the original state of its existence. It is here where Mishpatim thrives. Because the laws are so down to earth, it affords us the opportunity to infuse God and Godliness back into the very fabric of our degraded physical reality, and from there elevate it back to where it ought to be.

In order to put this into context of the Midrash, let's momentarily digress.

The Passuk in Mishlei (16:32) states “Tov Erech Apayim Mi’Gibor, U’Moshel B’Rucho Mi’Loched Ir.” He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and one who is a master of his passions is greater than a conqueror of a city.’

Rav Yisrael Salanter explains as follows: This Passuk has two segments, one greater than the first. The Erech Apayim is slow to anger, meaning he still grapples with his negative attributes. This is a very good level to reach, but at the end of the day, the war still wages on between him and the Yetzer HaRa. He is related to the Gibor,he is strong, but he is not yet defined as victorious. This is not the case with the Moshel B’Rucho - the one who rules over his desires. He has already dominated his Yetzer HaRa and lives an elevated spiritual existence. He is compared to the Loched Ir because he who has really conquered a city dominates its every aspect. A true conqueror comes to know the city’s every convenience store, sewer and back alley. This is true dominance; to have every angle checked.

He goes onto explain that this is the progression from Yaakov to Yisrael. Yaakov became Yisrael when he subdued the angel back in Parshas VaYishlach. Grappling with the angel through the night, Yaakov Avinu finally incapacitates him with a devastating headlock. It is at this point that the angel changes Yaakov’s name to Yisrael: Ki Sarisa…VaTuchal, For you have struggled…and have overcome. Only when Yaakov displayed full dominance over the angel did he become Yisrael.

The connection is as follows: Tov Erech Apayim Mi’Gibor is Yaakov. He is pushing, but the fight has not yet ended. U’Moshel B’Rucho Mi’Loched Ir is Yisrael. He has already covered every corner that there is. This is full dominance; the fight is won.

Perhaps with this idea in mind we can go back to the confusing Midrash. How can we say that Mishpatim is connected to the name Yisrael and is on a higher level than Yisro? Yisro flies in the clouds, and Mishptaim is talking about oxen!

Perhaps we can tie it all together as follows: Yisro, like we said before is Magid D'varav L’Yaakov - Yaakov being the connection to the Gibor, the one who is fighting but still caught in the struggle. The Aseres HaDibros are fundamental – true, but they are still up there in the heavens. They are delivered as ten major concepts that come with divine special effects. But this is not the goal of creation…Mishpatim is. Mishpatim is Chukav U’Mishpatav L’Yisrael, Yisrael being the Moshel B’Rucho, the Loched Ir. Mishpatim gets into every nook and cranny of life in order to allow godliness to fully penetrate reality. This is true dominance, and thus Mishpatim is Yisrael.

How often do I feel like I’m getting bogged down by one Halacha after another? It seems to be a never-ending matrix of laws and sub-laws that sneak their way into every facet of my life! When does it end already? Does Hashem really care how I get out of bed in the morning? (Or if give that guy/girl a high-five... I mean, it's just a high-five!)

Gevalt! What a flawed perspective! It’s mammash just the opposite. Baruch Hashem that He has given me the opportunity to infuse His will into everything… EVERYTHING! It doesn’t matter if it’s a bull, pit or a how I tie my shoes - Hashem has blessed me with the opportunity to elevate the whole universe through that which seems so mundane. Through my actions I perfect the fabric of reality; what a responsibility and an honor that is! Halacha is not a nag, it's an empowerment! I really need to snap out of it and realize that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has given me these opportunities because He loves me and wants me to be part of an elite unit of creation-perfectors.

B’Ezras Hashem we should all be Zoche to this realization. We want to really be able to feel our Chibur, our connection to Hashem down to the most minute detail of how we tie our shoes. This is a life that is fully invested in a relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu - and that is the best life that there is. If we can do this there is no doubt we will live lives of meaning moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the redemption!

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About me

  • I'm Rabbi Ally Ehrman
  • From Old City Jerusalem, Israel
  • I am a Rebbe in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh.
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