February 19, 2004
Through God’s Eyes
Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 - 24:18)
One of my students once asked me what was the greatest gift that my teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach gave me. My reply was immediate: "He gave me a new pair of eyes."
I had grown up praying from the first day I could speak.
I was raised observing Shabbat from the moment I learned to distinguish between "permitted" and "forbidden."
I grew up believing that God cares about every detail of my life, even before I had completed the psychological development of separation and individuation.
But how was I to actually see God in my life? How was I to close the gap between what my mind constantly repeated but my heart so deeply questioned? Or rather, how could I wed what my heart knew with what my mind continuously challenged?
This week's Torah portion is laden with details and hence, God's presence, in each and every step that we take. It leads us through a legal maze of issues touching upon social justice and the holidays, in addition to laws of property and ownership.
The Torah portion teaches us of four distinct paradigms of damages that one's possessions can cause (a goring ox; the damage caused by their eating or kicking; fire; a pit) and the nature of responsibility that the owner of the animal or the digger of the pit, or the source of fire is obligated to compensate the offended party with. It is not the immediate damage that an individual causes, but rather his or her possessions that are the cause of the damage. One could presumably claim that the person carries no responsibility to the damage that an object in that person's possession causes, for it is not really that person; it is that person's possession.
It is my belief that the Torah is challenging us to respond to that initial reaction and to inquire to what extent do we assume responsibility for our possessions? It is our answer to this pressing question that will illumine the space we are willing to give God in our life, bringing God into realms far beyond what meets the eye.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe (R' Mordechai Yoseph Lainer of Isbitza, 1800-1854) addresses the parameters of the laws of damage and reflects on the boundaries with which we choose to identify our selves. How do we define who we are? If I were to ask you "Who are you?" how would you answer this question? With your name? With your profession? With your marital status? Would you respond to my query with where you were born, or perhaps where you currently live? Better yet, you might share with me your philosophical truths? To what extent are the titles you hold on to and the possessions that you own an expansion of who you are?
For the Ishbitzer Rebbe there are multiple concentric circles that we inhabit. There are concentric circles of time: the present (ata); forever (l'olam) -- our lifetime; and eternally forever (l'olmei ad) - which exists beyond our particular lifetime. Another concentric circle is the one that surrounds our soul and the multiple layers that we garment it with -- starting with our body and expanding outward to all those answers that you offered to the question "Who are you?" Our possessions are but one extension of who we are, and reflect one facet of who we are in the world. The nature of an object changes by virtue of its owner.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe's teaching invites us to expand our sense of self and by doing so, to expand our sense of responsibility to the injustice in the world. It doesn't allow us to be indifferent to what surrounds us. If we are moral and ethical people, our possessions will reflect this. If my dog eats my neighbor's roses, the Ishbitzer Rebbe will tell me that I am not the person I claim to be. If someone trips on my doorstep or my guest stubs his or her toe on a chair in my home, I am not the person I claim to be. If my hammer falls off the table and hurts someone, I am not the person I claim to be.
There will not be an immediate and evident correlation between the damage caused and the part of my soul that needs mending. For this we need to be willing to bring God into what appears as a "coincidence" and to observe ourselves through God's eyes, to scrutinize ourselves from the viewpoint of the divine: Eyes that will not be afraid to see deeper. Eyes that are simultaneously honest and compassionate. Eyes that demand us to embrace our greatness and the role that we are to play in God's world.
I'm a city girl, born in the Bronx, bred in Yerushalayim, living in Los Angeles. I have no idea what a goring ox looks like or what constitutes the acceptable or nonacceptable way for it to walk the paths of the world. But when I will read this Torah potion on Shabbat morning, I will read it with one eye looking outward, and one eye looking inward.
I believe that a new pair of eyes is the greatest gift a teacher can give.
Reb Mimi Fiegelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.
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