I didn’t watch the Grammys this past week and I honestly hadn’t thought about the awards ceremony at all when I began seeing my social media feeds blow up with people offering commentary, posting videos, and sharing articles about one or both of two performances: Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell.
That made me pay attention. In addition to the sheer volume of things I was hearing and seeing about the two performances, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell had been key parts of the soundtrack of my college years. I had listened to their music on long walks, analyzed their lyrics in my dorm room, and had sung their songs at karaoke bars with friends. And as both artists had come back into the public consciousness over the past couple of years, I had followed along here and there - weeping while watching videos of Joni’s performance at the Newport Folk festival with Brandi Carlile and singing along at full volume when I heard Luke Combs’s cover of Fast Car on the radio (even as I imagined it was Tracy’s iconic original I was hearing).
So I clicked around the interwebs over the past few days, mesmerized by what I saw and heard. Hearing both of these singers share their music was a powerful experience. Even more meaningful to see, though, was the profound love and respect being shared with them, both from the stage and from the audience. It seemed clear to me that the other musicians and performers in the room, extremely accomplished themselves, knew that they were in the presence of giants - giants on whose shoulders they stood. They looked at Joni and Tracy with adoration and awe, the way a young child looks at their parents, when they very easily could have seen them as relics, whom they had surpassed.
As I was reading Parashat Mishpatim this week, I was struck by how so many of the mitzvot in its chapters are couched in the negative. Mishpatim serves as the practical counterpoint to the majestic words of Revelation we read last week in Parashat Yitro. Focusing largely on how we are to treat one another, Mishpatim contains the details of our covenantal relationship with God, which we act out in our relationships with other people. But rather than telling us what to do, Mishphatim mainly tells us what not to do and details consequences and reparations for when things go wrong.
In one stark example, the Torah instructs us that the punishment for one who curses their parents is to be put to death (Exodus 21:17). A good number of the mitzvot in Parashat Mishpatim are the “You shall not” side of other mitzvot that instruct us in what *to* do. And with the reverence I saw in the videos from the Grammys fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but be reminded of other mitzvot from the Torah that detail the ways that we are supposed to treat our parents and our elders. Most notably, just a chapter earlier, we read “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), the fifth of the Ten Commandments.
Midrash Tanḥuma picks up on the connection between the mitzvah in Mishpatim and its positive counterpart in Yitro. In commenting on the verse from our Parashah, it says (Tanḥuma, Kedoshim 15:1) “Come and see how precious honoring one’s father and mother is to the Holy Blessed one; for the Holy One never withholds the reward for this mitzvah.” The midrash then goes on to present different biblical examples of people being rewarded for honoring their parents. The midrash concludes by envisioning a world perfected through this reward: “The Holy Blessed One said, “In this world the people are afflicted because of the yetzer hara (evil inclination); but in the world to come I will remove the evil inclination…And I will put My spirit within you.”
What I saw in those videos was perhaps a glimpse of that reward. Respect, reverence, love, and the spirit of the Divine. May we all be fortunate to witness such blessing in our own lives.