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Home » Education, Mishpatim

Mishpatim: Learn to Absorb

Submitted by on January 21, 2014 – 3:39 amNo Comment | 26,381 views

Absorb It

hortly after giving the Ten Commandments at Sinai, G-d summoned Moses and said, “These are the laws that you should place before them.” He then taught him the Torah, commencing with the laws of slavery, “When you acquire a Hebrew slave…”[1]

The Talmudic sages, curious about why Moses was told to place the laws before them, explained that a teacher is required to elaborate on the law until the student understands it well. It must be laid out like tantalizing dishes on a set table so the student can digest and absorb it.[2]

It is the nature of things that we don’t absorb and identify with a subject until we understand it well. We can easily accept a law out of obedience, but we don’t buy into it until someone makes a convincing argument that persuades us. For G-d, it was not enough that we merely accept the Torah, He wanted us to absorb it and identify with it. And for that to occur, it had to be laid out for us; we had to understand it first.

Jewish mystics thus postulated that the words, “when you shall acquire,” which follow the opening verse,[3] also follow from this message because only when you place it before them, do they acquire the material and make it their own. This is consistent with the Talmudic dictum that the Torah of G-d is attributed to us, when we study it.[4] When we learn it and absorb it, we acquire it; it becomes ours and is attributable to our name.

Yet, it is important to remember that the law introduced by this verse is about slavery. Ultimately a Jew is G-d’s servant and a servant fulfills the master’s wishes out of obedience.[5] If they understand the value of the tasks assigned to them, they might carry out their duties with alacrity and enthusiasm, but whether they understand or not, their primary motive is obedience.

We accept every commandment because G-d gave it. We are happy to understand the ones that we can, but our understanding is never our sole reason to observe. We observe primarily because G-d wants us to.

When I worked as a scholar for www.askmosees.com I was often asked to explain the reasons behind the rituals. I made a point of prefacing every explanation with a question. Are you prepared to accept that despite all the explanations, our primary reason for observing this ritual is because G-d told us to?

When the answer was yes, I would launch into my explanations, but often the answer was no. I would then explain that if they observed only because of their understanding, they would relate only to the sliver of the Mitzvah that is subject to human comprehension, which would in turn grant them access to a limited part of the Mitzvah. But, if they performed the Mitzvah for G-d’s reasons, accepting that G-d’s understanding is infinitely greater than theirs, they would absorb the Mitzvah in its entirety including the portions they don’t understand.

This was usually accepted, but they would ask, why they should bother to understand the Mitzvah in the first place? Whereupon I would explain that G-d wants us to serve him with our hearts and minds as well as our hands and feet. Out of obedience to G-d, we seek to understand.[6]

The Extra Letter

This explains why this chapter begins with the word and, which implies a continuation of the previous chapter though that chapter is about the Ten Commandments and this one is an entirely different subject. Our sages explained that and informs us that these laws were given to Moses at Sinai, just as the Ten Commandments were.[7]

The mystics saw a deeper meaning in this. To them, the word and implied that just as the Ten Commandments were given as a dictum to be accepted out of obedience so are these laws intended to be accepted on simple faith notwithstanding their easily understood nature.[8]

Two Paradigms

In a sense, the previous Torah portion, which presents the Ten Commandments and this portion, which presents the understandable commandments, represent the two general paradigms.

The Ten Commandments represents the foundation of our relationship with G-d, which is acceptance. G-d is great, vast and infinitely wise and we accept His instructions blindly recognizing that we cannot understand the Torah to the extent that G-d does. This is the Sinai paradigm. G-d speaks and the nation humbly acquiesces.

This portion of the understandable laws represents the second paradigm, the one most familiar to us. The paradigm of attempting to understand the Torah and its rituals, making an effort to connect with it, absorb it and even identify with it. We endeavor to buy into it and make it ours.

We might apply this idea more broadly and suggest that these two paradigms represent the written and Oral Torahs. The written Torah is accepted as is and we cannot change a single word or letter even if we don’t understand it. The Oral Torah is derived from our understanding.

The two are not in conflict, they work in tandem. As we accept, we seek to understand and as we understand we seek to accept

This is one of the reasons that G-d gave us the Torah in dual format. G-d wanted us to absorb the law, which is possible only as a result of understanding. G-d also wanted us to connect with His transcendental, immutable and inscrutable will, which is only possible through acceptance. He wanted us to accept and He wanted us to absorb. He therefore gave us both formats of Torah to be studied in tandem. We read the written text without emendation and then engage in discussion in the Oral Torah in an effort to understand.

To set the tone of this dual approach G-d presented the law in two portions. The portion of the Ten Commandments, which were accepted at Sinai and the portion of the understandable commandments which were delivered in the next portion. The apex and fusion of the two systems is in the first letter of this portion. The letter vav, which means and. This is only fitting because the shape of the vav is a vertical line. It represents the idea, that our understanding flows to us from above, beyond our comprehension, to below, the realm of comprehension.[9]

 



[1] Exodus 21: 1 & 2.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin: 54b.

[3] And belong to the laws of slavery, not to the previous verse.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 19a based on Psalms 1: 2.

[5] Shnei Luchos Habris on Psachim 151b Cited in Or Hatorah on the Parshah p. 1077.

[6] The notion of understanding G-d’s wisdom is a paradox made possible only by His omnipotence. Thus seeking to understand does more than draw the idea into our minds. It reveals the intrinsic omnipotence of His essence.

[7] Mechilta on Exodus 21: 1.

[8] Following from FN#6, just as G-d lowered His splendor onto Mount Sinai so does He lower His wisdom onto our minds when we study Torah.

[9] This essay is based on Sefer Mamarim melukat v. 6 pp. 103 – 109.

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