Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim February 13, 2015

Exodus 21 – 24

Last week’s Torah portion took us to the heights of Mt. Sinai, a spiritual experience of the highest order.

This week we read one of the longest Torah portions, which outlines very specific instructions about such things as kidnapping, personal injury and property damage, occult practices, helping the poor and vulnerable, returning lost objects, and the compassionate care of animals; over fifty detailed commandments.

Why such a dramatic contrast between two successive Torah readings?  After the spiritual high of Mount Sinai, why does the Torah then outline in detail these issues of personal and societal life?  It’s kind of like stepping into an ice cold shower after a warm bath.

In reality, together these two readings are intimately related and convey an important message. The spiritual high of Sinai was exciting, emotional, intense and moving, but by itself it does not achieve God’s purpose for our life. True spirituality is not the product of solitary meditation on a mountaintop or in a secluded monastery alone. What the Torah teaches is that true spirituality is expressed in how we navigate our lives through the down-to-earth world of every day.

The Torah doesn’t recommend that we retreat from life, but rather that we elevate all of creation to glorify God. For example, on Friday nights, Jews around the world lift up a goblet of wine and recite a blessing – not to get drunk – but to sanctify (set apart) the Sabbath from the rest of the week.

The message is that spirituality, according to the Torah, is to be found in the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, the office, the supermarket and the playground.

So why do we long for and treasure powerful spiritual experiences?

Because they are the ‘kickstart’ to spirituality; like jump-starting your car on a cold morning.

The sage, Maimonides, explains it this way:

Imagine you’re lost at night, trudging knee-deep in mud through a dark and vicious rainstorm. Suddenly a single flash of lightning appears, illuminating the road ahead. It is the only light you may see for miles. This single flash must guide you through the night. So too, one burst of inspiration may last for years.

The practical and detailed instructions outlined in this week’s reading help us to understand that the purpose of a spiritual experience is to motivate and inspire us to translate our spiritual insight into behavioral choices, thus demonstrating that our spirituality is authentic.

Mountaintop experiences do not guarantee sanctified living in the valley. Therefore, for example, after being commanded in last week’s reading “Thou shall not steal,” this week’s instructions tell us how to prosecute a thief. The Torah is at once highly spiritual and eminently practical.  It motivates us to action, then tells us precisely how to go about it.

Our modern world gives high value to ‘feelings’.  The Torah teaches that ‘doing’ is more important than ‘feeling’.  In day to day life, the question is not ‘How do you feel?’ but rather, ‘What am I to do?’

What about the issue of “letter of the law” versus “spirit of the law.”? The term “Letter of the law” means to perform an act just because it is prescribed by the Torah. The “Spirit of the law” moves you to obey a Torah instruction because of an inner conviction, a desire or passion to honor God.

Does that mean I have to ‘feel’ the desire before I act?  No.

Let’s consider prayer. Someone may say, “Why can’t I just pray on those occasions when I’m inspired?” The truth is that, oftentimes, engaging in prayer is exactly what leads to wanting to pray. It is a pro-active approach of choosing to pray because of an abiding conviction of its importance to God and to you, irrespective of how you may feel at any given moment.

That, the Torah tells us, is how we bring the spiritual high of Sinai – or any other valid spiritual experience … down to earth.

In Tune with Torah = how well am I integrating the spiritual highs of my life with the practical duties and choices of my daily living?

Shabbat Shalom

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