Substance over flash
Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
Substance isn’t sexy.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is the first in 71 chapters of biblical text to depart from engaging stories and dramatic scenes; instead, it gives us roughly 53 commandments of things we ought to do and things we ought not to do. We get three chapters of nothing but laws.
Manslaughter. Property damage. Indentured servitude. Murder. Personal injury. Theft. Torts. Bailments. Collateral and debt collection. Abuse. Theft. Sorcery. A fair system of jurisprudence. The sabbatical year. Shabbat. Idol worship.
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For attorneys and legal scholars, this section is infinitely fascinating — and there are hundreds of worthwhile elaborations, debates and side discussions one might be consumed with. This section will not, however, be optioned by Steven Spielberg for a new film.
The flashy parts of the Torah — the miracles, the plagues and the dramatic scenes between characters — grab your attention and hold it. Those parts are also more memorable. Just ask any bnai mitzvah child who has been assigned Parshat Mishpatim, or Tetzaveh (all about priestly garb), or Tazria-Metzora (skin ailments), and they’ll tell you that the non-narrative detail
parts of Torah are less appealing than, say, Lech Lecha (Sarah and Abraham are promised the land of Israel), or Yitro (God appears at Sinai).
This is the same phenomenon as recognizing that an Instagram post or a YouTube video is more engaging than a scholarly article. The video is certainly easier to watch and more entertaining. But there’s far more complexity and nuance to something longer and written out. Torah, and particularly Parshat Mishpatim with its long list of sometimes arcane commandments, is certainly this way. Flashy is great in small chunks, but it isn’t going to capture your imagination to the same degree as substance. Nobody is going to argue that a funny TikTok video is as impactful as “The Godfather.”
Doing mitzvot — the well-known ones like keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat, wearing tefillin and tallit, attending services, visiting the sick, giving tzedakah; and the less well-known ones like writing a Torah or keeping fair weights and measures — are about substance. They are a lifelong practice. They aren’t often as dramatic or engaging as the big stories or miracles of the Torah, but they make up 99% of what and who we are as Jews.
There is a midrash that notes that the word Torah — spelled taf, vav, resh, hay — has the numerical equivalent in Gematria of 611, which is two short of the number of commandments, 613. That’s because God gave the first two commandments, “I am the Lord your God” and “You shall have no other Gods before Me” directly to the people. They had to learn the rest of the commandments
God was a big, flashy moment. The learning and the doing of being a moral, good and holy person? That takes a lot of work. Substance isn’t sexy, but it is essential.L’Shalom. PJC
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader for Brith Shalom Jewish Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.