Doing Jewish Differently

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The Rabbi’s Rave, Parsha Mishpatim Shemot (Exodus) 21:1-24:18

In our Torah portion for this week, Mishpatim, we read;

“Should you see your enemy’s donkey sprawled under its burden, would you fail to help him? You shall surely help him along.” (23:5)

In Hebrew , “You shall surely help him along ” are the words “azov taazov imo”. Targum Onkelos (an Aramaic translation of the Torah from the original Hebrew) translates the words to mean something very different.

Surely you shall abandon what you have in your heart against him and help him unload.” The words “azov taazov” can also mean to forsake or abandon. Here the usage specifically is an instruction to abandon the hatred in your heart that you have against your enemy. This passage teaches us a very important and significant lesson about our journey to a higher state of spiritual being.

The impetus towards self-improvement is a rising desire within that motivates us to act. It is all well and good to help your enemy with a burden because that is what the Torah commands us. However, its highest expression arises naturally from within when we let go of our enmity towards another. In other words it is not only the action that fulfills this mitzvah, but the transformation of our internal feelings

We are living in a divided nation and, for some, it is increasingly difficult to avoid personal hatred of our fellow citizens when their views on the direction of our nation differ from our own. Where one sees policies that solve problems, another sees policies that harm innocent people, or the planet. We are beset by extremists who spout hateful rhetoric that instills fear and it makes it impossible to find any love in our hearts for them.

At times like these, how do we obey this mitzvah of Azov Ta’azov Imo?

It’s certainly possible that a person helps his enemy because the Torah commands him to do so, even though the hatred is still very much alive. But that fulfills only the letter of the mitzvah and not the spirit as translated by the Targum.

Parsha Mishpatim is calling us to a higher form of spiritual life. A spiritual life that informs our practical behavior on a daily basis, not just when we are on a retreat or in the synagogue on Yom Kippur.

Too many spiritual seekers confuse the quest for a peak spiritual experience with living a spiritual life.

Such peak moments occur throughout our biblical narrative. Moses at the burning bush and the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, as in last week’s parsha, are obvious examples. But, in our lives, such moments are rare.

Periodic peak experiences are essential if we are to be reinvigorated, reoriented, and rededicated. That is why most folks vacation at locations such as the beach or mountains that are different than our everyday environment. But we can’t live on the peaks. The air is too thin, the winds too strong to sustain us. So we need a spiritual orientation that works in the flat places too.

Parashat Mishpatim expresses precisely that kind of spirituality, and teaches us to look for the Divine, not with closed eyes, but with our hands; not with a mantra, but with engagement.

We find God in the world by making the world more God-like, through our work, compassion, and demands for justice.

Parashat Mishpatim, and much of our Torah, is a collection of laws pertaining to living our daily lives. Laws of marriage, treatment of animals, employees, and financial practices are found here. And through these laws we elevate the mundane.

Ideology without action is weak and self-serving. Action without conviction becomes insincere.

Parsha Mishpatim insists that our deepest convictions find expression in our deeds and behavior.

By training ourselves to perform mitzvot, especially the difficult mitzvot, we school ourselves anew in the values and perspectives of Jewish life.

We can take a spark from our peak spiritual experiences and transfer that spark to create a flame that warms our hearts and the hearts of our fellow human beings. The light from that flame can illuminate a world.

Bethesda Jewish Congregation

Bethesda Jewish Congregation