I Fought the Law and the Law Won

Parshat Mishpatim – Torah Study

א וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם.
And these are the rules you shall set before them.

A. Knowledge of the law is to be the privilege and the obligation of the entire people, not the prerogative of specialists or of an elite class. [Etz Hayyim Torah commentary, p. 456 on our verse]

B. Rabbi taught: Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot. [Talmud, Mishna Avot 2:1]

C. Our tradition has always understood that “mitzvah” embraces a range of meanings broader than “commandment” alone. This is certainly true of popular Jewish usage of the word mitzvah. In common usage the word is generally understood as “good deed.” JTS renders our key term as “instructions” that were “enjoined upon” the Israelites and not only as “commandments” that they were “commanded.” The range of meanings demanded by our tradition’s use of the word over the centuries and to the present day is broader still. Those meanings include, but are not limited to, actions that we feel obligated to perform, that engage us, that we are responsible for, that we undertake out of love.
We must know what we as Jews are committed to do and why we do it before we tackle the more complex and difficult issues of halakhah. Conservative Jews have long debated, and still do, in what sense we are a “halakhic movement.” Heschel—who liked to speak about the “polarity of halakhah and aggadah”—taught fifty years ago that we cannot begin to think about the matter of halakhah unless we have first gotten clear on mitzvah. Our intention is that this discussion of mitzvah will lead naturally to that one. [JTS Mitzvah Initiative, from the JTSA.edu website]
D. A loving parent does not show genuine love by telling a child, “Do whatever you want.” That would not indicate love, but lack of concern and responsibility. The truly loving parent says, “I care very much about you and although I cannot live your life for you, I want you to have the benefit of my experience.”Judaism is a religion of love because it does not leave people to find the way unaided. [Harold Kushner in “Likrat Shabbat”siddur by Sydney Greenberg]
1. What does the word “Mitzvah” mean to you? Is it a command that you “must” do? If not, how do you approach the mitzvot in the Torah? Are they “good deeds”? “laws”? “suggestions”? Are mitzvot the most important part of Judaism? What might be more important?

2. If someone on the street told you that your shirt was ugly would you pay attention to him/her? If your spouse told you it was ugly, what would your reaction be? If a stranger told you not to steal, would you pay attention? If he assured you of a severe punishment would you then pay attention? If your parent told you not to steal would you pay attention? If God tells you not to steal would you pay attention? What role does the punishment play in observing mitzvot?

3. Why do we think that there are some mitzvot more important than others? How do we relate to the mitzvah of honoring parents that is different from shatnez (prohibited clothing made of mixtures of wool and flax)? Honoring parents comes with a reward (long life); does that make a difference? Why or why not?

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