Gods devotion seen in the details of all the mitzvahs

Mishpatim (Shabbat Shekalim)
Exodus 21:1-24:18, 30:11-16
II Kings 12:1-17

I teach a Talmud class every Tuesday morning. As the eight or 12 of us delve into the legal argumentation of the Talmud, someone inevitably raises “the question”: Why are the rabbis obsessed with the minutia of life? Does it really matter whether an egg was laid on Shabbat, or whether lost items are dispersed over an area more than four cubits or not?

For some, rabbinic reasoning is an opportunity to poke fun at a system that seems neurotically compulsive.

For other, more hostile minds, the Jewish concern for law is the source of the pernicious claim that Judaism is cold, harsh and legalistic, concerned only with law and never with compassion.

The rabbis were, of course, concerned with the details of daily life, as anyone who cares about law must be. In a society built on the foundation of justice, details matter.

This concern tells us something about rabbinic anthropology.

The rabbis, as masters of law and spirituality, understood that human beings are born with a dual nature: an inclination for good and an inclination for wrongdoing, a yetzer hatov and a yetzer hara.

Moreover, they understood that human consciousness and the necessity of free will are our most precious divine gifts.

It is in our ability to choose a course of action freely that leads us to the highest level of spiritual maturity. Since we will not always follow our best instincts, the structure of law helps guide us to make the best ethical choices available to us and to elevate ourselves spiritually.

What is true of individuals is equally true of societies as a whole. Creating a just, compassionate society is too critically important to be left to our best intentions and to untrained human instinct.

Justice must be pursued and compassion must be practiced. That is why the Torah is not satisfied with the revelation of the Ten Commandments.

The Torah, in this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, provides a detailed law code meant to guide the daily life of Israel so that they might progress toward achieving a truly just society.

Known as Sefer HaBrit — the Book of the Covenant — Mishpatim describes in great detail what it means to live in a covenantal relationship with God in the messy world of torts and damages, or daily life with neighbors and strangers, as well as the treatment of the disadvantaged, of animals and of the land.

In Mishpatim, all of life is an opportunity to experience and expand holiness.

Oftentimes we hear people describe mitzvahs as repressive burdens and burdensome obligations, yet Judaism views the mitzvahs as a confirmation of the love and devotion that God has for us.

The Midrash Shmot Rabbah teaches, “Observe how many commandments God gave on each and every matter. … This can be compared to a prince whom his father exhorted to be careful not to stumble over anything and hurt himself because he loved him so much. So too, God taught the commandments to Israel, because they are more beloved to God than the angels.”

Holiness recognizes that the human qualities of consciousness, freedom, power, creativity, nurturing love and affirmation of life are what cast us in the image of God.

The mitzvahs are guidelines to polish these divine attributes within and instructions in spiritual maturation.

As Rabbi Brad Artson writes, “The mitzvot speak to that deeper part of our own personalities, summoning us to a life of holiness and belonging, shaping our communities to reflect God’s love and concern for all of Creation.”

In the pursuit of holiness, as in the pursuit of excellence in sports, or the arts or sciences, details matter.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.