By Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld
This week’s Torah portion picks up immediately following the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people had just experienced the loftiest G-dly revelation in the history of mankind. One can imagine the state of mind and spiritual connection that was felt at that time.
Adding to this, the Jewish people were already having a spiritual experience while traveling in the desert. Bread fell from the sky in the form of manna. The clouds of glory protected them from all sides. It would be fair to say the spiritual temperature of the Jewish people, entering into Parshat Mishpatim, was at an unprecedented high.
Yet, the parsha begins by presenting the most practical and seemingly mundane laws to be found in the Torah. In it we learn the laws of servants and maidservants; the laws of working animals in the field; the laws governing one man assaulting another; and the laws of capital punishment.
Notwithstanding the endless wisdom contained in this portion of the laws, it seems rather striking that G-d chooses to introduce us to civil and practical laws immediately following, and in the midst of, the most spiritual and divine experiences.
Why would He not first begin with the loftier laws? Would it not make more sense to first address us regarding the laws more directly and obviously pertaining to spirituality instead of leaping into the mundane?
The end of this parsha picks up the narrative from where we left off: describing the lofty assent of Moshe up the mountain to receive the tablets. This would seem the most appropriate continuation of last week’s narrative. Why then do we pause for the laws of dispute, damages and a slew of other civil matters that appear to be uniquely mundane?
Perhaps we can understand this by taking a closer look at the realities of Jewish life today. The fact of the matter is most of our time and our life is spent involved in worldly and seemingly unspiritual matters. Most of us are not able to focus on prayer and Torah study for the majority of the day. Temple sacrifices and priestly services are not applicable to our times when we do not have a Holy Temple built in Jerusalem.
Thus one may wonder if service to G-d is relevant today? Are the laws and teachings in the Torah as important to us as they were in a more spiritual time — perhaps as when the Jews were in the desert and were basking in G-d’s glory, a time when they had the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and performed daily services with sacrifices to G-d?
For these reasons, G-d sends a very important message. The first laws that He chooses to teach us are specifically not the laws pertaining to spirituality, but rather the basic fundamentals of daily life, like damage disputes and the proper ways to treat domestic workers, for example. The Torah is telling us that our service to G-d and observance of His laws is equally important to Him no matter the apparent “spiritual content” the mitzvot may seem to have.
So when you are performing your daily work, or when you are interacting with others, know that your observance of G-d’s Torah is just as important to Him as the service of the priests in the Temple. For this reason, He set those laws out first.
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld is the rabbi at the Lubavitch Center and the executive director of Chabad of Western Pennsylvania.