What a dynamic relationship we humans have with rules and order. We crave boundaries and containers into which we can place demands, ideas and practices. We establish rules and laws in order to stave off chaos and destruction; and yet, we buck when the rules become too restrictive, the order too heavy. Long have secular philosophers pondered our relationship with laws: those that are natural and those that stem from the human mind. We become stiff and intractable when we stick too firmly to old rules, but wan and spread thin when we lack structure. Our people’s relationship with our particular set of rules and laws stems from this week’s parsah, Mishpatim, wherein we transform from a band of loosely associated relatives, to a cohesive community bound by a common and particular covenant.
That covenant can seem heavy to bear, especially if we view it as prescriptive and burdensome, or outdated and cumbersome. Luckily, we are inheritors of a tradition that is committed to continuing a covenantal relationship under ever-changing societal and cultural norms. Reform Jews were far from the first reformers of our tradition. One could argue that the very first Rabbis, those who rescued the teachings (i.e. Torah) from the destruction of the Second Temple, were engaging in a radical act of reform when they refocused our tradition away from the sacrificial system of the Temple to the study, prayer and community-based practices of normative Rabbinical Judaism.
Covenant requires partnership – engagement with these structures and rituals that are meant to guide our healthy and holy interactions with one another. While the rules that govern our sensibilities as moderns have certainly shifted since biblical times, this week’s parsha serves as a reminder that we are a people of structure, who flourish within our frameworks and systems; especially those that acknowledge the interconnectedness of our communities and realities and responsibilities of living in a post-modern age.
– Rabbi Callie Schulman