Two weeks ago, we read Parashat Yitro, in which Bnei Yisrael experience Hashem’s awesomeness and power during the most revolutionary point in their history – Matan Torah. Bnei Yisrael are at their highest point in their journey from the depths of Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrael; as Rashi comments, they are completely united, “KeIsh Echad BeLeiv Echad” (Shemot 19:2 s.v. VaYichan Sham Yisrael). They have this amazing inspirational experience and expect their everyday lives to suddenly be imbued with this same Deveikut and clear closeness to Hashem, but this does not happen. One would think that the laws immediately following this fantastic spiritual experience would deal with the physical manifestation of this connection to Hashem, the Mishkan. Those laws, however, are found in this and the coming weeks’ Parashiyot. But the Parashah in between, Parashat Mishpatim, seems to interrupt the flow completely. The Parashah does not demonstrate any spiritual connection to Hashem, but rather just simple laws – practical, daily, mundane laws. Some highlights are the laws of Shemirah (guardians of property) and lending, of taking Bikurim (first fruits), and of Basar VeChalav (separating meat and milk). These are activities of money, working, and eating, the most mundane and seemingly non-spiritual activities.
Why are these Parashiyot juxtaposed? What can be gained by separating two major spiritual parts with something so mundane? An explanation can be found in Matan Torah itself, showing how Mishpatim is actually the perfect prerequisite for the laws of the Mishkan.
As described in the Midrash, Moshe has to fight in order to receive the Torah. Hashem’s angels argue that since Bnei Yisrael are not perfect and will make mistakes, they are not fit for receiving the Torah. The first step in Moshe’s fight is to get to the battlefield. This locale is heaven, the angels’ domain, so Moshe makes himself as much like an angel as possible, fasting for 40 days straight. But then, he still has to actually fight the battle. The Midrash records Moshe’s argument, that although Bnei Yisrael are not perfect, the angels are even less fit for the Torah. He argues that angels, though they can sit and learn all day, cannot put the Torah into practice. They are not physical beings and do not have parents to honor, money to lend, or food to eat. In contrast, Bnei Yisrael are able to do all of these things, and, by following the Mitzvot, can elevate the mundane to the level of the Torah. Because of this argument, Moshe wins the debate, and Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah.
The Chachamim debate as to how Hashem wants us to spend the Yamim Tovim. As explained on Beitzah 15b, there are two conflicting Pesukim. One, found in Sefer Devarim (16:8), states, “Atzeret LaShem Elokecha,” “An Atzeret (Yom Tov) for Hashem, your God”; the other (BeMidbar 29:35) states, “Atzeret Tihyeh Lachem,” “It shall be an Atzeret for you.” The Gemara wonders how to solve this conflict. Rabi Eliezer’s opinion is that each person should choose to spend the Chag in one way, either all for Hashem, or all for himself. Rabi Yehoshua says no, that everyone is supposed to split the Chag, half for Hashem and half for himself. Shavuot is an exception to this Machloket because it is the holiday on which we got the Torah, and we must prove why. We received the Torah only because we are able to implement it in our daily lives. Therefore, on the holiday commemorating Matan Torah, we must take time for ourselves to show that we indeed use it to add sanctity to our lives. Partaking of the physical and elevating its status is therefore the first step in Avodat Hashem.
This is why Mishpatim comes before the Halachot of the Mishkan. It is not that Hashem thinks that the Mikdash and the Avodah are less important than all of the everyday requirements; rather, He first wants Anshei Kodesh, people of holiness, before a building of holiness. He wants people, not angels, to serve him. He has an infinite amount of angels; if they were whom He wanted to serve Him, man would not be necessary. But humans can use the Torah to sanctify their everyday lives. Once they do this, they will easily become adept at performing their more spiritual duties.
Once we establish the basics, we can begin to understand the more spiritual side of Judaism, which is found in this week’s Parashah. The Parashah begins by naming different items that Bnei Yisrael can donate to the new Mishkan project. After naming a number of simple items, various metals and cloths, it adds oil, spices, onyx, and two types of stones. The difference between these two sub-lists is the inclusion of the planned use of the latter items. As the Pasuk (Shemot 25:6-7) states, “Shemen LaMa’or Besamim LeShemen HaMishchah VeLiKtoret HaSamim. Avnei Shoham VeAvnei Milu’im LaEifod VeLaChoshen,” “Oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and the incense; various precious stones for filling the Eifod (apron) and the Choshen (breastplate).” What makes these four items special that we mention their uses? It is especially an issue because we don't even know what the Eifod and the Choshen are until the Torah describes them later on.
Rav Kanotopsky answers this question. He says that the Beit HaMikdash, the successor to the Mishkan, is so named because it is a place of Kedushah, holiness. As defined by Rashi (VaYikra 19:2 s.v. Kedoshim Tihyu), Kodesh is something separated and off-limits. In Havdalah every Motza’ei Shabbat, we say that Hashem separates between Kodesh and Chol (the holy and the ordinary), Or and Choshech (light and dark), Yisrael and the other Amim (nations), Yom HaShevi’i and the Sheishet Yemei HaMa’aseh (the seventh day and the six days of work), and sometimes Kodesh and Kodesh. These are the four different types of separations between levels of Kedushah, and they are the reason the Torah provides the uses for the aforementioned four items. Shemen LaMa’or is related to Bein Or LeChoshech; Besamim LeShemen HaMishchah, which is used to anoint an ordinary person or pot, is related to Mavdil Bein Kodesh LeChol; the Avnei Shoham and Avnei Milu’im, both related to the names of the Shevatim, is like Bein Yisrael LaAmim; lastly, Besamim LiKtoret HaSamim play a role on Yom Kippur, when the Kohein Gadol enters the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Mikdash, and thus it represents Bein Kodesh LeKodesh. These four items teach us a lesson in Kedushah and its foundation. Once we start to understand how all of these items are different and start to appreciate everything’s individuality and sanctity, we can begin to understand Hashem’s individuality and sanctity. It is then that we can fulfill the next Pasuk of “VeAsu Li Mikdash,” “They shall make for me a Mikdash” (Shemot 25:8). When we understand how to create Kedushah, fulfilling our obligation from Parashat Mishpatim, we can then build a place that is dedicated to Kedushah, the Mishkan.
Just as the Mishkan is a separate, holier place than the world around it, Shabbat is a separate, holier place than the time surrounding it. May we recognize the individuality of Shabbat and use it as a way to develop our relationship with the One and Only Hashem, the Holiest of Holies. Furthermore, in our daily lives, may we learn to understand and appreciate even the smallest of differences, enabling us to find and increase the Kedushah around us.