The Holiness of Detail
With this week’s Torah portion, the fun and exciting weekly readings come to an abrupt end. The sagas and stories of the forefathers and foremothers as recounted in the book of Genesis, along with the drama of the growth, enslavement and miraculous redemption of the Jewish people as described in the first part of Exodus, all come to a screeching halt. Now the Torah begins to focus on the nitty-gritty details of the mitzvot, the many commandments that animate the Torah – 613 in all.
Almost immediately after the most powerful and central event of Jewish history – hearing the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai from God Himself – we are suddenly hit with intricate laws dealing with torts, those nasty goring oxen, assault and battery, theft, seduction, verbal abuse, judicial process, leasing and lending, medical expenses and lost wages in the event of an injury – to name just a few. Much of the parsha sounds more like Business Law 101 than religion.
This mixing of religion and law has long been an annoyance for those who wish to keep their religious experience more of a spiritual nature, as opposed to hair-splitting Talmudic discourse. Most people find meaning in the general moral and ethical principles of Judaism but quickly tune out when they hear of many of its involved laws and regulations. Indeed it often seems that, while these excruciating details of law might be great at training Jewish lawyers, they are hardly what one would consider spiritual. As such, the endless laws are often viewed as sucking the life out of Judaism and removing the passion out of religion; transforming it into trivial regimen and detail.
It is one thing to experience God’s presence on Mount Sinai and to abide by universal laws such as the Ten Commandments; it is quite another to analyze the legalities of entrusting an article with another and the various degrees of responsibility one may have to that article as determined by factors such as whether the guardian is being paid for his services or not. Zzzzzzz.
Noteworthy, however, is that the Torah goes out of its way to list these details and many mitzvot before the famous statement made by the Jewish people of Na’aseh VeNishma, “We shall do and (then) we shall understand (the Torah and its mitzvot)”. This appears later on in the parsha well after many of these commandments are enumerated. This is important because this declaration by the Israelites is a crucial one since it was the defining moment by which the nation entered into the covenant with God to be His Chosen People for all time. It was the “I do” of the marriage. Apparently before that expression of commitment came a lot of expectations and rules that would define that marriage and union.
In truth, this mitzvah/law-heavy part of the Torah in many respects defines our relationship with God. Moreso in some ways than that dramatic Ten Commandments moment. It is one thing to be religious and spiritual on a beach at sunset, in a church or synagogue or when God is communicating directly to you from a smoking mountain amongst lightning and thunder. But it is a whole different challenge to be equally spiritual in our daily dealings with our fellow man. It isn’t a biggie to be devout and God-like when the spirit moves you; it is quite another issue to infuse your daily actions with holiness and ethics. The real challenge is the work necessary to ensure that we do our utmost to understand the moral truths, expressed in law, that are expected from us every day and at every moment. Abstract laws may seem tiresome and petty, but they are the crucial building blocks for a society to construct a culture based on truth and morality; both personifications of God.
Too often we are fooled into believing that meaning in life is to be found only in the dramatic moments of Mount Sinai-like experiences, and indeed Hollywood would have us think this is so. But we all know that most of life is spent in the details. Success at anything, be it art, science, business, marriage, raising kids or even properly painting a room, is wholly dependent on consistently abiding by the huge effort at working on the many details that go into achieving perfection.
Greatness is never achieved with a one-off dramatic spiritual or emotional awakening. It must always be accompanied by a daily commitment to detail, refinement and perfection. This is how great people become great. When we marvel at Sidney Crosby deflecting a puck out of the air, passed the goalie and into the net, it is not a lucky bounce but something that he has spent hundreds of hours perfecting in practice. Beholding an Olympian star or listening to Van Morrison perform is wonderful and entertaining, but it certainly would not be so if those individuals didn’t spend countless hours, days, weeks, months and years perfecting the most minute details of their craft before they got on stage.
Similarly, Mishpatim gives us the context and practical means to express holiness in our daily moral judgments, business practices and social interactions, thereby providing a refined system of holiness in all aspects of our lives and not just those few hours every week on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
It’s this attention to the details of the commandments and their laws which has made the Jewish people so powerfully connected to Judaism for thousands of years. Our obsession of the finer points of each law has been the crucial factor in forming us into the nation that has had the greatest impact on Mankind and has allowed us to be the moral beacon for the world throughout the ages.
Holiness and Details – they go hand in hand and you cannot achieve the former without the latter.
You brought it to my attention everything that was made in God
Down through centuries of great writings and paintings
Everything lives in God
Seen through architecture…
Down through the history of time
Is and was in the beginning and evermore shall be
When will I ever learn to live in God?
When will I ever learn?