Here is the d’var Torah that Robbie Friedman offered on February 14, 2015, to mark six months since the passing of his mother, Gale Friedman, of blessed memory.
In honor of the six‐month yahrzeit of my mother, Gale Lee Friedman (Chasha Leah bat Eliahu)
Part One: Human Interaction
When I was six, I was playing outside my elementary school in Texas. I was in
kindergarten and it was recess. Working up a hardy sweat, I headed over to the outdoor
water fountains nearby the playground. I stood there for a few moments in line patiently
waiting for my turn.
Then, suddenly, another kid came along and cut right in front of me. I couldn’t believe it,such absolutely unacceptable behavior. Without thinking, I did what any sensible six-year old kid would do, and pushed him out of the way. The line for the water fountain had purpose; it provided a system of respect and order for thirsty kids everywhere. Without water fountain lines, what kind of chaotic world would this be?
Despite my defense for worldly order, the next thing I know I was being pulled from the
line by my teacher. She instructed me to sit on the bench near the other teachers.
Apparently, she saw me push this kid and now I was being punished.
I sat there distressed on the bench until my frustration got the best of me. Slowly, in
retaliation, I began unfolding the tall middle finger of right hand, and ever so discreetly, I
began pointing it towards the teacher who was punishing me. I thought my action was
subtle and quite inconspicuous — but apparently not. Another teacher noticed my impolite
gesticulation. Before I knew it, I was being escorted inside the school building and into the
principal’s office. I was soon picked up from there by my not-so-pleased mother.
Part Two: Being Free
Mishpatim, rules – that is our Torah portion this week. V’eleh ha-mishpatim asher tasim
leefnehem – the opening line – “And these are the rules you shall set before them.”
HaShem is speaking to Moses, who will speak to the Israelite people.
From the first sound of the first word of this first line, we find a contraction as poetic as it
is plain – “v’ ” – “and” – “v’eleh ha-mishpatim” – “And these are the rules…” We are to
assume that the beginning of this story falls somewhere in the middle of another one. The
ten holy utterances or commandments that we received last week at Sanai, in the pivotal
and revelatory parsha Yitro, are the ageless bedrock from which we are now stepping onto
the next layer of our formation, Mishpatim.
“V’ ” – “and.” And these are the rules. The pause between these two parshot is but a single
We enter Mishpatim engulfed by the visceral fear of dying, the alarming sense of being
alive and free. We are standing at Mount Sanai, back and at distance, having just seen the
thunder and heard the lightening – the almighty smoke that was and is and always will be
HaShem swaddling Moses into Her great white bosom. At this moment, our faith in
HaShem is clear and full. We stand as a people open and ready to receive.
Why did we wait until after the third new moon since our freedom from Egypt to enter the
land of Sanai? Why did HaShem wait three months to begin to hand us the mitzvot for
living together as a free people in holiness? Why was it not like a surprise party, where upon leaving Mitzrahim we immediately opened the doors at Sanai to find HaShem, hiding atop the mountain peak, yelling, “SURPRISE! Happy Commandments!”?
Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev commented: “Had Israel received the Torah immediately after
the Exodus and the parting of the sea, it would have seemed that they accepted it out of
gratitude for the miracles God had wrought for them. Instead, God waited until the effect
of the miracles had worn off and they began to complain. Then their acceptance of the
Torah was a completely voluntary act of commitment.”
We were given time to adjust, to receive. The reality of existing outside Mitzrayim was
beginning to settle in. We were ready to receive our greatest gift – not freedom, but the
framework for a freedom worth living.
The Torah shifts in tone with Mishpatim. One commentary notes: “…up to this point, the
Torah has been a narrative, with occasional references to laws such as those regarding
circumcision and pesach. Now, the emphasis is reversed. From here on, the Torah will
present the rules by which the Israelites are to live, with occasional narrative breaks.”
With this shift, we enter Mishpatim, also known as Seifer HaBrit, Book of the Covenant. It
is said to be divided into four parts: the first three dealing with different areas of law: civil
and criminal, moral and humanitarian, religious and spiritual. The fourth section
culminates in a spiritual ratification of the laws for living.
On the surface these rules seem strange, specific, severe, and outdated. However, we must
consider the context. Many of these laws resemble those of other Near Eastern laws from this era. And rules must reflect the times. Second, as a free people, we needed, as one
teacher puts it, rules that get at the “nitty-gritty of daily life, the laws of slave and
slaveholder, the details of petty feuds, of accidental death and injury, of the goring ox, the
fires in the vineyard, and the thief in the night.”
That teacher, Dr. Barry Holtz of the Jewish Theological Seminary, argues how this parsha
is actually less about rules and regulations than it is about stories and narrative. That “If
ever there was a proof for the necessity of the Oral Torah, it lies in this week’s portion….
Things are not so clear here after all.”
For example, Exodus, Chapter 21, verse 12: “If you kill someone, you will be put to death.”
That is clear. Next verse, I paraphrase, “But if you did not mean to do it, then we’ll find
somewhere for you to hide out.”
But what if no one dies? What if two people fight and one of them hits the other one really
hard and he is in the hospital for several weeks? And after some time the guy in the
hospital is able to finally walk again. Well, says verse 18, the striker is not punished but
must pay for the victim’s “idleness and cure.” If that doesn’t sound like a ripe legal court
case in the making, I don’t know what does.
Or have you heard the one about the ox? If you own an ox and it gores me, for example,
well then that ox has got to go. But if it turns out that wasn’t the first time that your ox
gored someone, well, then your repeated negligence makes you equally responsible. Now
you and your ox have got to go.
