(This week we will be reading in synagogue Exodus 21:28 to 22:12)
Last week our parashah described the Theophany at Mount Sinaii - the single most significant event in our history in which God was revealed to all the people and the ten commandments granted to all generations.
This week, we find ourselves in a maze of legal instruction - laws that will continue more or less through the rest of the book of Exodus, through Leviticus and taken up again in the book of Deuteronomy. Take this weeks selection. The Portion contains laws on slavery, on property, on witchcraft and on the rights of widows and orphans. The question must be asked 'Why?' This is our religious text. Should it not be about our connection with God? Should there not be more about angels and less about oxen? The mediaeval commentator Rashi says of this passage - that if God had not given these laws, they would have been instituted in any case. So why bother to put them in Torah? And why do we read them? A legal system that has no impact on daily lives, when we could be meditating on the more sublime moments of our history
- not only Sinai, but the parting of the red sea, the dreams of Jacob and conversations of Abraham?
One answer is that overriding all these laws is an ethical principle as well as a pragmatic one. The unique character of the God of Israel (as opposed the countless gods of the surrounding nations, the gods of Greece and Rome, etc. etc.) is that God is fundamentally a God of morality. The first interaction with human beings is about the nature of knowledge - about good and evil. God is a God of justice, the good shall be lauded and rewarded, the bad punished, be they High Priest or King.
God is also the God of mercy, which cuts across the rule of law and acknowledges the fundamental flaws of human nature. So, in our parashah we have laws that protect property and punish evildoers, and there are laws about protecting the stranger and caring for the widow and orphan. The first are about justice, the second are about compassion. The latter are not necessary to the smooth running of a society, but they are necessary to a community relation with God. We don't just have a secular law book here, but a law book plus… a law book with added value - divine values.
The second answer in some ways supports the first. In no part of this vast tract of legal matter is God entirely absent. In what we read this week, the word for Judges is the same as the word for God. When a case is unclear as to who is the perpetrator of a crime they must 'swear before God'. Later in our parashah, Moses is asked to come up the mountain again, this time with Aharon, and his sons, Nadav and Avihu and the seventy elders who support Moses in his daily arbitration among the people.
On the mountain, we are told:
'They saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.'
They all saw it. An amazing vivid indescribableexperience and the very foot of the Divine. Moses then
went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone. Aharon and the elders went back to the camp and made the golden calf….
From this we learn that sublime moments are not in themselves enough to maintain a religious life. Without rooting in mundane practicalities, there is the danger of going off in the wrong direction - as did Aharon with the golden calf and as did his sons when they later do their own thing with the sacrifices and die as a consequence.
We also learn that it is not possible to live with ones head in the clouds all the time. We can either experience those transcendental moments, then leave them there and go back to a reality that it totally unrelated, or we can bring back into our daily lives, something of the experience. That is what Torah is all about. It is not just Sinai and the sapphire pavement, and the parting of the sea, but the translation of Sinai and the sapphire pavement, into everyday deeds and language. How do we relive Sinai when we get up in the morning and go to work? We live it through the translation into law, through the Torah and its mundane issues.
We may not have oxen that gore anymore, but the principle of our responsibility for the things that belong to us is still valid, and God-sourced. We have cars that do damage and can be damaged. So forget 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.' Think Torah and the necessity of car maintenance!