Bringing Sinai back into our Jewish experience


A former chief rabbi accused and arrested for possible bribery and embezzlement, a rabbinic leader found guilty of inappropriate behavior with his students, and yet another rabbi accused of bribing senior police officers.

Even if one has to take what one reads in the press with a grain of salt, something is clearly amiss. Where have we gone wrong? How can we avoid these horrific pitfalls in the future?

This week, in the portion of Mishpatim we read, “Ve’eileh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem (And these are the statutes you shall place before them).” Exodus 21:1

We have been reading of the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea and, last week, the awe-filled Revelation at Sinai. This week, we come back down to earth, with a portion filled with laws, particularly the mitzvoth related to social justice and how we relate to and treat each other.

But there is an interesting detail at the beginning of the portion that makes this a little more interesting: Hashem does not actually command these laws, nor does He command Moshe to command these laws; He tells Moshe to place them before the Jewish people (tasim lifneihem). What is the meaning of this seemingly out of place verb?

Rashi points out that last week’s portion ends with the mitzvah of building an altar in the Temple, and wonders why the giving of the laws at Sinai is preceded by the mitzvah to build an altar on the Temple Mount. His response is that this teaches us that the Sanhedrin, the highest court that was responsible for dispensing law and justice, had to sit in proximity to the Temple (actually on the Temple mount itself.)

Why was this idea one of the first things we learn of immediately after the revelation at Sinai? Perhaps the Torah is sharing a critical idea with us: What does it mean to be an ethical person?

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The first portion after the Revelation is all about human ethics, but what does it mean to be ethical? How does one determine what ethical behavior truly is?

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook suggests that all of the baggage people have in life stems from their relationship with Hashem; someone with a warped relationship with G-d will exhibit warped behavior in life.

Just because a person wears the right hat, studies the right books, or gives lots of tzedakah, does not guarantee they will be uniformly ethical. At the end of the day, unless ethics stem from an Objective Source (G-d), they cannot be objective ethics, they remain the whim of the person and his or her worldview and there will be a potential gap in ethical behavior.

Perhaps this is why social ethics appear in the Torah immediately after the Revelation at Sinai — because the one absolutely influences and impacts the other.

And maybe this is why the Sanhedrin sat on the Temple Mount. The whole point of a Temple was that there be a space where one could experience a deep relationship with Hashem in such an intense and meaningful way, that it would have to inform our behavior down even to the most minute detail.

If you could really see that every human being was and is created in the image of G-d, and if in every moment one could feel the immanence of Hashem’s presence, it would be much more difficult to steal from or harm anyone.

It is certainly important to fulfill the letter and the spirit of Jewish law. Indeed, one of the ways Jewish and Christian ethics may diverge is that Judaism is not social action espoused, it is social action demanded.

That being said, it is equally important to bring G-d back into the dialogue.

Ask any yeshiva high school graduate how to put on a pair of Tefillin, or what to do when reciting the Shema, and they will have no trouble at all. (I have on occasion seen “Tefillin races” wherein high school students race to see who can put on or take off Tefillin faster!)

But ask them if putting on those same Tefillin was part of a meaningful relationship with Hashem and you will get a very different type of answer. 

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Ask a yeshiva high school student whether they believe in G-d and the answer you will generally get is “yes.” Then ask them what they think G-d is, and they will have no clue how to even begin to respond to that question; you will witness a very long pause.

The Sanhedrin needs to sit on the Temple mount, and we need to reinvest our Jewish practice with Jewish meaning. Hashem will place the laws before us, but we have to decide how we will relate to them.

Perhaps it’s time to bring a little Sinai back into our Jewish experience.