Monday, February 4, 2013

Parshat Mishpatim (Shabbat Shkalim)
Shmot 21:1-24:18
29 Shevat 5773 / Feb. 8 – 9, 2013 

Moishe House Rules: Applying Mishpatim to Moishe House
By Rich Goldman, MH Montgomery County, MD

As Moishe House residents, we may not be owning slaves, worrying about wild oxen, or expelling the Canaanites, but the principles and rules presented in parshah Mishpatim still offer relevant reminders and guidance for us.

The commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah fall into three major categories. 
  • Eidot (עֵדוּת from the root עד or witness) are intended to memorialize an important idea or event, e.g. Shabbat - Creation, Passover - Exodus, or circumcision  - The Covenant. 
  • Chukim (חוקים from the concept of coming from the divine) are laws that go beyond, and are not reliant upon, normal human reasoning for justification, e.g. Kashrut, the ritual of the Red Heifer, or not mixing wool or linen. 
  • Mishpatim (משפטים from the root for judge/judgment) are laws that can be adjudicated and are rational, “common sense” ethics that often have their own natural reward and punishment, e.g. not murdering, helping people, or establishing courts.

This week’s parshah contains 53 mitzvot that expressed to our ancestors ideas that can still apply to and challenge us today.

The primary instance of an Eidot is the commandment of the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot).  The timeless message of this mitzvah for us is the importance of 1) Community Holy Days 2) The periodic coming together of the larger community and 3) Remembering one’s history.  

For Moishe House residents, these principles suggest that we:  identify and commemorate important events in our house history, such as when the house was established, have established gatherings/town halls where community members are expected to attend, and have mementos around the house, such as pictures of past events, residents and community members.

The Chukim against mixing meat and dairy is also introduced in this parshah.  While kashrut observance has fallen amongst the Jewish people, this prohibition remains in the Jewish and non-Jewish world as an identifying characteristic of “Jewish food.”  Indeed, while no justification is given for this prohibition, a common rationalization is Kashrut’s ability to keep Jews as a cohesive, unassimilated people.  As promoters of Jewish identity, this mitzvah asks us to consider the extent our Moishe Houses can promote stronger Jewish identity by promoting Kosher, or at least Kosher-style, eating.

The bulk of the parshah consists of Mishpatim, ethical inter-personal laws.  As we relate to our housemates and community members, these laws challenge and remind us to be our better selves.  We are instructed about our responsibilities for the messes we create around the house and through our events.  We are encouraged to be good, committed residents and to transition out of our comfortable living arrangement when the time comes.  We are taught not to do favors for our housemates expecting anything in return.  We are prohibited from getting upset with our regional directors for enforcing policy.  We are told to care for the new and the awkward in our communities.

Parshah Mishpatim embodies the principle that the Torah was written both for the generation that received it, and the generations that would follow.  Yes, the concretes used to articulate the principles of proper human relationships and religious practices are anachronistic, but the laws themselves can still inspire and instruct us as we build our Moishe House communities in the 21st century. 



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