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Jan 24 2014

Torah MOMentary: Just Like Toddlers, the Israelites Needed Rules

By at 9:50 am

toddler drawing on wall

This post is part of our Torah commentary series through the perspective of a new mom. This Shabbat we read Parashat Mishpatim. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

As a former wedding-industry employee, I can say with confidence that the Revelation at Sinai would have been a very high-ticket event. It had all the elements of the perfect day: a dramatic natural setting; elaborate sound and lights; and at the center, those simple, moving ten commandments –the vows that would eternally bind the Israelites to God. This all happened in last week’s Torah portion.

Rabbis do compare the revelation to a wedding–it’s not just me–and after such a blowout celebration, you might expect a bit of a honeymoon. But instead, the Torah launches straight into a highly unromantic list of rules and laws, ranging from the mundane to the disturbing. Like what to do if someone asks you to watch their cow and the cow dies (depends what happened to the cow). What to do if a man seduces a virgin (he has to marry her). What about the punishment for violent attacks (“eye for an eye,” though as a side note, the rabbis pretty much legislate that out of existence in the Talmud). There are rules about letting slaves go free every seven years, and not taking interest on loans, and, well, I’ll stop, but the list goes on.

It seems a little weird as a wedding follow-up. On the other hand, as the parent of a toddler, this litany of rules feels disturbingly normal. 

Yes, my days with Sylvie have a lot in common with this Torah portion, Mishpatim. An unending playlist of small, everyday rules issues from my mouth. When she’s older I’m sure we’ll have Talmudic debates about right and wrong, but now we’re on a Biblical level: don’t climb on the table, please. Don’t grab Blaise’s toy, here’s one for you. Don’t pull mama’s hair. Do not run into the street, draw on the wall with crayons, dump your water glass out on the floor, put your hands in the toilet bowl, throw your toy record player on the ground, eat Papa’s earplugs, or run around the house with a toothbrush in your mouth. Please.

Please?

Out of self-respect I have to say, we do let Sylvie roughhouse and have fun, and our tolerance for mess is unfortunately very high (as anyone who’s been to our house can attest). And yes, we have read Love and Logic for Early Childhood, and we don’t just talk at our kid; for important stuff we give time-outs and consequences. But there’s a whole gray area between things grave enough for consequences and the small corrections that make our home a livable place for the adults among us, with at least a few walls free of crayon drawings.

The rabbis say the Revelation at Sinai was like a wedding, but they also say the Exodus from Egypt was like a birth. In those terms, the Israelites would actually probably be in their toddler years around now, and this portion makes sense. The miracle of birth is now complete. It’s the past. The work now is slower and more complicated: growing, step by step, into full peoplehood.

Or in my daughter’s case (and mine, since I am clearly growing right along with her), full personhood.

This sort of growth is less about dramatic revelations and more about showing up, day after day. The work of being present, the work of love–which sometimes looks like food on the floor and crayon on the wall and saying “No, you have to hold my hand while we cross the street” for the 100th time.

As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief Rabbi of England, put it:

“Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a letdown after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. [Last week's portion] contains the vision, but God is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the Divine Presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.”

Creating a new human was a miracle of the highest order, but as much as we all love miracles, God is in the details. We look both ways before we cross the street. I hold her hand until we reach the sidewalk, even when she tries to pull away. When it’s safe, I let her run as fast as she can.  The rules, the simple work of love.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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