Parshat Mishpatim

Torah Reading for Week of February 12 -18, 2012

“Spreading the Light Through Action”
By Cantor Eva Robbins, ‘04


One of the most striking sections of this parsha is in the maftir, with the powerful words, “Umaray kavod  Adonai k’aysh ochelet,” ”The appearance of the glory of Hashem was like a consuming fire.” This was my maftir, as a Bat Mitzvah. I could feel the warmth of the light wash over me as the burning presence inflamed the moment of my taking possession of Torah.  As I reread these words and began to explore their deeper meaning, I was struck by the connection to the previous parsha, Yitro, when the people, “Saw the thunder and the flames,” “v’chol ha-am roim et kolot v’et halapidim” following the giving of the Asseret Dibrot. The word halapidim means a ‘torch’ while the word aysh means ‘fire.’ Why two different descriptions? Why do the people see a ‘torch’ after receiving the 10 commandments but later, as Moses enters the cloud, they see only the ‘fire.’ Further investigation of this word, whose root is lamed fey dalet, led me to Genesis 15:17, when G-d makes a covenant with Avram, promising him that he will father a nation that number the stars in the sky, and that they will inherit their own special land. As a sign of this covenant there was “a torch of fire,”v’lapid aysh.” At both moments of covenantal relationship this Divine ‘torch’ is present.

We know from Rashi’s classic comment that when a parsha begins with a vav it is a signal that what is to come is directly connected to the previous parsha. Mishpatim begins ‘vaeyleh mishpatim,” “These are the ordinances,” which represents the civil laws man is to undertake, directly following the awesome experience of the ‘torch,’ as well as the initial instructions for the sacrificial cult. The people experience the gift of the ‘flame,’ the powerful ‘light’ of Divine presence, from the heavens above, which they are now instructed to ignite on the mizbeach, in the world below.  This reciprocal relationship of receiving from above and returning from below is symbolic of the constant flow of blessing we receive and return to the Holy One. Mishpatim teaches us that it is not only through this spiritual flow that we stay connected to the Holy One. We must also concretize it through acts of civil obedience, creating a sense of fairness, honor and lawfulness in a society. The people are immediately confronted with the kind of actions they must undertake, in their everyday human interactions, in order to perpetuate that moment of intimate connection at Sinai.

The ‘torch’ is a container, a holder for the ‘flame,’ something that can be held, carried and directed. It represents the voice of the Holy One, as it says in Psalm 29:7, “The voice of Hashem cleaves with shafts of fire.” The ‘fire’ that is seen when Moses enters the cloud is no longer a ‘torch,’ it is pure flame, a consuming ‘fire.’ Bachyiah, a commentator of the Middle Ages, describes it as a ‘bonfire’ a ‘flame’ that varies in intensity. Each individual receives from the ‘light’ what he/she is capable of receiving. We become the ‘torch.’ Through our actions, we keep the ‘flame’ alive in this world. We decide how brightly it will glow. The laws are the means for maintaining the presence of the Holy One in this world and that in turn keeps the ‘flame’ of G-d’s spirit continually burning in the world above.

Leave a Reply