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Vayakhel-P'kudei 5783 - Beyond the Letter of the Law

March 18, 2023 - 25 Adar, 5783

Of all of the fascinating aspects of Southern culture, opening the door for others stands out as one of my favorites. No one has to open the door for someone else; most people could easily open a door for themselves. And yet, Southerners show respect for one another by taking one extra moment to stay behind and stand at the door while others enter or exit. We show respect by doing a little bit extra, by going beyond the letter of the law.

When Moshe asks the people Israel to bring materials to build the mishkan, the Tabernacle, they show their enthusiasm by giving much more than requested:

 מַרְבִּ֥ים הָעָ֖ם לְהָבִ֑יא מִדֵּ֤י הָֽעֲבֹדָה֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽהּ׃

The people bring more than is needed for the tasks involved in the work Adonai has commanded to be done! (Ex. 36:5)

Through their generosity, they perform what Rabbinic literature calls lifnim mishurat ha-din, going beyond the letter of the law. 

Even with all of the divinity of halakhah, the Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan teaches that following Torah law alone is what once destroyed Jerusalem. Because the judges at the time of the Temple destruction did not dig deeper into their compassion and efforts, the Second Temple no longer stands. 

For another Talmudic teacher, Rav Yosef, when Yitro tells Moshe, “And you shall teach [the people Israel] the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the path wherein they shall walk and the action that they must perform” (Ex. 18:20), “the action” refers to strict Torah law and “they shall perform” refers to that concept of lifnim mishurat ha-din. Along with Toraitic law, Moshe must teach the people Israel how to go above and beyond. In both Torah and Talmud, our Jewish teaching demands not only that we follow the set laws but that we look for even more good to do, that we look for even more doors to be opened for others.

Beyond opening doors, many of us here show our embrace of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din through our participation in synagogue life. We not only pay dues but also give donations in honor of births and retirements; we not only host onegs but bring freshly-baked hallah to put in the synagogue freezer to supplement others’ onegs. Outside of the synagogue, we return shopping carts, even though we know employees could return them for us. When someone comes for dinner, we not only feed them but send them home with leftovers. 

Beyond the ways we are accustomed to giving extra, we can actively search for ways to go even further above and beyond. When supporting a person in mourning, we can check on them past that first week, even past that first year. When a favorite nonprofit has a fundraising campaign asking for just $36, we can donate $40. We can pick up not only our own litter but bring a plastic bag and gloves on a walk to (safely!) pick up other trash we might see. With every deed that we do, we can look around and ask what else needs to be done that we are not yet seeing. What further steps might we take to lighten the load for those around us?

Within Jewish practice, we practice lifnim mi-shurat ha-din to show our respect and admiration not only for other people, but for God and Jewish tradition as well. With the concept of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah, we wear personalized tallitot rather than just blue and white, and we sing our prayers rather than just muttering to ourselves. On Hanukah, even though the Mishnaic baseline practice asks for a single candle to be lit in each household each night, many of us instead light a number of candles that corresponds with the number of nights. Some of us even light that number of candles on a hanukiyah for each person in the house. This evening, we prayed not only the halakhically designated evening prayers, but we also performed Kabbalat Shabbat, singing several Psalms to set us up for the main service. When we beautify each mitzvah, we not only encourage ourselves to pursue further mitzvot, but we also train ourselves to look for ways to expand our deeds in our practical, material, every-day world.

Before we continue with our service, I bless each of us with the words the Talmudic Rav Yishmael uses to bless God Godself:

May it be Your will that 

Your mercy overcome your anger

May your mercy prevail over your other attributes

May you act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy

And may you enter before them lifnim mi-shurat ha-din - beyond the letter of the law.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784