Torah From A Mussar Perspective Mishpatim

Torah From A Mussar Perspective Mishpatim

This piece originally was published as part of Torah From a Mussar Perspective in 5781/2021.


During this pandemic time, I have found myself frequently moving between periods of normal energy and periods of considerable fatigue. I note that the latter is not unexpected, given all that has occurred in our world and in my own life this past year. Yet, I yearn to emerge from this tiredness back to how I was pre-pandemic, knowing, ultimately that I, like all of us, have been forever changed by this experience. I am cognizant of the reality that to skillfully approach the coming months and years will require a new way of understanding ourselves in the world. The desire is ever-present to move forward as if we have not lived through unconscionable loss, upheaval, polarization, and strife. To do so, however, is not to allow ourselves to confront in our own experiences the traumas we have endured this year, hoping that by merely moving forward, all will be made right. This is a deeply human and understandable experience, one with which our ancient ancestors would have surely resonated. How do we move between worlds, between modes of being? How did our ancestors move from the degradation of slavery, through the redemption that came at the splitting of the Yam-Suf,[1] to receiving revelation on Har Sinai?[2] How is a formerly enslaved people supposed to integrate all of these experiences such that their and our enduring covenant with The Divine will lead to us leading lives of holiness?


Our parsha this week, Mishpatim is largely concerned with providing us the beginnings of an answer. We are given laws governing interpersonal disputes, property conflicts and so much more. It is one thing to stand as a collective at Sinai to receive the Torah in all of its richness. That, indeed, is another-worldly experience. It is another to come down the mountain, as it were, and begin to integrate that experience into the messy, complex, challenging reality of what it means to be human.


In Exodus/Shmot 23:1-2, we learn:


“You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty.” (JPS Translation).


We are to act truthfully and righteously in all of our interactions, being sure neither to perpetuate false and malicious rumors nor to side with those who act wrongly in service of their own power and prestige. We might understand the Torah’s command in a number of ways. Many of us are experiencing heightened tension with those in our “pods,” given that we have spent many months with just them. In a time, such as ours, when our bandwidth for disagreement and conflict is short, and when our external culture rewards polarization and strife in service of the ego and personal power, it is tempting to opt for falsehood and rumor over truth and messiness. Too many of us lack skillful means for managing emotional upheaval and personal conflict. I imagine that our ancestors who, for so long, lived lives lacking in personal agency, found themselves learning as they went how to establish what we would today call boundaries with others as a means of managing interpersonal conflict as they established themselves as a nation. Our rabbis teach that the Torah is eternally relevant, speaking to each generation in its own way. So, too, does the Torah speak in the language of human beings. Our Mussar practice encourages us to do daily cheshbon hanefesh, soul accounting, as a vehicle for encountering our own soul curriculum and areas for growth.


My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe of the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project,[3] which is a space for Jewish social changemakers to engage with Mussar practice as a means of building a deeply rooted spiritual practice to sustain them in their work, teaches often about the middah of savlanut, frequently but imperfectly translated as patience. In our Western cultural context, so consumed by the need for instant gratification, savlanut can feel unattainable. In a society so beset by systems of inequity and structural oppression, savlanut can ring hollow at best and feel deeply alienating at worst. Yet, Rabbi Jaffe reminds me that savlanut is, at its core, the capacity for us to respond with equanimity to conditions that arise which might elicit strong responses such as anger and frustration. Neither of these emotions are negative inherently—indeed, anger can be quite productive—and when accessed and utilized skillfully, can lead to much-needed change. When we find ourselves in conflict with another, be it interpersonally or politically, we can utilize a teaching from the Tomer Devorah, a classic Mussar text written in the Land of Israel in the 16th century. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, its author, notes that the Divine is not separate from us but indeed endures the insults, the trials and tribulations that we do. Nothing is hidden from G-d’s watch. There is not a single moment, Rabbi Cordovero teaches, in which a human being is not sustained by the flow of Divine abundance. When a human being uses this Divine sustaining power to commit a wrongdoing, G-d suffers along with the one who was wronged and bears the inequity of the transgression. Therefore, G-d yearns for human beings, as the Prophet Micah teaches, to do teshuvah.[4] The middah of savlanut, then, allows us to remain hopeful that true teshuvah is possible. Rabbi Cordovero reminds us that we must always keep our goodness flowing to the other, even and especially when we are not sure that the other will do teshuvah.


