Drash on Parashat Mishpatim
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW, Australia
"Faithfully Keeping the Covenant"
The stories we read from the Torah at this season confront us with the most important question regarding what it means to be a Jew: to be in “covenant with God”. Last week’s parashah concluded with the event known as “Standing at Sinai” (Ma’amad Har Sinai), and the revelation of the “Ten Commandments” (Aseret HaDibrot).
Just before the revelation, God tells our ancestors, the children of Israel, “If you will heed my voice and observe my covenant, then you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples...a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6) Our uniqueness as a people, our special mission, is to be religious leaders among humanity, to live in connection with God by living in covenant – in an intimate relationship with the Infinite, where both the limited creations (ourselves) and the unlimited creative force (God) have their part to play. This week’s parashah, Mishpatim, is also known as The Book of the Covenant, for with its 53 mitzvot it brings further details of this covenant. In this parashah, the nature of the Torah changes from narrative to legislation. The difficulty for 21st century Jews, if we are to transmit the narrative that has bound our people for thousands of years, is to reflect on our personal relationship with God and commit to the terms of the covenant in a way that is consistent with tradition.
As unorthodox Jews (whether affiliated with the Progressive or Masorti movements) we understand that the Torah is not the literal word of God, but our ancestors’ understanding of God; it is not by God, but toward God. Whether it be in hymns such as Adon Olam or Yigdal, or in received Principles of Faith, our accepted understanding of God is the Creator of All, unique and singular, who exists eternally, beyond (and yet within) all time and space. Simply, God is “all that is”. Each of us, everything, is interconnected, and we as Jews are called to serve this God.
For the most part, our Torah presents us with a covenant, a way of life, which is one of noble service. However, the Torah also has aspects which do not bring honour to God. To explore how we can maintain our status as a faith people, each of us must study our received tradition in order to live by it when noble and transform it when necessary. As the mystic Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote: “Hayashan yitchadesh vehachadash yitkadesh – the old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified.”
Mishpatim concludes with a powerful scene of affirmation of the covenant: “Then Moses took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!’” (Exodus 24:7). Knowing the history of the 20th century, we can no longer “blindly follow orders”; what we faithfully do will be that which speaks to God in the 21st century, for now we know that “God’s speech” has always been mediated through ours.