We convened the second JCA Farbrengen this past Friday night. We’re borrowing a page from the book of Chabad by expanding our third Friday evening of the month into a night of spirited melodic davenning followed by a potluck supper around a big communal table, sharing food, words of Torah, and Zemirot–shabbat songs. Everyone is encouraged to bring along all of the above.

I taught this week about the parasha: Mishpatim. We discussed the two traditional categories of Jewish law–khok, and mishpat–how the first is considered a law without a rational explanation, the following of which is a demonstration of faith, and the second, Mishpat, is a mitzvah that can be rationally understood.

Rashi has a charming comment at the beginning of parashat Mishpatim, that really builds a sense of what a mishpat is all about–what it means to be invited to a rational consideration of mitzvot.

Noting that God instructs Moses: “Eleh ha’mispatim asher taseem lifneyhem”–these are the instructions you should ‘set out before them’–he essentially asks: why “set out before them”? Why not use some stronger language to express the act of commanding?

His answer is delightful–“God said to Moses, ‘It shouldn’t enter your mind to say: “I will repeat the chapter and verse to them two or three times until it’s fixed in their mouths like a rote teaching, and I won’t bother myself to lead them to an understanding of the explanation of the matter, and its meaning.”‘ To prevent this is why God said, ‘Set out before them,’ as a banquet table set before the human being to be digested.”

A mishpat is a rule that we are to be given time to taste, chew and digest. (As moderns, we might add–we are also free to determine whether or not it is palatable.)

I also had a story in mind to read from the Ma’aseh Book, the classic medieval folktale book of Ashkenazic Jewry, with legends drawn from Talmud and later sources.  It didn’t really dawn on me till I was reading it aloud how effectively it served as a counterpoint to the Rashi–telling, to my mind, a poignant riddle about the nature of a khok, rather than a mishpat–about the rules of life that, in the end, fundamentally baffle our rational minds. It’s also the story of a banquet, like the Rashi, but with profoundly different implications. I don’t know if the original storyteller intended it as a Zen riddle, but it works that way.

My reading of it was met with (bewildered?) silence, which I considered appropriate!

Here it is:

Rabbi Joshua and the Emperor Who Wanted to Prepare a feast for God

The Emperor said to Rabbi Joshua, “I should like to prepare a banquet for your God that we may partake of it together.” Then Rabbi Joshua replied to the Emperor, “It is beyond your power for God has many servants.” Then the Emperor said, “I can do it.” Rabbi Joshua said, “Very well, go to the empty road on the shore of the river Rebita, and spread your banquet there.” The Emperor worked six months during the summer and put up many chairs and tables covered with food, thinking that he had prepared everything properly. But there arose a mighty wind which carried all of the tables and food into the stream. The Emperor again prepared a banquet during the six months of winter and set up many tables laden with excellent food. But then a heavy rain came down and flooded the country and carried the tables with the food into the stream. Then the Emperor said to Rabbi Joshua, “What does it all mean? I have been preparing for a long while and no one has come to the banquet to partake of the meal, and yet it is all gone.” Then Rabbi Joshua replied, “The servants of God have eaten it all up.” Then the Emperor replied, “It such is the case, all my efforts are in vain, and I had better give up the idea.”