by Frayda Gonshor Cohen
Parshat Mishpatim is replete with mitzvot. From how to treat workers and our land, to rules about damages and caring for the stranger, there is no shortage of social justice themed material to explore. Mishpatim famously begins with a “vav hahibur”, a conjunction meant to connect the new parsha with the preceding chapter from Yitro. One letter places the “worldly” mitzvoth or damages/nezikin, in parallel with the most exalted moment of revelation with Hashem.
The Talmud, Bava Kamma 30a, records a debate about the central focus of a pious person:
Rabbi Judah said: He who wishes to be pious must fulfill the laws of [Seder] Nezikin.
Raba said: The matters [dealt with in the Tractate] Aboth
Still others said: Matters [dealt with in] Berakoth.
Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau, offers a helpful analysis of this discussion.
Nezikin, Avoth and Brakhot represent three possible avenues of personal excellence: Nezikin deals with the ways in which we interact in society. Avoth deals with the development of a more perfect self through the values and ethics of our sages. Brakhot deals with our spiritual development through prayer and blessings.
Further exploring the sages involved in this discussion helps to blur the distinction between social and spiritual piety.
Taanit 24 a-b records stories of rabbis fasting for rain. Rain, after all, represents God's blessings and the connection between Heaven and earth. When Rava was unsuccessful in his prayers for rain, his students asked how he Rava failed where R. Yehuda had been successful. Rava explained that R. Yehuda had been a student of the laws of Nezikin. In a following passage, the Talmud records that in a time of draught, R. Yehuda, the student of Nezikin, managed to bring about rain by simply removing his shoe to begin a fast.
R. Yehuda, the quintessential sage of the laws of damages, was ultimately successful in bringing about rain, the most concrete example of Hashem's blessing.
The moment of revelation can be seen as an individual, spiritual experience. Yet, the Torah encourages us to develop a more worldly spirituality, where our piety is most vividly expressed not only through intimate moments of dveikut with our Creator, but also through acts of righteousness in our day-to-day lives.
May we be commited more fully to the regular acts of justice in society, and may we be further blessed to recognize those moments as an encounter with Hashem.