Parashat Mishpatim challenges us with the on-going words of revelation. It is hardly surprising that we are challenged, even when we re-read the script thousands of years after it was provided. Mishpatim gives us instructions forming the blue print of daily life, from inter-personal behaviours to agriculture, kashrut to worship sacrifices, festivals and much more. But because many items can no longer be actioned, we tend to concentrate on those that can. Our view focuses down on details, just as the portion’s lens is enlarging the physical terrain of the Jewish people (Ex 23:31-32). There is a tension operating within the catalogue of binding instructions – mishpatim – which zooms from microcosm to big picture in a blur of focus changes. Whilst we are instructed that the future earthly reality will be from “the Sea of Reeds (an early warning signal to those already shrinking their shopping lists in anticipation of Pesach) to the Sea of Philistia and from the Wilderness to the Euphrates”, it is a celestial experience that is about to be played out.
Nadav and Avihu (it’s not going to end well, see Lev 9:22 – 10:3) plus seventy elders accompany Aharon and Moshe in an “ascent” which takes them to the presence of God. Where did they all go? Is it important for us to know? Regardless of present day speculation, what follows (Parashat Terumah Ex 25) is a clear-eyed return to real-world community building and the appeal for materials to build the Mishkan. Mishpatim leaps between ambitious ascent towards shared heights of vision for the future and the return to the workaday, down-to-earth effort of making the vision real. Torah demands enactment of the round trip, from Divine inspiration to practical implementation.
At a distance of many thousands of miles from London, rabbis trained at Leo Beck College have been active in implementing visions of building the Jewish community in Melbourne, Victoria, the south-eastern state of Australia. Rabbi Jonathan Keren Black has just celebrated 10 years of service to Leo Baeck Centre and Rabbi Fred Morgan anticipates retirement from Temple Beth Israel at the end of 15 years tenure as Senior Rabbi. This week, in the heat of late summer, our state-wide members of four shules, staff and parents of King David School, madrikhim of Netzer and other bodies representing Progressive Judaism Victoria, are about to embark on a visioning experience, which will set the course for the next decade of our efforts. 70+ participants won’t be going up a physical mountain, but they will ‘ascend’ together to engage in conversation about our Jewish future. The buzz that ensues will be very different from the single-voiced reply recorded in Mishpatim. Neither is there a Moses: this will be a hands-on task requiring that each individual contribute to the interchange.
For those commencing (it’s the start of the southern hemisphere academic year) and continuing their journey of conversation in order to join the Jewish people, we welcome newcomers to the dialogue of Jewish learning. The ancestors who originally received the words of God responded in a single voice “na’ase” we will do “v’nishma” (Ex 24:7) which JPS renders “and obey” in the sense of hearken and Hebrew Association for the Deaf Manhattan renders pay attention. Those who seek to join the Jewish People begin to discern both how to hearken and how to speak in their own voices, which add to the many frequencies of the continually-unfolding conversation of Judaism. You will listen attentively and engage with what you hear, grapple for understanding and begin to enact your pledge. Every action will ‘speak’ louder than words alone and each thoughtful decision that finds itself embodied in action contributes to a much larger, blessed conversation.
In One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation (Bluebridge Press 2011) Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman notes that our relationship to our Jewish story is captured in the now-written recording of our existential conversations. Our interactions with those texts are the ever-new conversations that anticipate how things will turn out in each successive generation. Mishpatim continues our ‘conversation’ with revelation. “But what if our ideals are illusions and evaporate into dust? …. What if the goodness we perform amounts to nothing in the end?” What will be the consequences if we get it wrong? Hoffman provides a critical warning in our quest to put God’s mishpatim into practice. He notes that our middle aged and younger community knows of the Shoah only from stories and study. It has never been without the State of Israel. That is certainly true for those currently seeking to embrace Judaism and be embraced by it. In our modern, secular, multifaith and multicultural world, we are all challenged “to reshape the religious conversation into discussions about spirituality, human purpose, and the ultimate meaning of life.” (Reform Judaism Magazine, Winter 2012 p 11-13) As newcomers join us, may your future words and deeds bring blessing upon you, upon the whole Household of Israel and upon our world.
Though we no longer go up on aliyah to Jerusalem to give our shekalim in the yearly census (Additional Torah Reading Exodus 30:11-16 and would provide a count for women and for men in our valuing of equals in the Jewish community) the value of each Jewish listener and community builder counts as a precious addition to the ongoing Jewish conversation. Every word and deed contributes towards the many and various strands of the stories, which will add their voices to our shared Jewish future. Each adds unique value, every bit as precious as the ancient shekel weights whether of gold, silver or bronze.
Rabbi Aviva Kipen
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.