At Havdalah last Shabbos, Aliza couldn't smell the besamim at all. So we packed the kids into the car, and went for COVID tests.
Needless to say, but of course, we've been home this week. Though it's a little different being quarantined now than it was a few months ago when the whole world was doing it together. On the one hand, I guess people are less judgmental of a people getting COVID, and I'm grateful for that. But on the other, it's challenging to see the whole world continue (in whatever way it is) while we and our children are staring in from zoom windows.
Baruch HaShem, we have a lot of wonderful and concerned people in our lives and community, who are offering help. (Thank you!)
Many have called and texted to ask how we're doing. And my response has been pretty consistent: Thank God, we're all feeling well. But living in a zoom bubble with our three kids all over again is really hard.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not ungrateful. Hashem has blessed us with a family and children. And they're amazing and we love them. I am well aware that this is a minor setback, and that there are many people for whom COVID has been deadly and devastating. Our challenge of negotiating which show to stream for our kids is meaningless in the big picture.
But right now, it's real. And learning to contend with the mess of real life is what Mishpatim is all about.
The Non-Curated Life is Real
At this point, bemoaning the perfectionism that social media demands is a well worn trope. We all know that no one actually lives a perfect instagram life. We know that not all recipes come out beautifully delicious. Not all beaches have perfect white sand, blue skies and picturesque palm trees. Not all homes are gorgeously designed and always clean.
We are painfully aware that these images are not a reflection of real life. But in the back of our mind we still see them as a representation of ideal life. What real life could be.
And that is the biggest lie. Real life should not be that. At least, given a moment of honest thought, you don't want to make it that. Of course, we could all give up on a dozen priorities in our lives for the sake of making instaworthy dinners. That's certainly possible. But it's not a smart idea.
Real life is much more about messy trade offs. And the idealization of perfection does a tremendous amount of harm, because it makes us think of our daily, messy lives as categorically not ideal. And that's a big problem. We live from day to day and week to week waiting for a little respite from the craziness so that we can live, even a little, like the idealized versions of our selves. But that could leave us waiting for a very long time.
Parshas Mishpatim introduces us to the world of the human condition with all of our inadequacies and indiscretions and challenges us to navigate through in a meaningful way. With no promise of even a moment of perfection on the other side.
The Eved Ivri
Our Parsha intentionally and jarringly descends from the other-worldly revelation of Sinai and enters in the murky complexities of interpersonal life; the world of Mishpatim.
From prophecy and miracles, we are about to engage with business, damages, loss, theft, bodily harm and poverty. And what law should the Torah begin with? Apparently the tragedy of the עבד עברי - the Jewish slave.
Rashi explains how a person could become a Jewish slave: He stole so much that he couldn't pay it back, and no one will bail him out.
By all measures, the עבד עברי has reached rock bottom. They are the cause of losing not only their home, assets, family, and friends; but ultimately their freedom.
It is in this state that the Torah introduces us not to the laws of being an עבד עברי, but aquiring an עבד עברי.
Chazal (קידושין כ א) explains that anyone who acquires an עבד עברי in actually is acquiring not a slave, but a master! Tosfos (ד״ה כל) elaborate, that if there is only one pillow in the house, it belongs to the eved. Ultimately, the purpose of his slavery is to be set free.
The Tzanz-Klaunseberger Rebbe (שפע חיים תשס״ב ע׳ רב) contrasts this encouraging and rehabilitating position with the norms of our world. (In his words: מושגי הקנאות - our concept of "zealousness".)
In our lives when a person who has failed and fallen we punished them in the hopes that they will see the folly of their way. But the Torah prescribes exactly the opposite. In the moments that people have failed is the place we must be most sensitive to their humanity; most cognizant of the reality that they too are created in the image of Hashem.
Incredibly, the Ramban explains that Parshas Mishpatim makes us the bulk of the Sefer HaBris - the Covenantal Relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. It was on these laws that we said the famous words: Na'aseh V'Nishma - we will do and we will listen.
