In last week's parsha, Yitro, we read about the revelation at Sinai. Amidst thunder and smoke Yisrael received the aseret divriot, the ten utterances, and they said: enough! You go, Moshe; this is too much for us.
While the direct encounter with God certainly must have accounted for much of that reaction, it also seems possible that the commandments themselves were part of the motivation. These ten are broad; in fact, the rabbis of the talmud argue that all other mitzvot can be redued to these ten. These ten raise many questions: What exactly is this idolatry that we must avoid? How do we honor our parents -- and does that apply even when parents are evil? What does it mean to remember the sabbath and keep it holy -- indeed, what does this mean to Reform Jews in particular? We could spend weeks debating what these commandments mean. Is it not possible that Israel, too, saw that these were less than clear to them?
This week, in contrast, the parsha consists almost entirely of a long litany of commandments (mishpatim), most specific. We have laws of how to treat slaves, and what to do if you (or your ox, or the pit you dug) injure or kill someone. We have laws about what (not) to eat, and about gossip, and about judging fairly. There are many more, both ritual and ethical.
Two in particular speak to me. First, we are told that in addition to not favoring a powerful person in a court judgement (this seems a no-brainer), we must also not favor a poor person. We can't rule leniently out of pity. We are required to help the poor and weak, but not by perverting the courts. The other is the verse that says that if our enemy's donkey is over-burdened, we must nonetheless help him to unload it -- help him, but not do it for him. Perhaps by working together with an enemy on some task, there is the possibility that we will see each other as something other than enemies.
Last week's parsha gave broad directives; this week's parsha gives specific, detailed instructions, and it is this week that the people say "na'aseh v'nishma", we will do and we will hear.
We sometimes hear people dismiss the generation that left Egypt: they were ex-slaves, not ready to act on their own, and needed hand-holding as children do. But we do that generation a disservice by saying such things; we all sometimes need more concrete instruction, and there is nothing wrong with that. Faced with a general directive that we don't know how to interpret, we may freeze and do nothing. If we break it down into specific acts and do those, however, we are able to act. We take small steps, which is better than taking no steps. Any step toward God is a positive act; if we can connect through the larger directives that's great, but if we instead connect through the detailed directives, that too leads to God.