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Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him,
for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

Parashat Mishpatim includes the first set of specific “Torah” laws beyond the general principles of Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Utterances) and is referred to as Sefer Habrit (the Book of the Covenant). It closes with a ceremony in which the Israelites accept the Torah. After Moses reads aloud the record of the covenant, the Isralites respond with, “…All that the Lord has spoken, Na-aseh v’nishmah” (Exodus 24:7). Na-aseh means “We will do.” Nishmah means “We will hear.” Scholars throughout the ages have commented on the unusual ordering of verbs in this most central phrase in Jewish life: usually, hearing comes before doing.

The S’fat Emet (1847-1905; Yehudah Leib Alter, a child prodigy and the 2nd Rebbe of the Gerer Chassidim) recognizes na-aseh as acceptance of the Torah as given. He interprets nishmah as expressing a willingness to receive more instruction and more insight; a desire to hear more. Nishmah explains the connection between the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the continued search for meaning today.

Slavery is a rote, repetitious existence, doing over and over again what you already know (na-aseh) . Freedom is necessary to develop alertness to new possibilities, to hearing new things (nishmah). The aspiration to always hear God’s intentions is the core of Jewish spirituality. So while the Torah is revealed at Sinai, it is never static. Nishmah is a commitment to an ongoing revelation; the Torah is always dynamic, always offering something new to hear.

Hearing also requires something, or someone, to listen to. Thus, nishmah implies relationship, or engaging with the other. Nishmah, then, is also the foundation of Jewish community.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom


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