PARSHAH OF THE WEEK
Mishpatim, the name of this week’s Torah reading, means “judgments.” Our Rabbis explain that this term refers to those commandments that can be comprehended by human logic, i.e., the Torah’s laws for business practices, family relations, and communication between people.
It’s a very important lesson for many just to know that such laws exist. Many think of Judaism as a synagogue religion, a faith which requires us to go to a holy place, the synagogue - on holy days, Shabbat and holidays, and watch holy people, the Rabbi and the cantor, say holy prayers. The very opposite is true. The bulk of the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, has nothing to do with synagogue worship. Instead, it deals with living Jewishly in our everyday lives, conducting ourselves according to G-d’s will within the down-to-earth realities that we confront at home, in our work-places, and in our relations with others.
These activities should be carried out as mishpatim, the Torah’s directives, rather than as merely human activities. Most people have good intentions and they try to live morally and ethically. But Judaism gives us the potential for more than this. The Torah gives us an objective standard of ethical conduct determined by G-d. It is not man who decides whether or not something is good, ethical or just.
That’s very important. For mortal standards of justice can lead to error; after all, look at what the most sophisticated country in the world did in the last century. The leader of civilisation, the master of science, culture, and philosophy perpetrated the most hideous atrocities in history - and all in the name of humanity’s advancement.
Moreover, the positive advantages of living the way G-d desires are far more impressive than the negation of undesirable factors. There is no more effective approach to living a life of meaning, depth and happiness than following the directives which G-d Himself gave us.
The Parshat Shekalim Torah reading (ll Kings 11:17-12:17) discusses the annual obligation for every Jew to give half a shekel to the Temple coffers.
The haftorah discusses the efforts of King Jehoash (9th century BCE) to earmark these communal funds for the upkeep of the first Holy Temple.
Background for this haftorah: Because of an alliance with the Northern Kingdom of Israel, idol worship had become rampant in the erstwhile righteous Davidic dynasty-controlled Southern Kingdom. When the king of the Southern Kingdom, Ahaziah, was killed, his mother Athaliah murdered the remainder of the royal family and seized the throne. During her brief reign, she actively promoted idolatry. Unbeknownst to her, one of Ahaziah's sons, a small baby, was hidden and survived. When he became seven years of age, Jehoiada the High Priest led a successful revolt against Athaliah, and installed the child king, Jehoash, as the new King of Judea.
The haftorah begins with the new king renewing the people's covenant with G-d. They destroyed all the pagan altars and statues and appointed officers to oversee the Holy Temple. Jehoash then instructed the priests regarding all the funds that were donated to the Temple. According to his plan, all the funds would be appropriated by the priests. In return, the priests would pay for the regular maintenance of the Temple. In the 23rd year of Jehoash's reign, the priests neglected to properly maintain the Temple. Jehoash then ordered that all monies should be placed in a special box that was placed near the Temple altar, and these funds were given directly to the workers and craftsmen who maintained the Temple.