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Parashat Mishpatim

Parashat Mishpatim: The First Corpus of Torah Laws; Composer Benjamin Steinberg, Z”L; The Jews of Panama

Last Shabbat, Jews the world over studied Parashat Yitro, including the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments function as a transition from beginning Jewish history to Biblical laws teaching the Jewish people how to behave in our daily interpersonal and religious lives. Parashat Mishpatim is the first portion that teaches these legal guidelines.

On the Chabad website, Parsha in a Nutshell, we learn that Mishpatim contains 53 Mitzvot: 23 positive commands and 30 prohibitions. Mishpatim means, “And these are the rules…” (21:1). We are instructed about laws concerning the treatment of slaves and the requirement for kindness to strangers. We study about ritual laws, including the commandment to observe the Sabbatical Year, the injunction to observe Shabbat, the first mention of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and the prohibition against boiling a baby lamb in its mother’s milk (23:10-19). This law is the basis of the Kosher law against serving dairy and meat dishes in the same meal, a commandment observed by many Jews to this day!

We learn about Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai, together with his brother Aaron, Nadav, Abihu, Joshua and seventy elders. Moses goes on alone and spends forty days on the mountain (24:1-18).

The portion ends with the affirmation that the Israelite nation accepts the overwhelming responsibility to fulfill and observe G-ds commandments. Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Eternal and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, Naaseh V’Nishmah…All the things that the Eternal has commanded WE WILL DO.’”(24:3).

Ellen and I have just returned from an eight-day vacation in Panama. In addition to exploring the many attractions of this Central American country, including the Panama Canal-truly one of the wonders of the world, the rain forest, monkeys, sloths, alligators, spectacular skyscrapers, and tropical climate, we discovered a passionate Jewish community! Panama is home to 17,000 Jews, most residing in Panama City. Beginning in 1951, the young Israeli Rabbi Zion Rajamim Levy served as chief Rabbi of the Panama City Jewish community. His term ended with his death in 2008.

He built the community, oversaw the construction of many synagogues, and taught the Jews the importance of traditional Mitzvot including Kashrut. 90% of Jewish homes are strictly kosher. Today, there are 40 Rabbinic supervised Kosher restaurants. Rabbi Levy served as Rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim, a magnificent Sephardic congregation that offers Jewish schools for children, separate divisions for young men and women, and a Rabbinical School. He wanted future Panamanian Rabbis to be trained locally. We visited five other synagogues and two Mikvaot-ritual baths. On Shabbat, we attended evening services and ate our Shabbat meal at Chabad of Panama. On Shabbat morning, despite the 90-degree heat, we walked to Beth El, the beautiful and imposing Ashkenazic orthodox congregation. There is one Reform congregation in Panama. We recommend Panama as an incredible and yet reasonable cost vacation site for your next winter vacation!

On Sunday morning, I learned of the death of Benjamin Steinberg, the great internationally known Jewish composer in Toronto. Steinberg served as music director of a large Reform congregation, and wrote music sung in Synagogues throughout the world. He was commissioned by KI to compose a piece in memory of Rabbi Bertram Korn.

Steinberg’s setting of Shalom Rav, Grant Us Peace, is one of his most famous compositions. It is deceptively simple in structure, capturing both the gentle and universal nature of the liturgical text. Steinberg’s setting is sung during the High Holy Days at KI. During the pandemic in 2021, we produced a “virtual recording” of this work, requiring our Shir KI singers to record their own parts at home following vocal and conducting pre-recorded tracks. These individual recordings were then edited into a full version of the Steinberg’s composition. Cantor Levy sang the solo magnificently. Andrew Senn accompanied the presentation and prepared instrumental parts for violin, clarinet, and trumpet. I conducted the singers on a virtual conducting track.

We hope you will enjoy our recording as our own Ben Steinberg memorial!

Tickets for our return to Verizon Hall, Wednesday evening, April 26, 8:00 pm, in celebration of Israel 75, are now on sale at the Verizon Hall website. We are singing together with 175 Jewish choristers. I serve as conductor and music director. The headliner is the Israeli singer Noa. Find the Verizon Hall website and enter our code for a discount: OYRK15. The Kehilah is providing a round trip bus to Verizon at nominal cost. We look forward to singing for a large KI audience!

Shabbat Shalom U’m’vo-rach!