We live in a world in which the exploration of things of the spirit has far greater richness and potential than ever before. The journey of the individual, their story and their quest for meaning are of paramount importance.
In such an environment, this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, seems almost incongruous. The structures and strictures of a legal system are not the stuff of spiritual exploration. The parashah offers rules for how to handle those guilty of breaking and entering, for how to make restitution for property destroyed by fire, for how to handle a pledge given as collateral for a loan. It is filled with rules which would make Plato proud, describing how to craft and build a society and a social network.
As the 'People of the Book,' we are indeed formed by the laws contained in the Torah. Some would suggest that the legalism of Jewish life is a limitation, an interference with one's true spiritual nature. On the other hand, the late Emanuel Rackman, in his book One Man's Judaism, calls Judaism a 'legal order,' and does so with the greatest reverence and appreciation.
One law in this parashah stands out for me as a bridge between the legal and the spiritual. We are commanded (Exodus 23:14) to celebrate the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot. Each is defined by its purpose, to mark the Exodus, to mark the collection of first fruits (no, the Torah here does not acknowledge Shavuot as the time it is received) and the collection of the final harvest. Tucked in among these descriptions is a very particular instruction: v'lo ye'ra'u panai reikam (my face shall not be seen empty -- Exodus 23:15). What could this possibly mean?
The language echoes God's words to Moses some 10 chapters later, lo tukhal lir'ot et panai (none shall see my face – Ex. 33:20). These verses share two root forms, see and face. In the second, the words which follow make clear that God is explaining to Moses why he cannot see God's face. But in the first instance, the verb form of the root see implies being seen, rather than seeing. In addition, the qualifier reikam, empty, calls out for explanation – what is an empty face?
This passive, plural verb form of being seen leads us to understand that we are the ones being seen here, not God. How we appear before God can have an empty quality and it is about this that we are being cautioned. And while the Torah gives this a context specific to festival observance, it is a lesson which can be broadly applied.
It is true that a society with a legal structure can be reduced to no more than laws. But the fulfillment of the letter of the law, in the absence of any attention paid to the spirit of the law becomes an empty gesture. And just as we are commanded not to appear before God empty handed on festivals (to bring the offerings associated therewith), we ought not present ourselves before God with empty gestures.
The gift of halakhah, of Jewish law, is that it helps give form to an otherwise chaotic world, enabling us to channel our craving for Divine contact through a system which both provides opportunities to articulate that desire and enriches that contact by giving us a shared language with others on that same path. The Talmud teaches us that the purpose of the mitzvot (commandments) is both l'tzaref (to refine) and l'tzrof (to bind) – the legal system helps us to elevate our own spiritual selves as well as joins us together as a community. It is how we fulfill the mitzvot, what we bring to their observance and how we let them influence our lives that makes all the difference.
Seen this way, Judaism's legal system becomes a rich and varied portal to spiritual expression, a starting point for building a life filled with meaning. God calls out to us to fill the emptiness, to bring our best and growing selves to all that lies before us, offering us a guidebook to help make that dream come true.
Written by Rabbi Elyse Winick, associate director of KOACH, the college outreach department of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Jewish Chaplain at Brandeis University.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Mishpatim at MyJewishLearning.com.