Sign In Forgot Password

Rules or Stories?

2020-02-17 10:51:19 AM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

This week, a new chapter of the story of the Jewish people people begins.  We have made our way from the family stories of Genesis, to Moses and the escape from Egypt.  The Jewish people begin their years of wandering through the desert, they have crossed the Sea of Reeds, and they have received the Torah from Mt. Sinai.  And then we reach a new chapter of the story that begins with a very unique introduction, V’eleh Mishpatim –these are the rules that you should set before them.

What are we to take away from this?  Torah in its most literal form means “teaching” or “instruction”, and as we know, the Torah is a mix of both stories and laws.  Up until this point, the Torah was mostly narrative—Adam and Eve, Noah, patriarchs and matriarchs, Joseph and Moses, with some laws mixed in--these are the stories that are so memorable that they have their own books and movies.  While many important laws have already been given, it is the story that has held the Torah together so far. But then Moses receives the ten commandments, and the Torah switches its tone—now we have laws with a mix of stories.  And remarkably, this is the moment, when we take a break from the story, that the Torah becomes alive.  From this point on, the Jewish people are asked to learn from the lessons, from the stories of their past, and through the lens of law and practice, now must live out what they have learned.

There is a classic tale from the rabbis that reminds us of this remarkable process, how the entirety of Jewish practice and belief owes itself to the memory of the experiences of those who came before us:  Two writers rushed in the beit midrash, the study hall of the Rizhiner rebbe. They wanted him to write the preface to their respective books, one on Jewish law, the other on aggadah, the tales and lore of the Talmud.  The law scholar was sure that the rebbe would see him first because of his expertise on Jewish ritual and practice.  However the rebbe said that he would see the storyteller first, telling him: “Our Torah begins with stories, were it not for the stories, we would have no basis for the mitzvot that follow.”  It is the stories that bring to life all that we do and make sure that others can learn from our experiences.

So, “these are the laws”—is not just the end of all the best stories in the Torah and the start of the laws, it is really marking the beginning of our story.  We have been through the journey, have been oppressed, and now it is up to us to make sure that we move towards bringing good into the world.  And we are being asked to take ownership of our history, both our communal history and the most deeply personal of our experiences. It is up to us to be good people and help build stronger relationships and communities, and the Torah wants us to know that we will never be perfect—creating a better world takes time.  Yet with so much else in our world still in need of fixing, we can take it as a reminder that our communal story and our personal histories are a process, and if we can find a way to tell them, then the future can only be brighter.


Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780