Reflections on Parashat Mishpatim
by Jacob Cytryn, Director
Torah readings like the one we read this week, Parashat Mishpatim, sometimes throw us for a loop. Living in the modern, Western world, we are used to experiencing broad agendas for belief or how to live our lives with grandiose words like vision, philosophy, or worldview. We expect a well-structured series of paragraphs to tell us what to think. And so we are not used to the approach of this first law code of the Torah, the “Covenant Code” (Exodus 21-23), which lays out through a series of case laws the very same thing. This approach is repeated elsewhere in the Torah, perhaps most notably to long-time campers and staff in the summer Torah reading Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) which has a similar, though even more eclectic, structure. In contrast to the clearly delineated sweeping agenda we might expect from a similar modern work, we could perhaps imagine the Biblical approach to be a form of philosophical pointillism. Though the laws as a whole do not seem to cohere, if we chart out the values and claims of each specific commandment, they eventually reveal a beautiful picture.
Last Thursday, I returned from an annual staff recruitment trip to Israel. As I process the dozens and dozens of conversations I had with candidates to join our staff for the first time, veteran staff members, and old friends, painting the holistic, coherent picture of what I heard, was contemplating, and learned about Israeli society during late January of 2016 continues to elude me. Like Parashat Mishpatim, though, I find that the individual stories – the moments in time, the little anecdotes, the digestible parts – help to paint much more effectively the broader picture of my visit, and experience:
That first cafe hafuch. Running into old friends in Jerusalem. Talking about the future of Conservative Judaism. Meeting a camp legend. Hearing staff members reflect on the role Ramah played in preparing them to spend a year in Israel. Hearing Israeli staff members reflect on the role Ramah played in preparing them to help build their family’s Jewish identity. Watching an ambulance drive by that was donated by the Jews of France, and wondering if there will be Jews left in France to donate a future ambulance. The joy of speaking Hebrew. Watching the smiling and surprised faces of the new mishlachat (Israeli staff) candidates as they hear about Ramah. Confirming with veteran staff that they want to be back in camp. Witnessing veteran members of the hanhalah (senior leadership team) feel at home in Israeli neighborhoods and restaurants.
This approach is the one that so many of our campers take at the end of the summer to describe their experiences at Ramah. Overwhelmed by the string of moments and powerful impact of their time at camp, even the most-seasoned of our campers and staff struggle to coherently form a few sentences to sum up the summer. Instead, over weeks and months, the tiny points flow from our mouths, slowly painting a picture of what we saw and experienced. From that perspective, Parashat Mishpatim feels awfully familiar, and stunningly beautiful.