Feb 23 2017 Dvar Torah

Rabbi Helen Cohn

“God is in the details.” A familiar expression, but what does it mean to us?

Last week the Israelites were at Mt Sinai receiving what are generally called The Ten Commandments. As dramatic and absolute as they are—Thou shalt, Thou shalt not—in fact they are more like chapter headings pointing to much longer descriptions. After all, they create more questions than they answer. What is an idol? When am I taking God’s name in vain? What actually constitutes coveting? Who is a false witness? How, specifically, to remember and sanctify the Sabbath?

This week we read Mishpatim, which means “laws” or “ordinances.” And here come the details. Some seem arcane to us, especially the laws about how to treat a slave. We also see laws about what constitutes a capital crime and what is manslaughter. What is equitable recompense for an injury to another person? For injury to another person’s animal? How to treat widows, orphans and strangers? And so it goes, the first of many levels of explication of Jewish law that continues until this day.

So what do we make of all these details?

The details are what brings Judaism to life. The details turn an abstract idea like “Sanctify the Sabbath” into a physical practice that gives structure and meaning to our lives. The details are our spiritual road map that, like Jacob’s ladder, connect the ground of our daily Jewish life with the eternal holiness of the Divine. God is in the details.