Part 1: Markus

Hello, everyone, thank you for coming today to celebrate my bar mitzvah with me.  I’d like to start by thanking my family, including those who travelled far distances to be here today, my community, the people in my life that support me to this very moment and many others that would take all day to list. Thank you, I couldn’t have made it to this point without you.

Today’s parsha is found in Exodus and is called Mishpatim, or “Laws”, it is the only Torah portion containing such a long list of commandments or “mitzvot”.  In his d’var in a couple minutes, Kurtis will talk to you about some specific rules in Mishpatim, but I want to talk to you about the idea of mitzvah in general.

The ancient sages eventually came to agree on how many mitzvot there are: 613.  But lots of sages don’t agree on which commandments made it onto the list of 613 mitzvot.  A commandment might be on one list that isn’t on another list, but they all agree on 613. It’s like if your teachers agreed on how MANY rules there would be, but disagreed on what the rules are.

Although they both split the commandments into two big groups, there are two different schools of thought on how to sort out the commandments into those groups.  One sorts the mitzvot into positive and negative commandments. Like saying “only use the couch for sitting” instead of “don’t jump on the couch”. The positive commandments start with “you shall”, and the negative rules start “you shall not”.

Another way to sort commandments was splitting up the mitzvot that addressed connection from humans to God and the mitzvot that addressed connections from human to human. The rules for Shabbat make up a big part of the mitzvot between humans and God, like don’t blow out the candles. The rules about how we care for other Jews, the stranger, and the poor makeup a big part of the rules between humans and humans, like don’t oppress the stranger.

Most of the rules in Mishpatim don’t seem to relate to our daily life, because in modern times we don’t have donkeys or oxen roaming around and we don’t make sacrifices at the Temple.  And some of the rules seem pretty specific, even for ancient times. Like “the fat of My festival offering shall not be left lying until morning.” But then I remember that sometimes you need a specific rule, like in my house we had a rule that “You shall not put a tortilla straight on the oven rack and dump cheese all over it and all over the oven to make a quesadilla”. Specific, but necessary.

One idea in Mishpatim that is interesting to me is liability. The Webster’s Dictionary defines liability as something for which you are “responsible by law; or legally answerable.” In Mishpatim, a person could be liable even if they don’t do something bad on purpose or don’t do something bad directly.  You might think that liability wouldn’t come up too often in the life of a thirteen-year-old, but you would be wrong.  Teenagers have plenty of chances to learn that even if it’s an accident, it can still be your responsibility—especially if you knew the accident was likely to happen.

For example, Mishpatim tells us that if you dig a pit, you have to cover it. Or if you know your ox in in the habit of goring other animals, you have to keep it in a pen. If you know a danger is likely, you should act to make the situation as safe as possible.

Here in our sanctuary, we don’t have open pits, and we don’t have hazardous oxen, but we do know some dangers are likely. It’s 100% guaranteed that there will be another earthquake in Seattle someday, for example. It is a known danger, but are we prepared?  Mishpatim suggests we are responsible to make known hazards less dangerous. Like we should get prepared for if there was an earthquake during services.

So, let me ask, do you know what to do if there is an earthquake during services?  The American Red Cross recommends that whenever there is an earthquake, you should Drop. Cover. And Hold On.

In our sanctuary, according to an on-site consultation by the American Red Cross of King County, congregants should drop and shelter between or under the pews away from the window wall and the large stained-glass window at the back.  Help others get into a safe position. Tuck in and cover your head and neck with your prayer book.  Hold onto the pews until the shaking stops.  We should move around as little as possible.  Do not go outside during an earthquake.  If you must go outside after the earthquake stops, be alert for downed power lines.

So, that is what we should do:

  • Drop between or under a pew.
  • Help others do the same.
  • Cover your head and neck with a prayer book and stay still.

Drop. Cover. Hold on.

Wait?  What’s happening?  Do you feel that?  There is an earthquake during services!



Part 2: Kurtis

Whew!  That was surprising! But we did it!

Now turn to the person sitting next to you and tell them ONE SENTENCE about how doing the Earthquake Drill felt to you.  Maybe you felt more prepared?  Or maybe you felt scared?  Or worried about what if this was happening for real? Remember, just one sentence!  Starting now.  Okay, now make sure you both have had a chance to say your sentence.  Thank you, everyone.

Okay, let’s do one more thing to get back into the service.  Let’s take two deep breaths together.  It’s called “Square Breathing” because you breathe in fours.  Okay, here we go: Breathe in Breathe out In Out

The Talmud (Berachot 54a) tells us that whoever witnesses an earthquake —as well as a number of other natural events in which the awesome power of God and the natural world is evident —should immediately say either one of the following two blessings: Baruch Attah Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu Melech ha’olam osei ma’asei vereisheet. Blessed are You, G-d of the Universe, who reenacts the works of creation. Or Baruch Attah Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu Melech ha’olam shekocho ugevurato malei olam. Blessed are You, G-d of the Universe, whose power and might fill the world.

This helps bring into focus the forces of nature and helps us be aware of our relationships with nature. As modern people we can control a lot of things in our environment, with a thermostat we can control the temperature in our house within one or two degrees. But these blessings remind us that we can’t control the natural world. (By the way, Climate change is not natural! But that’s a different d’var.)

Mishpatim lists a lot of things that are in our control, like telling the truth when you are in court or resting on Shabbat or how you celebrate God’s festivals.  But it also points out the distinction between times when you are responsible for something and when you are not. Take for example, the distinction between safekeeping and guarding. Safekeeping is when you are looking after something as a favor, but Guarding is taking care of something that is valuable as a kind of a job or for pay. Safekeeping is like when your neighbor asks you to keep an eye on their house while they go out of town, if someone breaks into it, it’s outside your control, and it’s not your responsibility to replace what was taken.

Guarding has two levels.  One level is taking care of something that is not in your possession. Let’s say someone paid you to come into their house, get the mail, water the plants and turn off and on lights.  If you do what they ask, and someone still steals the mail or the plants die, you are not responsible.  But, if they hired you to do that, but you blew it off, you would be responsible for the damage done.

The final level of guarding is taking care of something that you take into your possession. Like if you are hired to take care of someone’s 10,000-shekel diamond ring, and instead of putting in your safe, you drop it down your drain, you have to replace the ring.  (Mishpatim actually talks a lot about oxen and whether or not you have to kill them if they gore someone, but you get the idea.)

The blessings for the wonders of creation and God’s might filling the world remind us that many things are beyond our power to control, but Mishpatim tells us that we still must be responsible for all those things we are able to address.  Thank you for helping us all become more responsible for being prepared in case of an earthquake.

I would also like to thank my parents and Rabbi Zari for helping me reach my goal of my bar mitzvah, Danny for encouraging me, and my family for egging me on. Thank you, Orin, for helping us create this Earthquake drill.  I also want to thank my community here at KHN and all of you sitting here today.

Shabbat shalom.

Markus & Kurtis Burk-Fawcett
Shabbat Mishpatim
February 22, 2020 | 27 Sh’vat 5780