Exodus 21:1 – 24:1
Last week’s torah portion Yitro ends with the commandment to build a sacrificial altar. Next week’s portion Terumah begins with the command to bring God an offering of supplies to build the Mishkan (the special tent to house the altar). Why does the Torah interrupt the building of the Mishkan with a dense collection of civil laws?
The Avnei Azel (a Torah commentary attributed to Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, who lived in Warsaw from 1897-1943) finds the answer in the very first verse of our portion:
“Now these are the laws which you shall set before them …” (Ex. 21:1)
In the Avnei Azel Rabbi Friedman taught:
Among the other nations, social laws – those between man [sic] and his fellow-man [sic] have no religious basis, but are purely social and civilian, and are needed to ensure the welfare of the state. With us, though, the civil laws are commandments of God, and they have the sanctity of the commandments. Just as the sacrifices are the worship of God in the Temple, the civil law is the worship of God in our daily lives. [underline is mine for emphasis]
Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa takes it one step farther, teaching that the laws governing how we treat each other take precedence over the commandments governing our relationship with God. These laws (the ethics of Torah) come “before them” (the laws of worshipping God).
Perhaps this is where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel found the inspiration to March with Dr. King in Selma. When asked why he, a white Jewish man, was so invested in the plight of African-Americans he famously replied that he was “praying with his feet.”
What deep Torah these rabbis shared with us all!
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras