A number of years ago we spent a family weekend in Palm Springs. I asked my kids what they wanted to do. First mistake: Never ask your kids what they want to do on vacation. It’s guaranteed to be something you can’t do.
My daughters answered, “Let’s go ice skating.”
I looked at them and said, “I don’t know how to ice skate.”
They looked at me incredulously and said, “That isn’t a problem, just learn.”
With such an answer I couldn’t refuse their request.
As I was trying to keep my balance on the ice and not break any bones, an old lady screamed from the side of the ring: “Hey mister, you really don’t know how to skate.”
What a brilliant lady, I thought.
But then she screamed instructions: “Bend your knees more.”
She didn’t let up. Suddenly she screamed, “What is wrong with you, can’t you hear me?”
I suddenly stopped, ran into the wall and looked right into her eyes, begging for compassion, and said, “Lady, it’s hard trying to learn how to do this at my age.”
She looked at me without any compassion and said, “You should be ashamed giving such an answer. I was a teacher for 50 years. The one thing I know is that you can learn anything in life if you do two things: One, put your mind to it, and two, listen well.”
Those words of advice are essential as one learns this week’s Torah portion.
From the very opening word in this week’s parsha one realizes concentration is crucial if one is to achieve any understanding. The medieval commentator, Rashi, wondered why the Torah opened this portion with the words, “And these are the laws,” and not simply, “These are the laws.” He answers that whenever a portion of the Torah begins with the expression, “these,” it signals a discontinuity with whatever preceded it. But whenever the wording “And these” appears, it connects the present discussion with the previous one. The discussion of Revelation at Sinai from last week’s reading, notes Rashi, connects with this week’s Torah reading. Just like the Ten Commandments took place at Sinai, so, too, this portion devoted to civil laws was also taught at Sinai.
This, however, is most perplexing, for where else was Torah taught if not at Sinai? The late 20th century rabbinic thinker, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his masterful work, Pahad Yitzhak, suggests that the connection between the two Torah portions addresses popular confusion. If you ask people what comprises a religious duty, they answer: praying, fasting etc…. But if you would ask, if giving food to the poor or assisting one’s fellow man is a religious duty, they will say: “That is morality not religion.” They have a distorted view, argues Hutner, that religion contains only ritual laws, but laws that concern our interaction with others are not of religious consequence.
It was this very point that led the 19th century commentator on Rashi, the Be’er Yitzhak, to note that revelation at Sinai involved a tremendous miracle. Rashi had commented that when God revealed the Ten Commandments, it occurred in two stages. The first stage was something man can’t imitate. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said all of the Ten Commandments in one utterance.” God said each of the commandments at the very same moment. But then there was stage two: “He went back and repeated each and every commandment by itself.”
The Be’er Yitzhak wonders why God had to reveal the commandments in such a fashion. He answers that God said all of the commandments together so that no one should think that any one commandment is more important than any other. You might think that the ritual laws, which are Nos. 1-4, are more important since they are listed first. Of course custom requires that we list items and something has to be No. 1 followed by No. 2, etc…. The message, however, is that all commandments, whether they deal with God and man, or man and his interaction with his fellow man, are equal in God’s eyes.
Not long ago I met with a young man who is in the music business. In an almost confessional fashion he told me, “Rabbi, I am not that religious.”
I answered him, “I don’t know if you are religious or not, but please don’t get the word ‘religion’ and the word ‘observance’ confused.”
He was shocked, and asked what I meant.
I said that just because one is observant and keeps all of the ritual laws, that doesn’t make one a religious human being. A religious person is one who observes both the ritual and moral laws. Ritual observance alone doesn’t make one a religious individual.
When the woman at the ice rink said to me, “Remember, listen well for when you do you really can achieve anything,” she was, in effect, summarizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim: Listen to the words of Torah and you can achieve a just society.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.