“Now the presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites
as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain” (Exodus 24:17)
Pity Parashat Mishpatim. It has the unenviable task of following the gripping drama of God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai. And yet, while Mishpatim is mostly a long listing of laws, it contains the phrase that serves as the basis for Jewish life.
Toward the end of the parasha (portion), God tells Moses, “…Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” (Ex. 24:12). It is clear God is telling Moses to teach the laws to the Israelites. It is less obvious this verse is the basis for differentiating between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. This distinction is the foundation stone of halacha, or Jewish law.
Nachmanides (a 13th century Spanish commentator) writes in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, that the laws, “… cannot be understood except from mouth to mouth [through an oral tradition which can be traced] to Moses, who received it on Sinai.” But the oral tradition involves learning as well as teaching, and learning always is an act of interpretation. So as each generation receives the Torah (Moses to Joshua to the elders to the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly (Pirkei Avot 1:1)) it interprets the Torah anew. Most of Jewish religious practice is based on these rabbinic interpretations rather than literal Torah law.
JCCs honor this tradition by helping individuals find their own meaning in Jewish life, thereby becoming the newest links in the unending chain of interpretation.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom