I invariably feel a sense of anticlimax as Shabbat Mishpatim approaches, and then regret it. This is perhaps because of the special sense of anticipation before the two previous Shabbatot, Beshalach and Yitro. Although neither is problem-free, we are aware of the significance of standing for the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, and for the Aseret HaDibrot – the Ten Words, Sayings, Commandments. By contrast, Mishpatim is rather more detailed, and starts with the treatment of Hebrew slaves, which can be disturbing. It continues with various civil and criminal matters, such as capital crimes, bodily injury caused by people and livestock, and property damage, followed by other religious and social commands, including resting on the sabbatical year and on Shabbat, and much else.
So, we have left the high moment of Revelation, and are concerned with the details of everyday life. That is sobering, even depressing. And, yet, at the same time, in some ways, Parashat Mishpatim is even more important than Beshalach and Yitro. In life we anticipate the special moments, and rightly so, but far more of our time is spent with the ordinary, and our real challenge is how we deal with the everyday, whether with regard to Jewish practice, our relationships, or indeed any aspect of our lives.
In Exodus 24:12, we read: “The Eternal said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there (veh’yeih sham), and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them’.” The Hebrew for “wait there”, veh’yeih sham, can also have the meaning of “be there” – that is, “be fully present”.
The Kotzker Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, 1787–1859) asked why God told Moses both to “come up” and to “be there”. Surely if he came up, he would be there? However, while it is difficult to imagine Moses not being fully attentive when standing with God on Mount Sinai, we know that as for ourselves, too often, we are physically in a certain place, but not always fully present in the way we give our attention. We need to work to achieve this, not only in the special moments of our lives, but also in the ordinary times, the times with which Mishpatim is concerned.
Unless it is a leap year, Shabbat Mishpatim is almost always also Shabbat Shekalim, the first of the special Shabbatot of this season, when we chant the maftir – final reading – from a second scroll. This Shabbat’s maftir, from the beginning of Ki Tisa, is effectively an account of a military census, and while it is not democratic from our perspective, in counting only males, it is significant that the “taxation” to support the community is applied equally: “The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less” (Ex. 30:15).
There are various traditions in Judaism relating to counting, but there is something about Shabbat Mishpatim, and the counting that is linked with our Shabbat Shekalim maftir, which stress the importance of the ordinary as much as the special, and remind us to be fully present no matter what we are doing. Together they remind me of one of my favourite lines from the Book of Psalms, found in Psalm 90, part of the P’sukei D’zimra on Shabbat and chagim: “So teach us how to count our days and acquire a heart of wisdom” (verse 12). This applies equally to every day. We must always try to be “be there”, to be fully present.
Rabbi Amanda Golby is a member of New North London Synagogue.