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The Laws of Greatness

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If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it.—Exodus 23:4

The Torah portion for this week is Mishpatim, which means “laws,” from Exodus 21:1–24:18, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 34:8–22.

At first glance, this week’s Torah reading seems, well, boring, compared to other readings. There are no great miracles like the ten plagues or the parting of the sea, and no glorious revelation of God.

This week’s reading mostly involves a series of laws that govern the way people interact with each other. In Judaism’s oral tradition, these laws — and the commentary on these laws — are what fill volumes of books that form the bulk of the curriculum studied in most Jewish study halls. Why are these rules deemed so very important compared to the more extraordinary portions of the Bible?

The answer is because it is through these laws that the Bible comes to life.

Recently, the news carried a story about a rabbi from Connecticut. When Rabbi Noah Muroff bought a desk from Craigslist for $200, he got much more for his money. As the rabbi and his wife tried to move the desk into their home office, it wouldn’t fit through the door. The couple was forced to pull the desk apart, which included removing the drawers. The couple was shocked to find a plastic bag that had been hidden behind the drawers. In it, the couple found $98,000!

What would you have done? What would most people have done? Finders-keepers? Would any law object to the couple keeping the money that they found?

Rabbi Muroff said, “Immediately, my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘There is no way we can keep this money.’” They called the previous owner of the desk, who was speechless to learn what the couple had found. She explained that she had hidden her inheritance money in the desk but couldn’t find it because it had slipped behind the drawers.

As the news clip came to a close, the camera panned in on a book sitting on the rabbi’s desk. It was the Talmud, Judaism’s oral tradition in which so many laws are explained, including the one in this week’s reading: “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it.” This law is interpreted to mean that a person has an obligation to return lost objects to their owner (even if the owner is an enemy). And so the Muroffs did.

The readings of the past few weeks have shown us God’s greatness over and over again. However, this week’s portion shows us how we can become great ourselves. By keeping God’s laws even when they challenge our human desires, we overcome our nature – which is no less miraculous than when God creates miracles by overturning the laws of nature Himself.

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