Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
With the portion Mishpatim, the narrative parts of the Torah are now largely behind us. There are more stories scattered throughout the remainder, but from now through the end of Deuteronomy there are mostly laws and rules. By proportion, this foundation of Jewish law comprises the bulk of the Torah.
We have had instruction, emotion, comfort and even suspense. Now we embark fully upon legal matters and ritual procedures. What constitutes civil and criminal law, and how is law administered? How is the sanctuary to be designed and built? How are sacrifices to be offered, and for what purposes? All of which are subsumed in one of the most important Torah questions: How do we construct a society that will be righteous in God’s sight?
When we are asked to summarize Judaism, we often respond not in terms of what we believe, but in terms of what we do and how we behave. We are likely to mention daily life, the holy day cycle, the life cycle and the importance of worship, education and deeds of love and kindness. Through these activities, we give reality to the Jewish values we treasure.
Values and actions: Jewish tradition places these under the larger categories of aggadah and halachah. Halachah is, literally, how we walk —what we do as a part of “living Jewish.” Aggadah is — everything else! It is the teaching and conversation that underlie our Jewish actions.
Aggadah and halachah, talking and walking, each is incomplete without the other. They are the Jewish body and the Jewish soul. Without a body, a soul cannot express itself. Without a soul, a body is just a mass of cells.
Sometimes a language other than Hebrew can be helpful. The Latin for soul is anima. The soul animates the body.
Aggadah helps us to find interest and emotional attachment in our everyday lives. Attention to halachah helps us to remember the values we treasure. Together they remind us, as we read in last week’s Torah portion, that we all stood at Sinai.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)