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Parashat Mishpatim

“And These Are the Laws…,” The Revelation at Sinai Continues, The Ten Commandments at KI, and Live Long and Prosper!

This week, we continue to experience G-d’s ongoing revelation to the Jewish people, through His servant, Moses our Teacher. After the awesome drama of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai, we are taught a large number of laws on worship, serfdom, injuries, and many other topics that follow the first Ten Commandments. This Parashah/Portion contains 53 Mitzvot: 23 positive and imperative commands and 30 prohibitions (Chabad: Parsha in a Nutshell).

The topics covered in this corpus of laws are very diverse: laws of the indentured servant; penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault and theft; civil laws regarding legal penalties for damages; granting of loans; and rules governing the conduct of courts of law.

We learn from the portion about the Sh’mitah Year. “Six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield. But in the seventh you all let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. (23:10-11)” This year, 5782, is the Sh’mitah Year, and religious Jewish farmers in Israel must plan accordingly.

We are commanded, again, to observe Shabbat. “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your home born slave and the stranger may be refreshed. (23:12)”

We are commanded to hold a festival three times a year for G-d: the Feast of Unleavened Bread-Passover; the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits-Shavuot; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year: Sukkot.(23:14). G-d invites Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel to ascend the mountain. Later, Joshua is also invited. Moses alone remains on top of the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

The portion ends with the affirmation that the Israelite nation accepts the overwhelming responsibility to fulfill G-d’s 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, ‘All the things that the Eternal has commanded we will do.’”(24:3). We read of Moses’ lonely ascent on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

This very complicated portion seems to be in a strange place in the Torah. All these laws point to a more settled people than the recently freed slaves who, just weeks ago, were the property of the Egyptian noble class. There are Biblical scholars that consider the portion of Mishpatim a self-contained code of Jewish law that does not follow directly from the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It reflects a different and later time. In the first verse of Mishpatim, the Israelites are told what will happen if, “you acquire a Hebrew slave, that person shall serve six years, and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment (21:2).” It seems unlikely that the Israelites would have enough of a settled community so soon after their release from servitude to even consider the repugnant possibility of owning a Hebrew slave! This section probably represents a much later period in the history of the Israelite nation.

Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Yitro, the portion containing the Ten Commandments. I gave the D’var Torah, and I reviewed the text of the Ten Commandments. I pointed out that there is a representation of the Ten Commandments immediately above the KI Ark. We see the opening words of each commandment mounted on two tablets, just like the stone tablets that G-d Almighty prepared for Moses.

These KI excerpts from the Ten Commandments are in ENGLISH! We must remember that the Reform Movement during the 1950’s was committed to prayer and reading Torah in the English language, the vernacular, the spoken language of the American and Canadian Jewish communities! If you remember the original Union Prayer Book, the abbreviated liturgy of the services was translated into English, and there were very few Hebrew lines from the original Hebrew prayers.

In our day, MISHKAN T’FILAH, the current Shabbat prayer book, is filled with traditional Hebrew texts! The Reform Movement of today is committed to praying in the original Hebrew to bring the Jewish community together!

When Rabbi Sussman came to KI 21 years ago, he was surprised that the main sanctuary had no Hebrew content anywhere! He asked Karen Schloss to design a modern version of the Hebrew letter SHIN to be mounted on the wall between the two tablets. Rabbi Sussman told me that he selected the letter SHIN to stand for three Hebrew words: SHADDAI: ALMIGHTY; SHALOM: PEACE; and HASHEM: THE NAME (OF G-D). When the SHIN letter was finally mounted above the Ten Commandments tablets, Rabbi Sussman was pleased that there was now a more concrete and tangible connection to the Hebrew language in our sanctuary!

I reminded Rabbi Sussman that the SHIN letter has one more connection to Jewish tradition. In many traditional Synagogues, the Kohanim/priests ascend the Bimah of their congregations every Shabbat and stretch out both their hands with fingers divided to form the letter SHIN. They drape their Tallitim over their hands as they sing the Threefold Priestly Benediction to the congregation using a very ancient melody. Although children are instructed to close their eyes, the young Leonard Nimoy, growing up in an Orthodox neighborhood in Boston, secretly watched this ancient ritual. Many years later, when Leonard portrayed Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek, he suggested this SHIN symbol to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek universe, as the greeting passed from one Vulcan to another while intoning, “Live Long and Prosper.” (Several years ago, Leonard told me that, had Roddenberry known that the sign was derived from the Hebrew letter SHIN, he would not have allowed it, because there were no religious symbols on board the Enterprise.) The SHIN on the KI sanctuary wall reflects the Vulcan greeting as well!

As we are all struggling with health issues attempting to remain safe and well during these difficult days, we should watch KI Shabbat services on the livestream from our sanctuary in order to feel encouraged that better days are ahead of all of us!

Ellen and our children and grandchildren join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom U’m’vo-rach, and LIVE LONG AND PROSPER!

Hazzan David F. Tilman