February 22, 2001
Laws of Love
Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
My daughter is beginning to get her hands into everything. She began crawling at 10 months, but didn't quite understand the power of her freedom. Now at 13 months, she is like a pig in mud. She climbs up the tiled step around the bathtub, pushes herself up to her feet and holds on screaming in joy. She opens up the closet under the sink and looks for plastic bags or cleaning fluids. She searches the corners of our house to find paint chips or dust to eat. Everything she discovers excites her with possibilities, and fills me with trepidation.
In response we've developed a game. Each time she begins to reach for something dangerous, I call out her name and then shake my finger back and forth and say "No, no, no." She looks up at me with her saucer green-brown eyes, shakes her finger back at me, and then turns around and reaches for the danger once again. Our game repeats two to three times. Half the time she stops her action on her own, and the other half I need to physically intervene by moving her.
I'm amazed at how early the concept of rules, right and wrong, safe and unsafe, enters our vocabulary. And doubly amazed at how much my daughter seeks to learn, test and understand her limits. After each action, each crawl, each venture into new territory, she turns back and looks for confirmation or condemnation.
This week's parashah is filled with rights and wrongs. Even its title, Mishpatim (meaning "laws"), hints to the abundance of precepts. Like the Israelites of yesterday, the Jews of today and the toddlers of tomorrow, we all seek structure in our life that provides us with a sense of security. Ironically, without some sense of structure we feel unloved. The Torah is keenly aware of this irony, yet some parents of today feel uncomfortable with the need for laws.
In her book "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children," Dr. Wendy Mogel writes about the rising phenomenon of parents who allow their children to call them by their first name, try to be their "best friends" or strive to run a democratic household in which everyone's opinion has equal weight. The negative consequence of this is that our children do not learn the value of authority, a nasty word in post-60s America.
Mishpatim encourages an opposite message. We read that once the Israelites finished hearing the laws of God that Moses wrote down, sealed by a covenant of blood and then read aloud to the people, they answered "na'aseh v'nishnah" ("we will do and we will listen") (Exodus 24:7). Sforno, a 15th century Italian scholar, comments on the seemingly odd order of the Israelites promise: they agree to obey Gods laws before they agree to fully listen to, or understand them. Sforno asks how can one give up control and follow someone's request to act without understanding their reasons or motivation? Sforno teaches that the Torah is trying to tell us that the Israelites agreed to "do" for the purpose of listening to and understanding God.
Essentially, the reason why the Israelites could agree to act before fully knowing God was because they respected the need for authority in their lives, trusted God and knew -- though it may seem backwards -- that by following this authority they would come closer to God, understand God more fully and love God.
As parents we constantly experience the connection between rules and love. When we set reasonable boundaries for our children -- like homework first, then TV -- as much as they might protest, we act responsibly. When we set down our own interpersonal "Ten Commandments" of the house, we are showing that we care about each other's safety and emotional security. When I shake my hand at my daughter and say "No, no, no," she cries, but then lifts up her hands and reaches out for a hug and kiss -- and in that one moment I experience law and love simultaneously.
When setting down rules, no longer do we have to say "Because I'm your Mother/Father," but rather "Because I love you" (and then of course make sure what we say is really spoken out of love).n
Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood.