February 15, 2023
My teenage daughter recently said: “We should all just be free to do what we want, without so many rules and regulations. That’s what real freedom is about. Being able to make our own choices and enjoy this amazing world around us!”
We were on a walk and it was a beautiful day. A small part of me got caught up in her idyllic world view. Yes! What would that be like to live in a world where people did exactly as they pleased and enjoyed the bounty of this spectacular world? Why can’t that work? Why can’t we figure out the utopian ideal? I of course snapped out of my brief reverie and thought about actual people, the actual world, and why freedom is so complicated.
Our conversation continued. Without being a naysayer, I brought up all kinds of ethical dilemmas and what if scenarios. We talked about the limits of freedom. What happens if what I want either directly or indirectly causes harm to another person, to the community, to the planet–even if that harm is vague and minimal? Yes, getting our needs met is important. But what is our responsibility to the other, and to the collective?
The last two parshiyot in the Torah set us up for feeling like my daughter. Now that we are liberated from Pharaoh’s oppression, and have received the gift of Torah from God at Mt. Sinai, we should be able to live freely and do whatever we want! We are now a free people who has been oppressed for hundreds of years. We have earned the right for serious “me time.”
However, this week’s parasha Mishpatim reminds us that human beings cannot be left to “do whatever we want.” Unfortunately, we need boundaries and guidelines to protect the individual and the collective.
What a shift in the Torah narrative! We move from the spectacular miracle at the Sea of Reeds and our liberation from slavery; then from the earth shaking revelation at the mountain where we received Torah. What’s next? One might expect a happily ever after ending where the “people waltz effortlessly into the Promised Land and live in peace and harmony forever.” One might expect the world my daughter dreams of and speaks adamantly about.
Instead we are presented with rules and ordinances, laws and statutes. At first it seems jarring and out of place. But as we sink into the wisdom of this juxtaposition, it is clear. God loves us enough to set boundaries. That’s much of what Torah is about: How to treat each other. How to create a just society. How to resolve conflicts with each other..
The Promised Land is not a place where we are free to do whatever we want. Rather, the Promised Land is a place where we have a sense of the right thing to do. Torah points the way.
May we be blessed with a deeper understanding of the Holy Ordinances in our Torah. May we deepen our sense of how to care for one another.