Shabbat Blog: Where We Serve God

Friday, January 28, 2022
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

What is the Torah’s view of civil law - theft, damages, loans - the laws that lead to a civil society?  Many of the laws found in Parshat Mishpatim overlap with similar laws in other ethical societies. Is there anything Jewish about being ethical, or are only the rituals distinctly Jewish?  In short, does it matter to God how we act towards each other. 

Prof. Rabbi Herbert Basser notes that: “It is easier to appreciate the religiosity of ethics in the words of the prophets; Amos’ declaration (5:24): “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” ... It is harder to feel religious, however, about oxen goring other oxen (Exod. 21:35), or payments for lost farming animals (Exod. 22:9).  The rabbis were aware of this problem and worked to underline the religious importance of the “secular law,” including its system of courts. 

Rashi, author of, perhaps the most well-known commentary on the bible, makes a concerted effort to locate the civil laws in the category of the Divine by extensively quoting the Midrash.   

For example, on the verse: וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃  

“And These are the rules that you shall set before them”, Rashi notes, ““And these are the laws:” Wherever a verse says, “these,” [the Torah] is distinguishing from what was stated previously. [Wherever it says,] “And these,” it is adding to what was stated previously. [Thus,] just as what was stated previously (i.e., the Decalogue) is from Sinai, these too (Mishpatim – the civil laws) were from Sinai. 

Rashi paints even a more vivid picture in his next comment by by quoting another Midrash that statesthat the civil laws that are recorded in this week’s Torah portion are presented right after some of the laws of the Mizbe’ach – the altar. Juxtaposition is important:  

וְלָמָּה נִסְמְכָה פָּרָשַׁת דִּינִין לְפָרָשַׁת מִזְבֵּחַ? לוֹמַר לְךָ, שֶׁתָּשִׂים סַנְהֶדְרִין אֵצֶל הַמִּקְדָּשׁ 

“...why is this section dealing with the “civil laws” placed immediately after that commanding the making of the altar? To tell you that you should seat the Sanhedrin in the vicinity of the Temple. 

The Sanhedrin – the great Jewish court was responsible for upholding the civil laws. Locating the court near the place of the altar – the Temple, sent the message that both civil laws and ritual law are both considered the service of God. Furthermore, it signals that the judges responsible for the civil laws are Divine servants, much the same as the Kohanim (the Preists) serving in the Temple. 

What a beautiful idea – we serve God in the Temple (or in our case in synagogue and by performing other Jewish rituals) and we serve God when upholding civil law.   

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (Likutei Moharan 33:2) expands on this idea in a penetrating teaching.  

 וְצָרִיךְ לָדַעַת, שֶׁמְּלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ, וְלֵית אֲתַר פָּנוּי מִנֵּהּ, וְאִיהוּ מְמַלֵּא כָּל עָלְמִין וְסוֹבֵב כָּל עָלְמִין  

״Now, one must also know that “[God’s] Glory fills the whole world” (Isaiah 6:3), and there is no place empty of Him (Tikkuney Zohar #57, p.91b). He fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds (Zohar III, 225a). ״ 

כִּי כְּבָר גִּלּוּ לָנוּ חֲכָמֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה, שֶׁבְּכָל דְּבָרִים גַּשְׁמִיִּים... יָכוֹל לִמְצֹא בָּהֶם אֱלֹקוּת  

״Our Sages have already revealed to us that Godliness is to be found in all corporeality.” 

By broadening the ability to find holiness, Rabbi Nachman reminds us that not only is God found in ritual and civil law, but that God can also be found and served “on the street” so to speak – while engaged in the most mundane activities.  

He goes on to quote a fascinating Talmudic passage to make his point even more vivid.  

וְזֶה שֶׁמֵּבִיא בִּירוּשַׁלְמִי (תענית פא): אִם יֹאמַר לְךָ אָדָם הֵיכָן אֱלֹקֶיךָ, תֹּאמַר לוֹ: בִּכְרָךְ גָּדוֹל שֶׁבְּרוֹמִי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אֵלַי קֹרֵא מִשֵּׂעִיר.  

This is as is brought in the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 1:1): If anyone should ask you, “Where is your God?” answer him, “In the great city of Rome.” As it is said, “One calls to Me from Seir” (Isaiah 21:11). 

In the Rabbinic mind, Rome stood for everything “unholy”, maybe even evil. Yet, there is still the possibility to find God there.  

How do we do this? How do we find holiness, God in a world and in people that may not reflect that spirit.  

Another Hassidic master offers an answer...maybe a challenge.  

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk once asked his disciples a surprising question.     

“Where is the dwelling of God?”  

They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory!” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”   

Rabbi Morgensztern reminds us that God or Godliness is right in front of us, but our attitude may keep God far away. It is up to us to see the holiness in civil law. It is up to us to see God in nature and it is up tpo us to see God, most importantly, in other people.   

Conversation starters for your family:

  1. Do you feel like you are serving God when obeying the law? 
  2. What are some unexpected ways to serve God that you can think of based on the ideas in the above essay? 
  3. How do you find a balance between building a life of fulfilling the civil Mitzvot and religious Mitzvot? 
  4. What are the practical applications of recognizing God’s presence everywhere? 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Gelman

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism. 

Category: ERJCC Blog