Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26
Walk into any drugstore this week and you will have no trouble determining the season. The smell of choclate and sugar permeates the air, and the aisles are dripping with pink and red hearts, boasting messages like “I love you” and “Be mine.” We share this upcoming Shabbat with Valentine’s Day, and if mainstream media has anything to say about it, candy hearts, flowers and expensive jewelry are the only ways to express the love we feel inside.
Now, I love a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers as much as the next girl, and I have fond memories of penning individual Snoopy-themed Valentine’s Day cards for each friend in my third-grade class. However, as an adult and as a Jew, I have, for the most part, let go of any real Valentine’s Day observance. This is partly because of the day’s Christian history, originally meant to honor the faith and martyrdom of St. Valentine. In this way, Valentine’s Day is not “mine” to celebrate.
But more pressingly, I circumvent the pink-and-red aisle on my way to pick up prescriptions because it doesn’t feel necessary or meaningful to indulge in candy hearts and glittering cupid cutouts. One foundational lesson we find in Judaism is that love is not expressed in cards or candy-coated symbols: Love is an essential and deeply rooted component of sacred, covenantal relationship.
This week’s parashah does not discuss love. In fact, compared with the vibrant storytelling in the preceding Torah portions, it seems that in Parashat Mishpatim our narrative grinds to a halt. Mishpatim literally means “laws,” and here we find everything from laws about how to treat our slaves, the terms under which a criminal ought to be put to death, laws around damaged property — not to mention sorcery, bestiality — and the first nod to Jewish dietary laws: Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
The rules go on and on throughout the parashah, and those of us who have read ahead know that these rules are just the beginning. The giving and receiving of laws becomes the defining element of God’s relationship with the Jewish people. The acceptance of laws, and acceptance of God’s terms, is the sanctifying bond that solidifies this partnership between God and Israel. We continue to affirm this in our regular evening liturgy. In Ahavat Olam, we pray:
“Everlasting love You offered Your people Israel by teaching us Torah and mitzvot, laws and precepts.
Therefore, Adonai our God, when we lie down and when we rise up, we will meditate on Your laws and Your commandments.
We will rejoice in Your Torah for ever. Day and night we will reflect on them for they are our life and doing them lengthens our days.
Never remove Your love from us.Praise to You, Adonai, who loves Your people Israel.”
— Translation from
Siddur Mishkan T’fillah
This daily prayer is a reminder that living as a Jew is an act of love. The teaching of Torah is an act of love. When we make a Jewish choice, it is an act of love.
Rules are the foundation of our most loving relationships. Jewish marriage begins with the signing of a ketubah, a contract outlining the guidelines agreed upon by both partners. Similarly, parenting is not only about hugs and kisses, but also about teaching our children how to be active and thoughtful citizens of the world as they learn to follow rules and set limits. (And, much like the stories we read in Torah about God’s challenges with the Israelites, children learn by testing those limits and boundaries.) We set our children on this path because we love them. We agree to these terms with our spouses because we love them. The agreement between God and Israel serves as our ultimate example of loving reciprocity.
We may or may not choose to indulge in the customs of Valentine’s Day, or even use it as an excuse for a night out. But every day of the year, as Jews, we learn our most important lessons from Torah. Buried deeply between the lines of Parashat Mishpatim, we find that Torah is not only a book of law, but also a book of love.
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at email@example.com.