Talk About Overkill
These are the judgments-mishpatim-which you will place before them.
Recently I was in New York, and was meeting a friend for dinner one night
downtown. I had already had a previous meeting with someone else in the
lobby of the Hilton Hotel at 6th Avenue and 50th Street, so it was just a
matter of walking a few blocks to 46th Street, and then west.
As it turned out, I was a good hour early, so I decided to walk around the
block. I continued west down 46th Street, unaware of where I was going,
especially since it had gotten dark in the meantime. As I approached the end
of the street and looked up, I was suddenly taken aback and froze. Without
knowing it, I had stumbled into Times Square.
It was as if someone had just, all of a sudden, turned on all the lights in
the world. Massive light billboards lined every building, throwing out
advertising for one thing or another at such a huge scale that all I could
do was stand in one spot and look around. I was overwhelmed by the overkill,
which seemed designed to do exactly that.
It took me about 10 minutes to recover before I could move on and make my
way back to safer, quieter territory. But, the amazing thing was how I was
the only one affected by all the glitter, hustle, and bustle. Everyone else
just went about their business like nothing was out of the norm, making me
feel as if I just gotten off the boat from some third world country. The
place is extreme. It is meant to be. It is New York's version of Hollywood,
which also tries to overwhelm with blockbuster movies and more-
real-than-life-itself special effects. Even the cost of producing such films
is staggering, not to mention the obscene amounts of money that are paid to
see them, or to sports figures who happened to be born with talent. And, few
people barely bat an eye at any of it.
I had a similar feeling when in the Apple Store there as well. There was an
incredible amount of product in the store, people looking at it, and
salespeople walking around doing the selling. Amazingly, if you bought
something with a credit card, they could swipe it and put the purchase
through on the spot, just by using their iPhones. Within seconds, the
receipt had shown up in the e-mail of my iPhone.
They even had bags tucked somewhere under the belts, saving the credit
card-paying customers a stay in the local checkout counter line-up, where
poor, old fashioned cash paying customers had to do time while waiting to
complete their purchases. It was an experience to behold, so I sat down on
one of the benches there just to take in the scene before moving on once again.
Last week, I read an article in which a well-known correspondent reported
how a Haiti official decried how the world was already losing interest in
the post-earthquake situation there, and would certainly do so in the weeks
ahead. Though it will take years for Haitians to re-build their cities and
get back on their financial feet once again, the world will take a lot less
time to forget the disaster that just occurred there.
Earthquakes are awesome. Suffering people, not so much. Sudden mass
destruction is sensational. Prolonged agony, much less so. In each case, the
former talks right to our bodies, and tingles it, like being on a scary
ride. In each case, the latter talks to our souls, which may or may not be
able to hear anything since in most people they are covered by all kinds of
layers of more superficial concerns.
It is the difference between "like a single person with a single heart," and
"with a single heart, like a single person." When the Jewish people stood at
Har Sinai and received the Torah, they were the former. When the Egyptians
pursued the Jewish people into the sea to kill them, they were the latter.
What is the difference, besides the order of the words?
The difference is that, in the case of, "like a single person with a single
heart" unity is the cause, and the common heart is the result. In the case
of, "with a single heart, like a single person," the common heart is the
cause, and the unity is the result, which means that unity is only possible
as long as the hearts share a common cause, like killing all the Jews.
For such a common cause, even enemies such as Moav and Midian could forget
their differences and work together to eliminate the Jewish people. However,
once they finished doing that, God forbid, then they would have gone right
back to being enemies once again. Their love, so-to-speak, was a love that
was dependent upon certain factors, and therefore, as the Mishnah warns, was
destined to fall apart (Pirkei Avos 5:19).
Who cared about Haitians before the earthquake? Now the whole world cares
about Haitians, because of the earthquake, and since it is love that grew
out of an event, once the event is over, then so too does the love leave as
well. Decry it all you want, but that is the reality of a world that
requires epic events to make it feel alive, and attached to reality, and to
one another. Loathe it if you will, but it is the way of the world in which
Can it be changed? Of course it can, but not without much work and
sacrifice. In fact, that is the purpose of this week's parshah, especially
on the heels of last week's parshah. In last week's parshah, there was a
major event, and it was more than awesome enough to draw people out of their
everyday mundane personal realities. But, in this week's parshah, we have
maintain such a high level of sensitivity, even without the mega-events.
It's called mishpatim, or judgments. The 613 Mitzvos and their myriad of
details is not only about loyalty, but about achieving and maintaining a
sensitivity to life as well. Sensitivity is a function of awareness and
appreciation, and both are a function of knowledge. The more detailed one's
knowledge is, the more sensitive he is going to be in life.
