Shabbat Mishpatim: Kavanah is in the Details

In contrast to other religious paths, Judaism offers spiritual growth within a clear and coherent framework. The word halakhah – our “path” – is understood more commonly as our “law” because of the many mitzvot (“obligations”) which serve us as signposts along the way. Our parashat hashavua for this week contains fifty-three such mitzvot, and each mitzvah commands us equally, according to Jewish tradition – civil, moral, and commercial law all come together here in a way that isn’t easy for our category-driven minds. Yet our tradition is to regard each mitzvah, each detail of our path, with the same kavanah, the same intentionality and mindfulness. We are to bring our kavanah to care we bring to settling a fight, restoring lost items, and respecting society’s vulnerable.

It’s a journey. And it is useful to think of halakhah as road law, actually – because of the myriad of laws governing our use of back roads, main street and highways, you and I can go forth on our daily journeys expecting, under normal circumstances, to stay safe as we go about answering our desires and needs for the day. The mitzvot you practice are meant to lead you somewhere. Shabbat is the epitome of that “somewhere” – it is meant to be the high point of our week, the day on which we know that we have, spiritually, arrived, even if the arrival is only partial. Summoning the kavanah for this is not always easy.

And just like a road journey, there are days when, spiritually, we can barely see for the storms. In the darkness, we anxiously look for the next road sign, struggling to to lose our way, and to bring any passengers we have with us – loved ones, children – home safely. These are the days when we most need the little details of all those mitzvot. They give us something small and regular and dependable to focus our souls, as we try not to get lost.

All those mitzvot are there to help lead you toward your kavanah, your intentionality, for Shabbat, so that it can become a shavat, “resting” of the soul. Lighting candles at sunset sparks a mood shift; singing L’kha Dodi as we bring in Shabbat at the shul triggers relaxation; having the family and friends gather for an unrushed dinner can redeem the whole week. We all have a different way into kavanah.

May your Shabbat be for you each week a chance to delight in all that is offered you, every little detail that reminds you to take care with each moment of our short, precious lives, and to come to know yourself in a whole new way which was, nevertheless, always there. 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

(T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets)

parashat Behar-Behukotai: what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?

Once again we have a double parasha this week. According to our minhag, we’ll read a bit from the first third of both parshas, depending on what catches our eye and looks intriguing. It must be admitted, though, that the first several verses of parashat Behar already contain a world.


“The Eternal spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying, speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a shabbat.”  (VaYikra .25.1-2)


First: here we are in chapter 25 of VaYikra, Leviticus, and all of a sudden Mt. Sinai is mentioned? Why here, and why now, after we have moved on to cover so many topics since we received Torah at Sinai.


Second, if we are suddenly to be reminded of Sinai, what is the segue that leads to the land observing a shabbat (i.e. every seven years the land is not to be sown nor harvested)?


In other words, as the tradition asks, mah inyan shemittah eytzel Har Sinai? It’s an idiom that has entered into Hebrew speech: “what does shemittah have to do with Mt. Sinai?” means about the same thing as “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”  How are these two concepts related?


In this case, to answer the one is to answer both. Sinai is mentioned, all these verses and stories later, because the Israelites are still at Sinai; they have not left the foot of the mountain yet to go forward toward the land of Israel. For us, the relevance is in seeing ourselves also standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai – even all these generations later. “No matter where I go, I am going to Jerusalem” said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. It’s a mindset, an act of kavanah. We Jews cannot walk away from Sinai; it looms over us always. It is our metaphor for the mountain of history, of halakhah, of tradition which we inherit, and of the rest we find in its shade; it reminds us to lift our eyes upward to consider the transcendent beauty of our world, and not just the smaller issues we see when we look down at our hands.


And what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai? only this: there is nothing in Jewish life, no obligation nor privilege, which cannot be traced back to the simple awareness we gained at Sinai. There is a midrashic discussion about what the Israelites actually heard or saw at Sinai, in one Rabbi suggested that they did not need to hear all the commandments; just the first few would have been sufficienct, and the rest could have been inferred. For that matter, said another, once you hear the first one, and realize that you are not alone in the world, all the rest can be inferred. Ah, but perhaps then you do not even need to entire first commandment.  Generations later the Hasidic Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov offered a further thought: perhaps all that Israel heard at Sinai was the first letter of the first word of the first Commandment. That is, nothing more or less than the silent letter alef of the word anokhi, “I am”. One need not even hear the first word, the “I”, spoken by G-d. One need hear only the intake of breath, as it were, the opening of a mouth, so to speak – one need sense only that something is about to be.


“To hear the aleph is to hear next to nothing; it is the preparation for all audible language, but in itself conveys no determinate, specific meaning. Thus, with his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the aleph, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning.” (Gershom Scholem, On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism, p. 30)


To be “pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning”: this is not only a description of the meeting place between God and humanity. It is also a description of any of us, at any moment of any day, if we remember that we are always standing in the presence of G-d.