Friday, February 01, 2008

Mishpatim: The Laws of Love

In the weeks before Valentine’s Day (I know, I know -- St. Valentine, not a Jew) and in contemplating my upcoming engagement, I’ve been thinking more and more about relationships, about love, and rules we follow for how we treat each other. Did you know that there is an increase in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday?

According to a study done by Indiana University, an average of 244 additional cases of domestic violence occur on Super Sunday. Even at times when the emphasis should be on love, people revert to the raw emotion of anger, and its spawn, violence. Throughout this Parsha I read words traditionally translated as referring to violence, here offered as guidance when someone wrongs you and how to get even. We find the often quoted “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25). We also see continual references to women as property, and even wives are only promised “sustenance," "clothing," and "marital relations." I won’t be one to argue with these three necessities, but what about "respect," "safety," and "honesty"? Perhaps I’m reading the words of the Parsha too closely, but perhaps we should all rethink what sustenance really means -- don’t we need love to survive?

Also woven throughout Mishpatim -- just like life’s hardships -- are continual references and illusions to how to conduct respectful and loving relationships.

Unfortunately, there are no set-in-stone rules for love, and certainly not as many as the ordinances set out in Parsha Mishpatim. In this Parsha you read laws spanning agriculture, theft, carnal indiscretions, and holidays. But G-d also sets forth rules similar to guidelines for healthy relationships. Partners should learn:

  • Give and take
    If you take your neighbor's garment as security, until sunset you shall return it to him” (Ex. 22:25)
  • Empathy
    “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9)
  • Loyalty
    “You shall not prostrate yourself before their gods, and you shall not worship them, and you shall not follow their practices.” (Ex. 23:24)

Maybe I’m consumed by the fires of love right now, but the last portion of Mishpatim (in which Moses ascends Mount Sinai and interacts with G-d), sounds strangely familiar to my own experiences with mortal love, in that sometimes reality is clouded, and love is brilliant and consuming:

And Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moses on the seventh day from within the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire atop the mountain, before the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses came within the cloud, and he went up to the mountain, and Moses was upon the mountain forty days and forty nights.” (Ex. 24:15-18)

So in the spirit of the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and G-d’s ordinances, love each other by following the rules of fairness and honesty, and know that it’s okay to become consumed by love. Good luck and ... play ball!

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