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Mishpatim Sermon

Following the revelation at Mount Sinai we move to a detailed listing of laws.  Here are a few of the many laws and mitzvot listed in this week’s parsha.  Some make sense and others appear outdates.  There are the logical and the mysterious.  Most of the laws fall into the category of mishpatim, laws whose reasons are obvious as opposed to hukkim, laws whose reasons are mysterious.

The portion begins with laws concerning the treatment of slaves.  We begin with the outdated.  Then there are laws about manslaughter and murder.  The Torah establishes asylum for a person who accidentally kills another so as to prevent the seeking of vengeance.  The death penalty is prescribed if you hit or insult your parents.  Perhaps the parent of a teenager wrote this one.  We also find here some of the basis for our own contemporary laws.  For example if you cause injury to a person Jewish law states that you are responsible for five types of restitution: for injury, for pain, for medical expenses, for absence from work, and for humiliation and mental anguish.  How progressive!  If you cause a miscarriage then you are required to make restitution as well.  This is the context for an eye and for an eye which mandates fair and equitable restitution not as commonly understood vengeance.

My favorite is the law of the goring ox.  The owner must make restitution only if the ox is in the habit of goring and he did not guard against this happening.  Similarly you are liable if you leave a pit uncovered and an animal or person falls in.  There is a fundamental tenet here of our responsibility to others.  You must make restitution if you start a fire or steal a neighbor’s livestock.  If you lose something that someone asked you to keep, even if it was stolen, you are responsible for it.  You shall not wrong the stranger, orphan or widow.  You must not take bribes.  Many of these laws were constructed to help build a just society.  The Torah is not just worried about how we approach God but also about building a community that cares for one another.

There are laws regarding the lending of money and charging interest.  Another one of my favorites, you have to stop and help your enemy’s ox—if it is lost or if it is struggling under its burden.  Observe Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.  Leave the gleanings of the field for the poor.   Let the field lie fallow on the seventh year.  And now to some that are more difficult to understand.  Get rid of all the Hivites, Hittites, Canaanites, Amorites, Perizzites and Jebusites.  Don’t offer the blood of the sacrifice with anything leavened.

And finally, you shall not a boil a kid in its mother’s milk.  This is one of the classic examples of those laws called hukkim, laws whose reasons are mysterious.  There are many attempts to explain this law.  Most likely it was an ancient Canaanite practice that the Israelites found abhorrent.  If you have to get rid of all these peoples then you also have to get rid of all their abhorrent practices.

This verse is obviously the basis for the prohibition regarding the mixing of milk and meat.  The most common explanation for this observance is that we must not mix what gives life with the life that was taken.  Not mixing milk and meat is a discipline that brings Jewish consciousness to the everyday.  It makes you think about your Jewishness even when you are preparing food.

The early Reform rabbis rejected kashrut because they found such practices that regulated dress and diet to be for a different age.  But what was really going on was that the early Reform rabbis had great faith in reason.  If the reason was mysterious and did not fit with their modern sensibilities then they rejected the practice.  But post Holocaust and now because of post-modernism we have come to doubt reason.  And if we don’t doubt it we should.  We should not have complete faith in reason.  The Holocaust not only destroyed six million Jews and millions more it also destroyed our faith in reason.  Here was a country, namely Germany, at the height of culture, science and philosophy that used all of these and reason to evil ends.  

So it can’t all be about what our minds are capable of. It can’t all be what our heads can explain or reason can fathom.  Dr. Micah Goodman in his new book talks about redemptive perplexity.  I like this notion that there is a redemptive quality to not having it all figured out.  That is what he argues is the point of Maimonides’ "Guide of the Perplexed.”

And so I have come to think that we must recover mystery.  That is what not mixing milk and meat is about.  It is a daily affirmation of the fact that sometimes we must do things that cannot be adequately explained. Mystery must be a part of our lives—just as much as reason.  Wondering why must always be a part of our Jewish lives.

I am not suggesting that everyone must practice as I do.  Or that everyone should even keep kosher.  But I do believe that we must recover mystery.  Not every Jewish thing that we do can be explained by reason.

One more example.  I have been thinking about snow lately.  I am sure it is clear why this has been on my mind.  It is hard to see beauty in 18 inches of snow and the piles that tower over my head.  But you have to admit if you don’t have to get anywhere the snow is beautiful.  Moreover snow has a teaching in its accumulation.

All plans come to a crashing halt.  You can plan and schedule all you want.  But we don’t control everything.  We don’t understand everything.  Some things are just beyond our control.

Jewish tradition suggests that the highest reason for doing a mitzvah is not for a promise of reward or even because you find its reasons compelling, but instead because it is God given.  Because the reason is beyond our understanding we do the mitzvah for its own sake.

We do things for the sake of mystery.   On this Shabbat I would like us to work to restore mystery to our lives. The search for answers and reasons must always continue.  But unresolved questions do not mean giving up the quest.   It means instead affirming the mystery of our lives.  It means praising the mystery in our lives.

Amidst all of these laws in this week’s portion we find of course the quest for a just society but also this affirmation of mystery.  And with such mystery comes peace and contentment.