Context and More Context – Parshat Mishpatim


The Context of Suffering

Yeah that darn context thing. It would be just easier if we could take everything that is said to us at face value. But no….we gotta look at who said, when they said and if they’ve said other stuff that doesn’t seem quite the same. It gets in the way. Yeah, that broader context thing. It means that we don’t have all the info we need. We realize that we have to work harder to acquire greater understanding.

In this week's portion, Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah discusses the subject of kidnapping.1 Yet the verse here seems incomplete. It only discusses one form of kidnapping. So are all other forms okay? Rashi, the great medieval commentator and perhaps the most under-rated Jewish philosopher, tells us that to get the complete story, we need to read elsewhere as well. We've got to open up Devarim to find the supplement to this week's portion.2 Reading there will fill out the picture and then we will know how to proceed.

Many times we are expected to understand things in life – whether it is why things happen to us, what our spouses said this morning, how our children behave or how do I manage my finances better. It depends on the situation. We cannot divorce questions from the context in which they’ve been asked. On a very simple level, I asked a friend a question about an investment and he responded with a 'context' question – asking if I needed the money to be liquid in the short term. That made a difference in how I would come to my decision – the context in which we make decisions is important.

When we try, sometimes in vain, to understand why things happen to us, we tend to look at a very limited picture of the event in its own time period and claim the right to be the victim of circumstance, fate, providence or whatever we wish to call it. 'Why did this happen to me?' is the most often question asked during that period.  Many people wish to leave it in the form of a question and remain the victim of that circumstance.

Yet there is always a larger picture, a context, in which these things happen to us which we call 'life'. We learn that everyone suffers in life. Some people suffer for still unknown reasons. We learn also that people have an ability to rise above their suffering.3 We learn that we can always gain and grow from and through our suffering. We have the strength to do it and the obligation to ourselves – otherwise we live our lives as victims and that would be very sad. Suffering needs to be put in context as well.

In order to achieve what we want we must understand the entire picture as much as we can. Can it ever be fully viewed or understood? I am doubtful. But that does not absolve us from trying. In fact, it is in our best interests. That doesn’t make it easy, but it does make finding the context a smart thing to do. It can only lead to greater and deeper understanding of our own meaning in life.

 Click here to read another article on Parshat Mishpatim (If I Were a Poor Man)


  1. Shemot 21:16
  2. Devarim 24:7
  3. This is a basic concept of logotherapy treated in greater detail by Dr. Viktor Frankl in his books – most notably Man's Search for Meaning.

Have A Great Shabbat!laughing

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