Blog: February 2007

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Mishpatim: what are mitzvot for?

Parshat Mishpatim lays out many laws for Israel. We've just had the grand revelation and the people have said "hey Moshe, you go and find out what we're supposed to do". Now we are into the nitty-gritty.

You might expect these first laws to focus mainly on God and worship. But most of this parsha is concerned with more "mundane" commandments -- the treatment of slaves, liability (the ox that gores), damages, lending money, and so on. When you begin to formally study talmud it's the same way -- you don't start with the laws of Shabbat or brachot, which are central in your life and should be a gentle introduction. Instead you start with the tractate Bava Metzia, which is mostly torts. Hold that thought.

The rabbis ask what the purpose of the mitzvot is. Some say they are to honor and obey God. This works if you are already focused on God, but might not be convincing to someone who is not yet so oriented. Some say they are to make us better people, which rings true for me and I suspect a lot of you. The Reform movement's focus on the ethical commandments and social justice is consistent with that. But there is a trap here; if a mitzvah doesn't seem to speak to us, if we can't see how it would make us better people, it might be easy to set it aside without further consideration.

Let me offer a third option. In Exodus Rabbah, one of our oldest commentaries, Rabbi Abahu says that the purpose of the mitzvot is to improve the world. He likens Israel to a gardener, and the mitzvot are the gardener's tools. If we use them well, we will tend the orchard of the world, make it bloom, and feed everyone. If we don't, the world is diminished. This says to me that even if you don't particularly like weeding, for instance, you know you need to do it anyway. When looking at unappealing mitzvot we should ask if they are gardening tools that we should take a closer look at.

Rabbi Abahu's view says that the mitzvah of shoveling your sidewalk [1] is at least as important as the mitzvah of sanctifying Shabbat, that giving your employer an honest day's work is at least as important as wearing a tallit, and that conserving earth's natural resources is at least as important as giving thanks before partaking of them. If mitzvot help us relate to God, that's great. If they make us better people, that's great too. But if they help us to improve the world that God gave into our care, including improving our interactions with each other, that's even better. And so, where better to start than with many of those laws?

[1] I'm not taking as many liberties as you think I am. This seems a clear application of leaving an open pit in the public domain. (I came up with this example on the way to shul, while struggling on the sidewalk of a neighbor who didn't shovel.)