Finding The Meaning Behind Seemingly Mundane Laws
There is an almost humorous anecdote mentioned in the Talmud in Tractate Brachot. In describing the possible superficial reality of one’s faith in G-d, the Talmud creates the surreal scene of a thief about to secretly break and enter into his victim’s home, whereupon he utters a silent prayer for success in his forbidden activity: “Please, G-d, just this one time, don’t let me get caught!”
Is this scene that surreal after all? Are there not times when we all might engage in questionable behavior of which we would be quick to accuse another but defend the action when it is our own? And then we pray to G-d, “just this one time, don’t let me get caught.”
The Torah addresses this very human condition in the portions of Yitro, Mishpatim and this week’s Terumah. The main event of Parshat Yitro is, of course, the Revelation at Sinai. The tenets of our religion were founded on the witnessing, by sight and sound, by every Jewish man, woman and child, the declaration by our Creator that “I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt.” Yet, at this moment of incredible revelation of Divine Truth, the rest of the Commandments issue forth instructing us how to behave: “Thou shall not murder,” “thou shall not steal,” “thou shall not covet,” etc. Is this not amazingly counterintuitive? Wouldn’t this have been a perfect moment for an intense lesson on the deepest philosophical and ethical issues to be shared by our Creator?
The very next Torah reading, Mishpatim, continues down the same path. We are introduced to the body of laws that detail responsibility for compensation of injury and damages by one person to another or to his property. Could that not wait until after we exhaust the deeper mystical treasures of Judaism?
Then we have this week’s reading of Terumah. The Jewish people are instructed to build a mishkan, a “sanctuary” or “tabernacle” that shall serve as the central place of worship. This is a material edifice with specific dimensions for its construction and precise measurements for the manufacturing of its vessels and their placement. Is this, as well, not counterintuitive? Is not prayer and worship a spiritual function?
Why the need for physical symbolisms and defined spaces? Even to this very day, Jews around the world pray three times a day facing the defined space of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. If prayer is a service of the heart — and it is — why the need to be focused to a limited geographical area?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, shares a profound insight: The ultimate expression of our Jewish values is in how we seamlessly weave the deepest ethos of our faith into our day-to-day behavior. The message of Judaism is that there is not one area of our material lives that is not enriched by a Torah value. Even a simple drink of water becomes a moment to bless our Creator. Clearly, therefore, the Revelation at Sinai immediately discusses our very human impulses and teaches us to consecrate the mundane. The laws of torts and civil responsibilities immediately follow the Revelation. And then, this week, we are taught how to elevate the mundane items of gold, silver and copper and use them to build a Holy Temple. After all, in G-d’s world, there really is no mundane. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon is the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Park Heights and Cheder Chabad of Baltimore.