These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Living Life’s Polarities – Parshat Mishpatim

Posted on February 10, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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Peter Stein (Kollel '09-'11) writes about Parshat Mishpatim:

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find a series of laws dealing with how to respond to the blessings God gives us.

מלאתך ודמעך לא תאחר
בכור בניך תתן־לי
כן־תעשה לשרך לצאנך
שבעת ימים יהיה עם־אמו ביום השמיני תתנו־לי

“You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats.
You shall give Me the first-born among your sons.
You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks:
seven days it shall remain with its mother, on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.”  (Exodus 22:28-29)

While the language of the latter two commandments in this list is clear, the language of the first commandment in Hebrew is actually very difficult, and it is not exactly clear precisely what the Torah is commanding.

rThe first word in this commandment מלאתך (mileatchah) literally means “your fullness,” which Rashi understands as being a reference to the full ripening of one’s fruit, a milestone which makes the fruit obligated in bikkurim – the commandment to bring the first fruits of one’s harvest as an offering to the Temple.  The second word דמעך (deemachah), is even more unclear, and while Rashi notes that this is a reference to terumah – the agricultural tithe that must be given to the priests – he readily admits that he does not understand the language.

Rav Saadia Gaon ties the language of מלאתך (mileatchah) to the commandment to give terumah specifically of one’s wine and one’s grain, while explaining דמעך (deemachah) as the obligation to give terumah of one’s oil.  This explanation aligns nicely with the commandment to give terumah in Deuteronomy 18:4 which specifically lists these three items together:

ראשית דגנך תירשך ויצהרך וראשית גז צאנך תתן־לו

“You shall give him [the priest] the first fruits of your new grain and wine and oil, and the first shearing of your sheep.”

R’ Avraham ibn Ezra explains that this understanding of דמעך (deemachah) comes from the root דמע (deemah), which means a tear, or something that drips, in this case the dripping of wine or oil from freshly pressed grapes and olives into the vat beneath the press.

While these explanations clearly point to an agricultural understanding of this commandment – which makes complete sense in the context of giving the first-born son and first-born animal to God’s service – I would like to offer a different interpretation about responding to God’s blessings building on the ambiguity of this language.

Based on Ibn Ezra’s understanding of this verse, we could translate these four words as:

מלאתך ודמעך לא תאחר

“Your fullness (mileatchah) and your tears (deemachah) do not delay (lo t’acher).”

Taken at face value, the verse presents us with language representing life’s polarities:  the fullness of our lives – the joy, the gratefulness, the opportunity – and  the tears in our lives – the grief, the difficulty, the pain.  Read in this way, this commandment can actually be understood as two separate but complementary commandments that can help us navigate the different seasons of our lives.

On the one hand מלאתך לא תאחר – do not delay the fullness of your life:  Take advantage of all that life has to offer while you can.  Do not put off embracing life’s pleasures within the bounds of propriety.  Do not deny yourself opportunities for growth or wonder or joy or laughter, for those opportunities will pass, and they may not come again.  But too often we do let these opportunities pass us by, either out of a misplaced inclination toward self-denial, or, more commonly, because we are just too busy or too distracted or too focused on our work.

At the same time, דמעך לא תאחר  – do not delay your tears.  There are times in all of our lives when each of us needs to cry.  And when that moment arrives, do not hold back, but let the tears flow freely and willingly.  Yet this, too, is not easy to do.  There are so many forces acting on us that make it so difficult to cry – from the fear of confronting our pain to the social stigma of crying in public to the shame of feeling that crying somehow means we are weak.  Crying is an act of excruciating vulnerability, and when given the choice, too many of us will choose the safety and comfort of not crying, at the cost of our emotional health and well-being.

Changing these tendencies requires much introspection and internal struggle.  But it also takes changing the norms of our communities.  While each of us can focus on enjoying our own lives to the fullest, we can also create communities where this is a value – where living a full life of joy and meaning and service to others is valued as much as professional success or getting into the best college.  And while each of us can try hard in our moments of pain to let our tears flow, we can also fashion communities where the expression of grief and sadness and emotion is acceptable and valued, and where dealing in a healthy way with one’s pain and brokenness is seen not as a sign of weakness, but rather as one of strength.

God gave us both tears and joy.  They are gifts, and proper gratitude requires accepting those gifts and using each in its proper time.