And humble too. Humility is not about feeling inadequate in life. It is
about seeing life as being larger than ourselves. For example, standing
amongst a small group of people, one can feel quite haughty. However,
standing amongst thousands of people, one tends to feel awed and set in place.
It works the same way with knowledge as well. If one lives with a
superficial understanding of the important things in life, it will be hard
to appreciate their worth. But, if one pursues a more detailed understanding
of such things and matters, then one can develop an acute sensitivity to
their importance, and care for them accordingly.
That's what this week's parshah, with all of its many details, is saying to
us. It is saying, "Last week you witnessed the giving of Torah on Har Sinai,
and it blew you away. However, life is not like that on a daily basis
(besides in the movie theatres), so you have to know how to maintain that
awe of life on your own, from daily life itself. Mishpatim can do that for you."
This is why the learning of Talmud, though it may be difficult to master, is
so enjoyable and exciting for so many. After all, why should it be more so
than any other discipline or any the form of education? The answer is,
because it spends all of its time dissecting life into its most basic
components, and it leaves one with a sense of awe for life and living.
This is, perhaps, the reason why all of these mishpatim break up the
narrative of the giving of the Torah, which resumes at the end of this
week's parshah. It's as if the many laws and details are the bridge from the
events of last week's parshah to those of this week's parshah, as if to say,
you have to work with these to get to there, to get to the point where you
can say, "We will do, and we will understand."
Called the language of the angels (Shabbos 88a), putting the doing before
the understanding is an ultimate expression of humility, something that was
made possible by the awesomeness of the Har Sinai Experience. Children do it
because they don't know better, and patients may do it with respect to
taking medicine from a doctor they respect. But no one will do so with their
entire life, unless the source of the instructions for living is larger than
life itself, which Torah clearly is.
This is the message of matzah as well. Matzah is not only about abstaining
from chometz; it is about learning how to remain excited about life with a
minimal amount of physical pleasure. Bread is like Hollywood, like Times
Square: it is bloated reality, something you have to do when the simple
things in life fail to satisfy you. Matzah is about getting back to basics,
and learning how to see how wonderful they are, no matter how simple they
may seem to be.
It is not an easy thing to do, especially in today's society. There are so
many things to have, so many experiences to be enjoyed. Life, today, is not
simple at all, but very complex. It just appears simple. What you can't do
at the touch of a button, but what has to go on in the background so that
touching the button has the desired effect, something that is often
reflected in the cost.
During my stay in New York, I was supposed to receive a check from another
state. It did not arrive on time, so I asked that it be cancelled and a new
one sent, this time by overnight courier so that I could deal with it before
I left for Israel the next day. It was promptly sent by UPS, which would
have delivered it the next morning, had the address on the package not been
off by one number.
When it comes to UPS, you don't want to make a mistake with the address, I
learned on a previous occasion. Even if you call them up to correct the
error, they still won't deliver it until you receive a postcard from them,
after which time they will deliver it a second time. However, I didn't have
time to wait for one, so I tried to convince them to bend their rules this
one time, but to no avail. Even after the sender called them up and made the
correction, it was too late for delivery that day, when I needed to deposit it.
But, they told me I could go to their station and pick it up, if I wanted
to. So, after checking Google Maps and getting the Public Transit
instructions, I set off for what I had thought would be about a 90 minute
journey. Little did I know that Maspeth, from Flushing, is about 90 minutes
each way, and just about downtown, where I had to be later that day.
What a journey it was, and in the end, thank God, I received my check, and
after 3 hours, I was back in Flushing once again. However, as I traveled
there and back, I couldn't help but think about how one number could make
such a difference in life, or what it was I must've done to warrant such
In fact, more than likely, I probably took for granted some time that I
thought had little significance, and had wasted it. This was God's way of
telling me, "Don't do it again. UPS could have delivered your package, and
saved you a lot of time, if it was time that I saw you were interested in
saving. Life is fleeting and your time in New York is coming to an end. Use
That is the meaning of mishpatim, and Parashas Shekalim. The word shekel,
the name of a currency, is also the basis of the word mishkal, which is used
for weighing things. The Half-Shekel that we gave in the desert in Moshe's
time counteracted Haman later on in history, because it represented our
return to a deeper level of spiritual consciousness. That is the only way to
combat, and defeat, Amalek, whose entire attack is to keep Jews superficial.
Thus, these parshios, Mishpatim and Shekalim, mean use your mind, think
things through, and weigh things out. You'll be surprised what you come up
with: usually a better appreciation of life, and a greater sensitivity to
what counts the most in life. And that is the only real way to become the
very best you possible.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.