These narrative vignettes comprise Mishpatim, the Book of the Covenant. We learn that
daily life is complex and intertwined with the actions of not just the natural and spiritual
world, but the human world. Having friends, families, neighbors, business partners, and
community is tough and requires an understanding of responsibility and accountability. It
requires layers and levels of compassion as it does consequence. It requires clear
reminders about how to care for each other and those less fortunate than us. Any of us
could be widows, any of us could have been orphans, any of us could one day be in need of
food or help, any of us could forget to slow down, relax, and refresh our bodies and minds.
Mishpatim defines the obvious, the mundane, and the holy. It defines how to live our days
justly and how to make-up for it when we don’t. Mishpatim is about living and interacting,
working and praying. It’s about being free each day. It’s about being alive.
Part Three: Standing at the Foot
This week marks six months since my mother passed away. It was the 16th day of August,
the 20th day in the Hebrew month of Av. It was Shabbes, the day of eternal rest. It was her
45th wedding anniversary to my father. It was also a week before she would turn 66.
We were home at her apartment in Dallas. A few years back, my parents sold the home in
which I grew up. They moved from Dallas to Houston for a few years, during which my
mother became sick, and then they moved back to Dallas a few months before she passed.
On that Shabbes day my whole family was present. Me, my two older brothers, our three
wives, five grandchildren, and two great-grandparents, who are my mother’s still living
At times during those last few days the juxtaposition of little kids running around as my
mother lay increasingly still in her bed seemed too much to me. But my father would not
have had it any other way – the kids, the noise, the laughter — and my mother undoubtedly would have agreed.
The night before that day was incredibly touching and sacred. It was like the many Friday
nights throughout my youth. Friday night Shabbat blessings led by mom. That night we
gathered in her bedroom across four generations, reciting and singing the blessings over
candles, wine, and challah.
My mother, who hadn’t eaten much for nearly six months by that point, was certainly not
consuming much in those last few days. But that Shabbes night, much to all of our
surprise, a bite of challah and a sip of wine passed through her chapped white lips.
I remember thinking in those last few days how remarkable it was that the pace of dying
accelerated so dramatically. My mother had been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer
about three years before then.
She had trudged through intensive surgery and various rounds of chemotherapy and
radiation. Through it all, and through her pain, she kept looking forward, she kept
laughing at her three sons’ crude senses of humor. (My oldest brother Josh, for example, who always joked with her that I was her favorite son, brought to her the framed wedding photo that she kept in her apartment of me and Shema as she recovered in the hospital after surgery. If nothing else, surely that photo would cheer her up, he joked. And it did.)
By that Shabbes night the decades of her life no longer contained the potential for years or
months, those had quickly transformed into weeks and days and now hours. By that night,
each breath she took was distinct, an intimate, uneasy dance with God. Slow inhalation –
pause – slow exhalation – pause.
When she passed the next day, I stood there with my father and two older brothers,
somehow stunned, in awe, that her fate at last came true. Her chest no longer fell. Her
breath in endless pause. I lightly closed her eyes with my hand and gently kissed her
It is fitting for me to recall my mother this week during a Torah portion dealing with
“rules.” Her rules stemmed from a few of her own clear absolutes: love family, work for
community, love Israel. Like many of our mothers, she did not have a rule book she would
refer to when one of her children acted out. Her law was clear and unwavering. It was
voiced passionately when it was tested; and carried consequence when it needed to. She
had my grandfather’s fiery temperament and my grandmother’s stubborness.
Part Four: Inside the Cloud
At the end of Mishpatim, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the inscribed words of
Torah. The people stand below and wait. And Moshe steps inside the cloud where he
remains on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
What it must have been like for Moses inside that cloud! Such a direct, personal, and holy
encounter. What must it have been like for Moses to be embraced so passionately and
intimately by the all-powerful and all-giving Shechinah?
Moshe is held in the strength of HaShem’s arms, pressed against Her beating heart. And
through this timeless embrace the Book of the Covenant is transcribed for generations to
I have thought more about my mother in the past six months than I may ever have. She is
with me as I stroll down the street at night pushing the granddaughter whom she adored
and loved. Our daughter, Matanyah, was an extraordinary surprise in a family where three
dapper sons had thus far yielded four handsomer grandsons.
I think about the rules by which my own mother lived, the ones that defined her as a
daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother – those that shaped my own evolving identity. For
example, what it must have been like for her in the 1970s to pick up and leave her Staten
Island, New York home, the bedrock of her family’s existence since Ellis Island, and move
with my father and two small children to a wild distant land called Texas!
Her bravery and foresight is, ironically, perhaps what has led me back to a part of the
country I now call home.
I think about how she was the working mother of three sons, and how much work and love
that must have required. I think about how for her, family started with her parents and
children, then quickly spread to embrace aunts and uncles, and the friends we value the most.
I think about her passion for Judaism and Israel. How she took me there when I was nine
with one of my brothers, and I have been back there several times since. A falafel on Ben
Yehuda Street and the winding alleyways of the Old City are a part of how I view the world.
My mother gave me identity, value, and purpose. She gave me high expectations, for
myself and my children. She gave me hell when I did not listen, and guilt trips as I got
older. She gave me more than I realize.
Na-aseh v’nishma, declare the Israelites upon hearing Moses recite the Book of the
Covenant. “We will do, and we will hear.” As I stand here today, this Shabbes, the clouds
breaking over my own mother’s teachings, I find myself beginning to truly hear them.