I readily admit that it can be hard to wrap our hearts around this in a time in which many feel so much wrongdoing is occurring with impunity. Indeed, our Mussar teachers emphasize that free will is bestowed to every human being by the Divine and that we are responsible for our choices and actions. When we find ourselves experiencing conflict with another, we might adopt a kabbalah[5] that derives from this source, a mantra of sorts. Here is an example:


Take your seat. Focus on your meditation anchor, be that the breath, sound, or something else. Call to mind the one with whom you are experiencing conflict. Repeat softly to yourself, “I keep my goodness flowing to you”. Keep repeating this phrase for five minutes or for however long you have. Notice what arises for you, physical sensations, emotions, feelings in the body.


I recommend anchoring your practice in a single interpersonal conflict at first. You might later expand this to send goodness out to those outside of your circle, to the world, etc. This practice is one I have found to be quite centering.


Our Torah reminds us to always act with truthfulness and equanimity. Let us extend that outward, so that as we change our own souls, we might impact those of others in our midst.




  • What is one conflict that I am experiencing presently? When I call that conflict to mind, how does it land with me?
  • How does the idea of being sustained by the Divine at all times, even amidst transgression, resonate with me? What might I draw from this idea?

[1] The Sea of Reeds

[2] Mount Sinai


[4] Return, or repentance.

[5] Mussar practice

Mishpatim 5779

This commentary was written for the Avodah Jewish Service Corps in 5779/2019.
Mishpatim, our Torah portion for this week, consists of a series of miscelaneous laws covering a wide array of subject matter, everything from the laws of owning slaves (an incredibly important conversation to dig into though that is not our area for this week), the importance of keeping Shabbat and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and laws of damages.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet or section of Bava Kama, there is a chapter that is frequently learned called HaChovel, which deals explicitly with one of the subject areas in our Torah portion—what happens if a person injures another. Exodus 21:23-25 spells out the penalty—life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise, etc. Our rabbis are so disturbed by this proscription that they devote an entire chapter to figuring out how to overturn it, using their own svara, an Aramaic term that means moral intuition or reasoning. It is one of the five sources the rabbis in the Talmud use to derive conclusions on matters of Jewish law. Svara is such a significant source that it has the power to overturn the proscriptions found in the written Torah or Five Books of Moses. In this chapter of Talmud, the rabbis conclude repeatedly that when the Torah talks about an eye for an eye, it is really referring to a monetary payment. Why is this such a significant move?
The Talmud is a lot of things—codifications of conversations on all manner of Jewish legal topics, stories about rabbis and other leaders, unfinished lecture notes and incredible religious and life wisdom. We’ve just read Parashat Yitro, in which the revelation of Torah—Matan Torah—occurs on Har Sinai. The rabbis of the Talmud, knowing that Svara can overturn written Torah in practice, also know that they cannot literally take out an eye for an eye from the written Torah text because the Torah is divine, and every letter has infinite significance. Therefore, they have to use a pretty radical set of tools to ensure that laws such as an eye for an eye are never put into practice as they are written. Instead, their meaning and application get completely subverted. In their own ways, the rabbis use the tools they have at their disposal to enact incredible religious and social evolution. I imagine that there were some voices who found the inclusion of so many of the laws in our Torah portion so disturbing that they would have rather those laws be removed from the Torah entirely. And who can blame them? So too, in our own lives and work, there are so many systemic and structural injustices we encounter every day, and we often despair of ever making significant change. We may not have every tool in our toolbox that we wish, or we may not be positioned to make as sweeping or radical change as we would like. I bless all of us that as we continue on our journeys this year and beyond, may we constantly remind ourselves of the ways in which we can make substantive change, no matter how small. When we feel caught in systems and cycles that serve no one, may we remember that even the smallest actions, those things that feel inconsequential add up and have the power to effect sustained, lasting change.