For many people it means kids off school and less traffic on the roads.
For me, from 2005 – 2011 it meant leading a trip to Israel for teenagers from Stanmore Shul, most of whom who did not come from religious homes. Each year we all went on a journey, from the winding streets of Tzefat, to the memorials of Yad Vashem and on to the Jewish Quarter and the Kotel. The highlight of the 8-day trip was inevitably Shabbat in Jerusalem and Friday night with 1000s at the Kotel.
I very clearly remember a conversation I had with one of the madrichot on the Friday night on one of the trips. After davening at the Kotel, we would have dinner overlooking the Western Wall and then go on the roof to reflect about the week that we had just experienced and allow everyone to talk about the areas that had affected and moved them. After that we would always go back to the now quiet and tranquil Kotel to allow them some time there before we headed back to our hotel.
It had been a particularly powerful trip and Friday evening, the days leading into Shabbat had been spent at Yad Vashem, Yeshiva and Sem and the Kotel tunnels – so the group had really been involved in some powerful experiences prior to Shabbat. So there we were, at the Kotel on Friday night and the madricha came up to me – and she wasn’t happy.
‘What have we done?’ she said. ‘We have taken these kids and opened their eyes to the beauty of Torah, Israel and Judaism, but they are going back on Monday – back to their regular lives, we have been so irresponsible – how are they going to cope!’
I thought about my answer, and it goes to the heart of why I passionately believe in community based outreach. I said the following, ‘You are right, if we were just inspiring these kids and then leaving them on Monday to go back to their lives – that would be irresponsible. However, we are not. Next Shabbat in Stanmore, we will all be together, as will their parents, and these teens will realise that there are two aspects to Judaism – the inspirational, incredible moments of connection that they are having this week in Israel and the day to day life as a Jew which will happen week in and week out in Stanmore. We will be with them for both.’
And we were.
Parshat Mishpatim gives this message beautifully. As a kid I was always upset when Mishpatim came around – gone are the dramatic stories of the plagues, splitting of the sea and Matan Torah – now we just have…laws!
Rav Adin Steinsaltz explains it beautifully as follows: “How can it be that we transition from the dramatic and emotional event at Mount Sinai in the previous parasha to a parasha with a list of 53 mitzvot that encompass every area of life? How is it possible to go from the giving of the Torah to giving instructions on how to care for your donkey or what happens when someone breaks your tooth or injures you?
In order to do great things, we need to start with the smallest details. Only in this way can we create meaning and perpetuate Mount Sinai, bringing what happened there into our everyday lives. In contrast to the saying that ‘the ends justify the means’, the Torah calls upon us to see things completely differently and declare that ‘the means justify the ends’. We cannot keep with us the thunder and lightning of Sinai, but we can take the spirit of Sinai and incorporate it into mitzvot, whether we are at the market, at home, in the bank or the car. We are accustomed to gazing up towards heaven when we speak about God, but Parashat Mishpatim teaches us that he is also found in the paper money we use for buying things, in the apple we eat, and in our relationship with the parking lot attendant.”
Our Jewish makeup needs to have the huge, dramatic moments that inspire us, motivate us and remind us of the glory and the beauty of the Jewish people (Har Sinai). However, we must use that inspiration to live our lives connected to the myriad laws of our people (Mishpatim).
Many years later – so many of the ‘kids’ (they are now all 24 – 31) remember the trip with very powerful memories and have told me how they used the inspiration of the trip many years later to grow Jewishly, make Aliyah or remind themselves of the beauty of Judaism when their own identity was weakening.
We all need to find our ‘Har Sinai’ moments and at the same time realise that Har Sinai is kept alive by our daily actions and personal commitments to Torah.
I want to end with a powerful idea that links all that I have said together.
There are ideas within Judasim of ‘Klal’ and ‘Prat’. Klal means the general and Prat the specific. In terms of our Parsha, Mishpatim is mainly about ‘prat’, the details of the laws. However, it ends with ‘klal’ with the return to Sinai and Moshe beginning his 40 days on the mountain with Hashem. Yitro as a parsha was Klal with Matan Torah. This means that Yitro and Mishpatim together are Klal, then prat and finally Klal again.
Every morning in Shacharit we read the 13 rules by means of which the Torah is expounded. The sixth reads: ‘Klal u’Prat u’Klal, ee atah dan elah k’ein ha Prat’ – A general statement followed by a specific one, followed in turn by a general statement – you may only infer what is similar to the specification. This apparent contradiction is explained to mean that everything is included provided it is essentially similar to the items specified.
So too with our sidrot – the intricate, specific laws of Mishpatim surrounded by the Klal of Matan Torah is there to teach us that the Sinai Experience can only be included as long as the things we take from it are similar to the pratim – the halachot of the Torah. An understanding of Sinai that does not lead us to observance and love of Mitzvot is betraying Sinai and what it is meant to teach us.
The Klal leads us to the prat which leads us back to the Klal – all are linked, all are together, all form the totality of Torah which is with us 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
That it how we make sure that we receive the Torah every day, how as Rav Steinsaltz says, ‘Only in this way can we create meaning and perpetuate Mount Sinai, bringing what happened there into our everyday lives’.