Mishpatim: Thunder Road

This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion), Parshat Mishpatim, is one of the sections of the Torah that deals with detailed areas of Jewish Law. I think for many people, Parshat Mishpatim is a let down after all of the intriguing stories that we have had thus far leading up to the crescendo of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah and God revealing God’s self at Mount Sinai. I always feel for those young men and women who celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvah during a Parsha that describes some of the intricate areas of Jewish Law: it can be challenging for them to write a Dvar Torah (sermon).

However, put aside the challenges of Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. Why does the Torah follow God’s revelation with this detailed listing of laws? What is the purpose of following a powerful spiritual moment like Mount Sinai with laws about murder, manslaughter, injuries, animals, theft and borrowing, just to name a few of the laws covered in this week’s Parsha?

The Parsha begins in an interesting way. Shemot (Exodus) 21:1 says, “V-eh-leh Hamishpatim Asher Tasim Lifnayhem:” “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” The commentator Rashi explains that the phrase “V-eh-leh Hamishpatim,” “these ordinances,” connects this week’s Parsha to last week’s Parsha. In other words, these detailed laws are also part of the experience of Mount Sinai. Specifically, Rashi points out that last week’s Parsha ends with God commanding the people to build a Mizbayach (Altar) for Korbanot (Sacrifices) to be offered, and this week’s Parsha begins with law. According to Rashi this teaches us that, “you should seat the Sanhedrin (a combination of a Supreme Court and legislative body) in the vicinity of the Beit Hamikdash, The Great Temple”—to make the statement that spirituality and our relationship with God are intertwined with ethics and our relationship with our fellow human beings.

This is important for us to understand. Often when people think of religiosity, they think ritual and prayer, not morality. It should be clear that in Judaism the ethics of the way we lead our life and spirituality are directly connected.

This can bee seen in one of the most central prayers of Judaism, the Shema, which is taken from different texts from the Torah. There are several lines relevant to our topic: the first can be found in Devarim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 6 Line 5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” We can interpret this line to mean that we should have a relationship with God, and the Torah continues on in verse 7 to tell us very specifically how. “Speak of them (words that relate to our relationship with god) while you dwell in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.” Why does the text say we should speak of our relationship with God both in our homes and outside of them? The Torah is trying to tell us that we should be connected to God in all areas of our life, not just when we our in Synagogue.

The great Chasidic Master, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, the Kotsker Rebbe once asked “Where is God?” and he answered: “Wherever you let God in.” If we let God in, God can be everywhere—not only in our synagogues, but also in our homes, workplaces and vacation spots. Obviously, to the believer, God is everywhere. However, it is necessary for us to make an extra effort if we want God and spirituality to affect our daily lives. Religion should not only be limited to prayer and ritual; it should be a holistic experience, affecting every decision we make. Recently, a student of mine approached me after class and said, “Rabbi, I need to ask you a religious question.” I thought he was about to ask me a question about Kashrut, Jewish religious laws governing foods or some other area of Jewish ritual (which are also important). Instead, he described a situation that happened to him at work. He wanted to know whether he had handled a matter in the right way from a religious perspective. If he did not, he wanted to know what he needed to do to correct the situation. As a Rabbi, it was one of my proudest moments.

In other words, Judaism operates in reality, not in some pseudo angelic life separated from the real world. True, spirituality brings the God encounter together with the pursuit of ethics. This is why the moral challenges of Parshat Mishpatim follow God’s Revelation in Parshat Yitro.

When I am at a Bruce Springsteen concert, I often make the same observations at the show which I have explained in this teaching. Let us keep things in perspective. I am talking about Rock and Roll concert, but there is a parallel. On one level, Bruce in his music, lyrics, singing, playing performance, personality, charisma and sheer being is a larger than life type figure. You feel absolutely inspired at his concerts. At the end of the show, you want to be the best version of yourself and fix this very broken world. However, at the same time there is so much reality in Bruce’s songs.

These two themes live as one in many Springsteen songs, but if I had to pick one it would have to be “Thunder Road.” It is the opening song of Bruce Springsteen’s third album, “Born To Run.” The key section of the song that makes this point is:

Waste your summer praying in vain

For a savior to rise from these streets

Well now I’m no hero

That’s understood

All the redemption I can offer girl

Is beneath this dirty hood

With a chance to make it good somehow

Hey what else can we do now ?

Except roll down the window

And let the wind blow

Back your hair

Well the night’s busting open

These two lanes will take us anywhere

We got one last chance to make it real

To trade in these wings on some wheels

Climb in back

Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks

Oh-oh come take my hand

We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land

Oh-oh Thunder Road oh Thunder Road

In these beautiful verses Bruce writes about redemption that we can all help each other achieve, not one brought by saviors or heroes but by everyday people who just want to make life better. He sings about a heaven that is not so far away and a promised land. I bless you all that we make it to that promised land. Whether you get there by Thunder Road or some other road. I just bless you all that we all get there soon. Let it be today. Let it be this very moment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav David

To listen and watch a performance of Bruce Springsteen’s, “Thunder Road,” Click HERE.