Chain Reactions – Parshat Mishpatim 5774

As a new parent, I am acutely aware of sleep schedules, loud noises, and the rhythm of life.  I know that my stress or anxiety might have repercussions when it comes to my daughter’s mood.  If I bring home anxiety, it might stress out my husband, which might lead to an argument, which will wake the baby.  Or perhaps something or someone catches the attention of our labrador Stanley, and his bark wakes up the baby.  Never before have I been more aware of the relationship between individual actions.

Parshat Mishpatim, our Torah portion this week, is based on the notion that actions inspire other actions.  The text begins with laws dealing with Hebrew workers and the if/then sequence determining how long a worker stays with his or her owner and what obligations the owner has to the workers based on their own family status.  The text continues to discuss laws dealing with accidental harm versus intentional harm caused to others, followed by the consequences of stealing, and then ends with the covenant that God makes with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai.  Each of these laws is based on a reaction for an initial act.

In the midst of laws about how to treat Hebrew workers, we receive a decree about Shabbat.  The text reads in chapter 23,verse 12 “Six days you will do your work and on the seventh you will rest so that your ox and donkey will rest and your maidservant and the stranger will rest.”  This verse expands on the motivation expressed earlier in the Torah for a day of rest on the seventh day.  Moreover, the text gives us a new reason to rest.  In the Decalogue in last week’s parshah, the reason for resting is given as an imperative to be like God; we rest because God rested.  In parshat Mishpatim the reasoning goes beyond connection to God.

The text teaches us that rest is a necessity not just for us as individuals, but for the land and for our community. Verse 12 reminds us that if we don’t rest, others around us won’t rest.  Think back to a time when you shared a bedroom, a college dorm room, or camp bunk. The rhythm of life in these situations depended on each person being respectful of the other’s needs.  If you had work to finish late at night, you might have used a different room or the computer lab instead of insisting that the lights stayed on all night, keeping your roommate up.  This is what the Torahis talking about this week.

In Biblical times if the master didn’t take a day to rejuvenate, then the workers would feel the need to continue working, and when this happened no one felt healthy or rested, and chaos would quickly ensue.  Our actions cause reactions.  We must rest so that others will also have the ability to rest.   We are asked to give one another a break every week, understanding that every human being and living thing needs to rejuvenate their spirit. This week we are reminded once again that our decisions have meaning well beyond our own lives; they can have an impact on the world.  What positive impact will you make?

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