Last month we celebrated our nation's birthday-239 years and counting. Fireworks, parades, and one of my favorite traditions, NPR's annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. You have to get up early to hear it, but it's absolutely thrilling. We are, we keep reminding ourselves, a nation of laws. We put great stock in the process, in addition to the product; it's not just the laws themselves, it's how we get to them.
In Devarim, "mishpatim" (laws) were handed down to us, already processed. In Deuteronomy 7:12, the beginning of the parasha Ekev, we read, "And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully…" It's interesting to note that only "mishpatim" are spoken of here; usually we read, "chukim u'mishpatim," with "chukim" often characterized as rules for which there seems to be no rhyme or reason, whereas "Mishpatim" are characterized as more rational rules, but which ones? Which are "these rules?"
Rashi (11 th c France) and Ramban (13 th c Spain) present two different perspectives (of course!) on these "mishpatim." Rashi is the individualist. He says the mishpatim are the every-day "trivial commandments which a man is tempted to dash under his heels." He brings in the word "heel" because the name of the parasha , Ekev, is the root word for "heel." Remember the story of Jacob/Yaakov? We were introduced to him in Genesis, when he was born with his twin brother, Esau, who was born first: "Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau so they named him Yaakov." (Gen 25:26)
Rashi holds that when we follow the rules that seem unimportant, God will maintain the covenant with us. For him, it's the attention to detail, the minute, seemingly trivial that connects us to God. For Ramban, it's the opposite. He's focused on the collective. Ramban says it's unrealistic to expect everyone in the community to follow every single law, so what makes for a pious society that remains connected to God is the court system. People will mess up, but the society that plans for dealing with that is the one that shows its holy status. In a just society, even if individual people mess up, there are processes in place that will deliver both justice and mercy, and maintain the balance within the community.
At this point in our narrative, we are listening to Moses recap the other four books of the Torah, preparing the people to live in the Land without him. Of course, he knows that; the people may not have figured that part out. We're beginning to see how the plan is going to play out, once they cross over. Moses is extremely concerned with making sure the people have all they need to launch the experiment successfully. Torah teaches us that we judge a society by how it behaves towards its most vulnerable members, i.e. the widows and orphans. Because of this, I happen to lean towards Ramban's commentary on which rules Moses is talking about here. The mishpatim are the laws that define a society. And whether or not those laws are arrived at through Divine Decree or representative government, the underlying value of striving towards creating a just and righteous society remain strong.
Once a year, on Yom Kippur, we take stock of our individual selves. Perhaps as we read Ekev, and indeed, throughout Deuteronomy, we can take stock of our collective selves. How close are we to the just and righteous society we are here to create, both in the Jewish community and the greater American community?
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com .