Last week’s Torah portion, containing the moment of Revelation itself is intense. But there is far more Rabbinic commentary on this week’s reading. That might sound odd, Mishpatim as a word matches the content. As a word Mishpatim means – sentences – short imprecations and a legal connotation. This is the heart of the civil code, interpersonal relationships. The central texts which allow the Rabbis to work through conceptions of negligence, duty of care, recklessness and the rest all come from this week’s reading.
For those among us who wander through life encountering the outstretched arm of God on a weekly basis, last week’s reading is, I am sure, rich in exegetical possibility. One can read the ancient tale of revelation against one’s weekly experience of the same thing. But I’m not gifted with that level of prophetic possibility. I wander through life encountering other people – their needs and concerns. And I experience duties of care, attempt to avoid being negligent and certainly reckless. This is the reading for me; for most of us I suspect. This is the realm in which we, as Jews, excel. We are far better at engaging in the ‘here and now’ than disappearing off in clouds of spiritual revelry.
Indeed it may well be that the prime driver of Jewish spiritual greatness is precisely the humdrum engagement with the day-today interpersonal relationships which populate our lives. As Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, taught ‘my fellows material needs are our spiritual needs.’ There is no higher calling than the engagement in the challenges of living a life among other people. Even life on the top of Mount Sinai pales in comparison.