We are probably aware that the month of February is Black History Month. School children across the nation are exposed to black writers and thinkers as they devote classroom time to the history of black people in America. Given the events of last several years, and the renewed spirit and energy in the fight for racial equity and justice, I pray that this time is being spent well and meaningfully. I am clear that this year is more of a challenge due to some of the comments from the African American community in response to the horrific events in Israel on October 7, 2023.
Your streaming service has probably suggested to you films and TV you can watch for this month. Maybe your favorite publication has some articles or a series running throughout February to keep these important topics in the forefront. There are a lot of ways to engage with Black History Month.
February is also Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Synagogues, schools, and other community organizations commit and recommit to the work of making sure that all of our communal Jewish spaces are open and accessible to people of all abilities. That means physical adaptations as well as technological ones to ensure that the Jewish community is truly a place for everyone.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) contains one of the largest collections of commandments (mitzvot) of any single portion. It ranges from the laws of slavery, to property damage, to personal injury law, to some agricultural laws. If you can think of a legal matter that is about the proper functioning of society, it can be found in Mishpatim.
It is a good reminder that our tradition has a lot to say about matters that we might more readily consider being universal. Biblical scholars often refer to some of the chapters of this portion as the Covenant Code, that is to say it is the agreement that the people of Israel made with God and each other to have a society that was based on the rule of law. In other words, our relationship with God is made manifest in the way we organize and structure our everyday lives.
But what about peak religious experiences? What about the highs of a magnificent prayer service or the majesty of taking in the beauty of nature? Surely if we could see ourselves as worthy, each of us, I imagine, would want to have a ‘burning bush’ moment where we perceive the presence of God directly and personally. Surely that kind of encounter is deeper and more meaningful than properly guarding my ox from goring my fellow’s ox.
Yet, Mishpatim comes precisely at the right moment to teach us a valuable lesson about the life lived through Torah. Last week we received the revelation at Sinai where all of our senses were on fire just as Mount Sinai was. We beheld the awesomeness of God, as we were the fortunate recipients of God’s law and trust. But we can’t stay at that moment forever. We must journey forward equipped with the instructions and inspired by the experience so that we might forge a just society based on love of God, Torah and love of fellow human beings.
This is the lesson of our reading this week. That even though we get great nourishment from the exceptional and ecstatic religious experience, those cannot be the basic scaffolding around which our religious lives must be built. Rather it is in the day-to-day details of interpersonal relationships, that our commitment to Torah is truly made manifest in the world.
After all, that is one of the overlapping messages of Black History Month and JDAIM – that our humanity is what bestows on us a small measure of divinity. And by virtue of that, all people – regardless of what may make them different from us – matter a great deal. May we all come to have an awareness of God as we world towards a world of inclusion and equity for all people.