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Necessary Compromise?

Wednesday, 26 January, 2011 - 3:00 pm

It’s that time of year again. My wife is in New York attending the Chabad-Lubavitch International Shluchos Conference – and I am home tending to five lovely children.

I have always appreciated the opportunity to spend more time with my kids when Esther is away for her annual recharge. And I am also learning to appreciate the sheer challenge of spending more time with my children in the absence of their mother.

Many of my colleagues contend that this week is Chabad Rabbis’ annual “Wife Appreciation Week” – and I’m certainly an enthusiastic member of the chorus.

Due to my current single-parent mode, I inevitably get less Rabbinic work done this week than others. I’ve been told it’s worth the compromise.

***

After conveying the story of Revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah, this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, opens up with a lengthy list of civil laws. Laws that would (or at least should) appear in some form on the books in every civilized country – such as laws pertaining to theft, civil damages, personal injury, charity, compassion, loans and much more.

Parshat Mishpatim provides vast fodder for the legalese of the Talmud. I would venture to say it is one of the most frequently quoted Torah portions in all of the Talmud, due to its many laws.

Some see this as an obviously fitting set of instructions immediately following the Giving of the Torah. G-d is essentially saying to the Jewish people: You signed the contract. Now live up to its obligations.

But the commentaries probe a bit deeper. If G-d just inked the deal with the Jewish people, would it not be more appropriate to share with them the more innovative, less obvious lessons and responsibilities of the Torah? Why does the Torah begin its instruction manual with the civil law and not a deeper spiritual undertaking (such as prayer) or unique cultural duties (such as Jewish holidays or kosher)? After all, most civilized societies would be expected to implement a basic civil code? Is that what sets the Torah and Judaism apart?

***

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, in his famous work Keli Yakar, draws upon the Midrash and contends that the Torah stresses civil law first because “Derech Eretz precedes Torah.” Derech Eretz is usually translated loosely as civility (literally: the way of the land). In other words, the Torah is stressing that we cannot truly appreciate the value of Torah and its deep lessons and lifestyle without first attaining a basic degree of ethics and civil grace.

What good is Torah knowledge if it is steeped in arrogance? Can we truly rest on Shabbat if we are causing pain to others?

***

Spending more time and energy parenting is not a necessary compromise. It is the prerequisite to true Torah study and observance.

 

P.S. Another meaning of Derech Eretz is respect (for elders and parents). This may also have a lot of bearing in a weekend that children depend on their fathers and yearn for their mothers…

 

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