MISHPATIM: The Shoemaker’s Simple Stitches

In the mundane, nothing is sacred; in the sacred, nothing is mundane

Dōgen

The cure for boredom is curiosity 

Dorothy Parker

Life can be boring. Let’s face it. If I have learned anything from this third and seemingly endless lockdown, it is that, when all the busyness of life dissipates, life’s quality increases. It is in the mundanity, the prose, not necessarily the poetry, that I have come across a newfound meaning in my life recently. The halakhah asks for commitment to the mundane – in order to experience the sacred. 

It is in spirituality, writes Ernest Kurtz, that we are challenged to discover life beyond immediate perceptions. Spirituality on the one hand says “yes, there is something here” and on the other calls us to say “but there is more to it than meets the eye”. 

This is the essence of this week’s parsha – Mishpatim. 

The parsha describes, in great depth, the ins and outs of Jewish law. Hebrew slaves, Hebrew maidservants, manslaughter, murder, kidnap, killer oxes, stealing and seduction – are just some of the topics covered at the beginning of chapter twenty-one of Exodus. It is quite extensive – nothing is left amiss, that’s for sure.  

Remember, of course, that we have just finished, arguably, the most significant moment in history – the giving of the ten commandments – in the previous chapter. This was a moment for the ages, a national revelation, as the historic covenant was entered into by the Israelites. 

Why, then, do we follow such a drama with the mundanity of legalism? (no offence to those lawyers out there!) What dry material to be cramming in after the intense spiritual Sinatic experience.

Furthermore, one can’t help but wonder why, after getting the run-down of what I should do if I come across my enemy’s ox or donkey, and the like, the parsha then returns to a Sinatic scene of brilliance – as Moses re-ascends the mountain. 

All in all, we heard the ten commandments last week – we then sandwich in 99 verses of detailed law – followed by the reascension of Moses up to the high-heavens. Why have we inserted the 99 verses in between? What is their significance? And what must the Torah be teaching us via the structure of it’s narrative? 

Receiving  the Torah at Sinai was not merely a handing over of a corpus of laws that would guide not just the Jewish people but much of humanity, that would have been historic. Our sages teach us the “yardah Shechinah lematah”. The Almighty’s presence descended as it were from the heavenly abode and came down to Sinai. The mountain top was transformed into heaven. At Sinai there was an astounding phenomenon. From time immemorial there had been a divide between heavens and earth, but at Sinai something unprecedented occurred, the unification between heaven and earth between the sacred and profane, that was momentous.  

The Sinai experience was intended to impress on the Jewish people an ambitious and yet exhilarating journey they would embark upon. The expectation, was not merely to embrace a new corpus of laws but rather, beyond the laws, our mission would be at every opportunity to attempt to bring G-d into our daily lives.  We discovered, that by acting for the sake of heavens the mundane could become the sublime.

We learn a similar message back in the book of Genesis. Amongst the flow of names mentioned in this book, one person is highlighted with a special quality is Chanoch – the father of Metuselah. We are told: “and Chanoch walked with God” 

The Midrash relates that Chanoch was a shoemaker. As he stitched the shoes his mind was occupied with elevated thoughts. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter explains that these elevated thoughts were not of a mystical nature, but thoughts that ensured that each stitch was perfect in order not to cheat his customers, and to ensure that he provided them with comfortable shoes. 

His main motivation was to help others, rather than merely make a living. This was how he attached himself to God. With his mind, he transformed each stitch. A mundane job became an act of loving kindness. This is a life changing concept.

Our sages state that a judge who sits in judgment and judges a case “emet leamito” according to absolute truth is considered a partner with God in creation. The Beit Yosef explains that if a judge were to reach the correct verdict but did so with a bias for or against one of the litigants then that is not absolute truth, though the outcome may have been correct and truth prevailed in returning the money to the rightful owner, the judgement was colored by the presence of an ulterior motive that influenced him. Conversely if the Judge rules wanting to establish truth in this world, they are partners in creating this world they are making more Godly expanding the heavens down to earth creating a greater space for Divine to dwell amongst us. 

What becomes self-evident is that we are presented daily with the opportunity to bring G-d into this world through bringing Him into our daily lives. The Jewish rituals, the houses of prayers and study that is where G-d has always resided in this world, but our lofty mission and His will is that every day, be it in our honesty in business, interpersonal relations or even other everyday mundane matters,  if conducted for the sake of heavens, we become partners in creation in continuing God’s work of extending heavens to the earth and we have the opportunity to continue  the Sinai experience. 

What becomes apparent is that in life more than what we do, it’s how we do it which matters. Very often the action two people are involved in, may appear on the surface as the same. Yet, the cosmic camera will detect a fundamental difference. An act performed for the sake of heavens is one devoid of any self-interest. This is the simple act of greatness – and one which merits the world to come. We are able to distinguish between sacred and profane – and fulfil the potential which G-d has given us.  

This is the message this week – in getting the simple stuff right, and in walking with God with a pure heart, we can achieve greatness. It is the prose, as well as the poetry, which gives us life. 

During these difficult times, let’s pray that we can all find grace in our ordinary lives – and, in finding grace in the simple things, may we go on to achieve greatness and live a life full of love. Shabbat Shalom. 

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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