Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            After you've gotten their attention, what do you do next?  It's very important in education, parenting, and even politics to choose very carefully the message you want to impart on those rare occasions when everyone is riveted to your words.  So, this week's Torah reading takes place immediately in the wake of the greatest attention grabber in history.  The epiphany at Sinai had everyone totally focused on God and the Torah.  It was truly the greatest show on earth, or the universe for that matter.  So, quick, before you lose them, what's the follow up?  Well, it's this week's parsha.  And the material is hardly a show stopper.  Our parsha is filled with prosaic laws describing moral social behavior.  We discuss treatment of slaves, return of lost property, laws of theft and damages.  Not the kind of material that keeps you on the edge of the seat.  But the message must be clear, after you've witnessed the greatness of God.  The most important factor in the spiritual life is to be kind and ethical to your fellow human.  Not exciting, but very profound.  However, it's a bit more complicated than that, as we'll see.

            Just before we begin our presentation of the mishpatim, or legal system, we have a minor detour.  Last week's Torah reading ends with the following verses: An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall slaughter beside it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. Wherever I allow My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you. And when you make for Me an altar of stones, you shall not build them of hewn stones, lest you wield your sword upon it and desecrate it. And you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it (Exodus 20:21-23).  Between the sound and light show of the Ten Commandments and the pedantic presentation of the judicial structure, we have a few laws about the altar in the future sanctuaries.  The Midrash, quoted by Rashi (Exodus 21:1), informs us that these two topics are taught together to inform us that the great rabbinic court must sit on the Temple Mount in close proximity to the area where the Divine service will be performed.  The message is clear the rabbinic judges are doing more than insuring a well ordered society.  They are doing God's work.

            This idea is enshrined in two famous Talmudic statements.  The first is that when three judges are sitting and deciding the Law, the Divine Presence (Shechina) is amongst them.  Some take that to mean that God guides sincere jurists in their deliberations.  I believe that the idea is to inform us that bland legal decisions are also the stuff of spiritual inspiration.  The other assertion is that when judges give a truthful verdict they are partners with God in the Creation of this world.  We sadly forget that maintaining the beauty and righteousness of this realm is tantamount to creating it in the first place.  We also lose our focus on the larger picture while performing mitzvoth.  Many times we perform our mitzvoth perfunctorily, without concentrating on the religious value in these acts.  Even prayer is, too often, viewed as another task to check off from a list.  Let's see, this morning I brushed my teeth, took a shower and put on tefillin.  Placing the high court within the Temple precinct, hopefully reminded the judges that rendering judicial decisions isn't just a practical concern for the smooth running of society.  When we discover legal truth we are binding ourselves to spirituality and emulating God.

            I saw a new way of looking at this matter in an article written by Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Hayman of Bar Ilan University, an original thinker, a dedicated pedagogue and a true mensch.  Rabbi Hayman suggested that the courts and the Temple represent two totally different approaches to the ordering of society.  The Holy Temple and the Cohanim who work there are mostly interested in maintaining traditional ways of doing things.  They want to make sure that the offerings are sacrificed the exact same way since their ancestors were instructed how by Moshe. If someone comes to the Temple and observes that the practices aren't how he remembers them, then they have failed.  They are the guardians of the chain of tradition that began in the desert.

            The Sages deliberating in the halls of justice, on the other hand, must remain focused on assuring the community that we have faithfully adapted age old rules to constantly evolving situations.   The rabbis must give litigants confidence that Biblical verses referring to oxen have correctly updated to include cars, trains and jets.  These rabbinic authorities must be aware of the cutting edge of progress so that they can render decisions involving modern business practices, medical breakthroughs, and the latest scientific advances. Historically, the responsa of the greatest rabbis of any age dealt with the newest technologies of the day.  In the 1400's they discussed the printing press; in the 21st century they argue about brain stem death.  As Rabbi Hayman puts it, "Tradition dominates in the Temple, progress in the law court."

            So, we place the courts next to the Temple to hammer home the idea that Judaism boldly marches into the future while holding fast to eternal principles.  It's a constant balancing act of retaining the best of our morality and spirituality, while welcoming the benefits of scientific and technological advancement.  And just as we should see these delicate deliberations in our leadership, we should try to incorporate them into our private lives as well.   It's so very difficult to know what to preserve and what to discard in favor of improved lives.  I believe that the critical question is:  Does this activity or object add to my spiritual well being, or was it a convenient convention?  Everything must be evaluated to determine if they make our lives better or more spiritual.  It's a high wire act which requires constant adjustments to maintain our balance.     



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