(With the hope of making each week’s Torah commentary more accessible and useful in our 21st century lives, starting this week, I am going to start putting a “kavannah” (intention) at the end of each week’s commentary. It is an integration of the week’s lessons, and I hope it helps the Torah live within your heart more fully.)
In the “Ahavat Olam” prayer chanted before the recitation of the Shema, we thank God for “laws and statutes” (chukim u’mishpatim). Although the English words seem redundant, there is a difference in the original Hebrew that is important in multiple levels.
Chukim are laws that need to be explored deeply in order to even have a basic understanding of what and why they exist. An example might be the laws surrounding the red heifer, or any law that doesn’t immediately make sense. Mishpatim (the name of this week’s Torah reading) on the other hand are laws that make sense on the surface, although they still need to be explored on a deeper level (like everything in the Torah) so that we gain greater insights into our relationships with Judaism, God, and all aspects of Life. Obvious examples might include prohibitions against murder, theft, etc. An example found in this week’s reading is the prohibition against making a covenant with idol worshipping cultures and their gods, as that might lead to ultimately worshipping those idols.
It is interesting to see that this Torah portion of Mishpatim begins with detailed explanations of the relationship between “slave” and “master”. The majority of these dictates are about the responsibilities not of the slave, but of the master.
Even more interesting is that the term usually translated as “slave” actually means “servant”. Our Sages write extensive commentaries about this change of terms, and how it is a reflection of the conflicting realities that while Judaism does not accept “slavery” (as we were once all slaves in Egypt) on the one hand, the Torah also recognizes that it was a common practice in ancient times. So rather than prohibit it entirely and be attacked by other nations based on this value, the Torah redefines the concept into one of servitude, where the majority of the obligations are not on the servant but on the master.
But I believe there is also a much deeper meaning that affects all of us always, even in times like these where the majority of mankind rejects the ancient concept of slavery.
The secret is found much later in the Torah portion. While the entire first chapter deals with servitude between humans, there is an especially powerful line found towards the end of the portion. “You shall serve the Lord your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water.”(Ex. 23:25) The verse is clear: we are to be servants to God.
This is such an important concept, especially in the 21st century where individuals are so often filled with so much narcissism and false self importance. We have a responsibility: we are to serve God…not our own selfish desires. We are to be the gardeners of God’s holy garden. Like any servant, we need to subjugate our will and desires to a greater good as defined by God. A practice that ultimately leads to real peace, true joy, and harmony with the world.
But it’s not just an understanding of how we can all make the world a better place through Divine service, it’s a secret hidden in plain sight for each person to become more aware of their own relationship with the Divine.
The beginning of the portion deals with servitude, and with the responsibilities not of the servant to the master, but the responsibilities of the master in that relationship. If this is true for a human master, how much truer is it in regards to the description of responsibilities of a Divine Master?
For many people it seems counter intuitive to subjugate our own wills to a Divine Master. But the portion begins with a listing of the responsibilities that go with being a master. This is so that we all recognize the responsibilities that God has placed on Himself in His relationship with us, and how well we are to be treated in life by God…according to His own rules. It is as if God has created laws for human masters that He must abide by Himself as the Great Master. If we are doing our part of being true and joyous “servants”, God is now obligated to treat us in very specific and favorable ways.
Think about that concept for a moment. God, who is infinite and beyond any “rules” has placed restrictions on His own behavior that are all favorable to us! There is little we need to do, but in consciously accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, God is now obliged to give us all sorts of fabulous rewards…by His own edict! It’s similar in some ways to how all of us parents expect certain things from our children (which change as the children age and reach more maturity), but are willing to do anything for our children. When your children act in the righteous ways you have taught them, is there anything you would not do for them? And isn’t it true that we place those responsibilities on our children for their own benefit? So that they become wiser, more mature and joyous adults as they grow? We ask our children to subjugate their will to ours so that they will learn, and in doing so they reap immediate rewards in how we treat them, and long term rewards in how they become more prepared for the rest of their lives.
We find the same concept here. When we subjugate our will to God’s we reap at least two rewards. God is obligated (by His own decrees about the master/servant relationship) to provide for us in a multitude of ways. And in the process of surrendering our will to God’s, we become more spiritually mature…able to interact with God, other people, ourselves, and all of Life at deeper and more conscious levels.
It’s a powerful concept: by surrendering to God we find who we truly are and act in ways that bring real fulfillment to our very short lives.
Sathya Sai Baba taught “Once we surrender our mind to God completely, He will take care of all of our needs”, and Dr. King famously said, “Every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God”. It doesn’t matter which culture or faith tradition you explore, there is a consistency that the spiritual teachers (or “masters”) view themselves as servants to the Divine. It is a cross cultural truth that Divine service leads to human awakening. The reason this is true is found here in the Torah portion: God has committed to us how He will always act as the one Master based upon how he defines the requirements involved in humanly servitude.
We all know how difficult it can be to surrender at any time, and this is especially true when it comes to serving an ethereal Divinity. Our commitment to service becomes an act of faith. But every person of any faith tradition (including those whose “faith tradition” is a 12 step program) who has made the choice to subjugate their own will to God’s can vouch wholeheartedly that is one of wisest, most valuable, and ultimately most joyous choices they could ever make.
May we all consciously subjugate our will to God’s, and in this surrendering find both inner and outer peace, joy, love, and our soul’s true purpose.
Kavannah: Pick one commandment this week that you inherently disagree with intellectually. For this one week, abide by that commandment fully. As an example, if you have never resonated with keeping kosher, let your meals this week be fully kosher. If giving tzedakah (charity) is not part of your daily practice, then give charity every day of the week. Years ago there was a book written on this very topic: “The Year of Living Biblically”, and the author did this practice each week for a year. Although he did not then become highly observant, his whole perspective on life changed for the better. Take on this task and you may find the same result.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
January 28th, 2022
26th of Shvat, 5782