Effectively, Hashem is telling us that the real work of being a Jew begins not with prophetic revelation, but in the pits of a really bad day for a person who has hit rock bottom. Do we punish him for falling so far from perfection? Or can we find a new ideal davka in the messiness of life?
A little while ago I had the opportunity to speak to a couple that was having some tension in their marriage. Chief amongst her complaints was that she felt her husband was not supportive of her. And likewise, he contented that she was not supportive of him.
With the air thick with accusations, both went on to list the countless times that were supportive of each other. "Don't you remember when you changed careers, how I was there to cheer you on?" And the other countered, "And what about the times when you needed me to pick up the slack so you could make it to gym?" The listing continued; both of them frustratedly defensive.
Amazingly, both considered themselves to be present, supportive and concerned with the other. And yet, incredibly, believed the other not to be.
The truth, we discovered, was that both husband and wife were indeed present, supportive and concerned with the other. But only to celebrate each others successes. When either encountered failure, both were well trained to retreat into a place of loneliness. In those most vulnerable moments, they most poignantly felt the absence of the other.
This feeling of dissonance is not unique to this couple alone. Many of us, our children, our teens, our friends and our parents feel similarly. We prefer to gloss over the less picturesque parts of our days, personalities and lives. In difficult and shameful moments, we don't invite others in, and we recoil from lending a hand to others in their weakest moments.
Being a Person
The Torah tells us in our parsha (22:30):
וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ תִּהְי֣וּן לִ֑י - “You shall be holy people to me"
The Sfas Emes (משפטים תרל״ב) quotes from the Kotzker that Hashem has enough angels, what He wants is transcendent people ,אַנְשֵׁי־קֹדֶשׁ. Hashem wants us to embrace the mess that is the human condition, and raise ourselves up.
When an ox gores a cow (or a fender-bender in 2021) there is no perfection there. No-one is having a great day at that point. But there can be a meaningful and honest resolution. And both parties can walk away with a commitment to each other, to society and to Hashem. Because Sinai happened only once in history, while Mishpatim occurs daily.
Mishpatim is where Hashem explains that He wants us to find Him in the cracked facades of our imperfect lives.
When we insist that every moment, every person, every interaction be a "Revelation at Sinai", we are ultimately abandoning the reason Hashem put us here. We're here for the mess of it. We're here to attempt an optimal and meaningful life. Not a perfect one. We're here to make difficult trade offs with our time and energy and attention. And we're here to make mistakes in those assessments. And to do our best to fix the way we live and learn.
But most importantly, to understand that our primary work is in the challenge. That's real.
Yaakov Griffel was an agent for oil companies and was close with the Rebbe. One day, he called his friend, Rabbi Wineberg and told him that he urgently needed the Rebbe’s advice on something and asked if he could he go into the Rebbe with his request.
Arriving in 770, Rabbi Wineberg discovered that the Rebbe was in his room alone with his secretary and the door was closed. Not wanting to disturb but also wanting the matter to be brought to the Rebbe’s immediate attention, he placed the note in an envelope and stuck it in the crack of the door, hoping that when the secretary would leave the room he would notice the note fall to the floor and bring it to the Rebbe.
Rabbi Wineberg waited and sure enough the door opened and the secretary exited the room. However, since he left the room backwards out of respect, when the note fell to the floor he didn’t notice. Rabbi Wineberg was about to go and retrieve his note when the door opened and the Rebbe himself who must have noticed the note falling, picked it up.
Sure enough, less than an hour later he got a call from one of the Rebbe’s secretaries informing him of the Rebbe’s advice and blessing. Rabbi Wineberg was bothered. Although not intending to, he had troubled the Rebbe to stop what he was doing, get up and bend over to pick up his note. He decided he would write a note to the Rebbe to apologize.
A short while later he got an amazing response from the Rebbe, this is how it read:
“Is this not my entire occupation? To lift up those that have fallen. And especially those that have been overlooked by others.”
Be'ezras Hashem, we should have the strength to raise up ourselves and each other, davka in the moments we have fallen. And we Daven that Hashem should do the same for us.
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