Up the Ramp
Parshat Mishpatim is unusual in that it begins with the word, "And." This effectively connects the mitzvot of this week's parsha to the final topic of last week's parsha - which specifies that when building the Altar in service of God, the approach should be by way of a ramp, rather than steps.
What's the difference between a ramp and steps? Steps implies there is a pre-set measure of how high one should reach with each movement forward. Yet in reality, everyone grows at his/her own pace, in a series of immeasurably small steps. And that idea is represented by the ramp.
Often one's growth is impeded by the feeling of being overwhelmed. If a goal is too lofty, we inevitably fall short and get discouraged.
But the Jewish approach is different. In Jacob's famous dream, he sees the vision of a ladder reaching toward heaven. Spiritual growth, like climbing a ladder, must be one step at a time.
The story is told of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who took upon himself to lead an entire city back to Torah observance. He organized a weekly class and began by saying: "If you have to work on Shabbat, at least try minimize the violation." (In today's lexicon, that would mean walking to work instead of driving, or setting your TV on a timer.) The key is one small step at a time. With this approach, over a few years, Rabbi Salanter was able to lead the community to full Shabbat observance.
The Kabbalists say that spiritual growth is actually "two steps forward and one step back." We will inevitably have setbacks. But what's important is that we're moving in the right direction ... up the ramp.