Monday, February 8, 2010

Mishpatim- Understanding the Reasons

In this week's parsha G-D starts enumerating many of the laws that govern Judaism. However, when describing how G-D gave over these commandments to the Jewish people, the Torah gives us a very unique description. It says (Shemos 21:1):

וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם. 1 Now these are the ordinances which thou shalt set before them.

The Torah tells us that G-D wanted Moshe to set these commandments before the Jewish people. In fact, the Torah used this language previously when discussing how Moshe was supposed to tell over the laws and commandments to the elders of the Jewish people (Shemos 19:7):

ז וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּקְרָא לְזִקְנֵי הָעָם; וַיָּשֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶם, אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ, יְהוָה. 7 And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD commanded him.

Also, when Moshe was giving his final speech, in Devarim, the Torah describes his teaching of the Torah in a similar manner. This verse can further help us understand why this type of language is used and can be found in Devarim (4:44):

מד וְזֹאת, הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 44 And this is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel;
These verses show that when the Torah is taught the language of "setting" the Torah "before" the pupil is used. What is the significance of this type of language? How is it being taught by the teacher and how is it being absorbed by the student? Perhaps this language is used to teach us how one should teach, or perhaps it is teaching us about how one should learn the Torah? The question is, simply put, what is the significance of setting the Torah before the Jewish people, why not say that Moshe taught (Lilmoed) the Jewish people Torah or anything similar to that?

To answer this question we must bring down a Gemorah found in Eiruvin (54b) that states: (Soncino translation)

R. Akiba stated: Whence is it deduced that a man must go on teaching his pupil until he has
mastered the subject? From Scripture where it says: And teach thou it to the children of Israel.32 And whence is it deduced that it must be taught until the students are well versed in it?33 From Scripture where it says. Put it in their mouths.34 And whence is it inferred that it is also his duty to explain to him the reasons?35 It has been said: Now these are the ordinances which thou shalt put before them.36

((32) Deut. XXXI, 19; emphasis on ‘teach’.
(33) Lit., ‘arranged in order in their mouth’.
(34) Deut. XXXI, 19: emphasis on ‘put . . . mouth’.
(35) Lit., ‘to show the face’. . . that it is not enough to teach dogmatically.
(36) Ex. XXI. 1, emphasis on ‘put before’ (cf. Rashi). )

Rabbi Akiva is telling us something very unique about the words "set before" (or put before). G-D, in his infinite wisdom, realized that man must understand before he can perform actions. There are different levels of understanding, but in order to do something worth anything, there must first be understanding. Without any type of understanding, there is no purpose to the action. This is why we see that G-D commanded Moshe to set the Torah before the Jewish people. Moshe had to explain and give the reasons for the laws in the Torah.

This is one of the reasons why I believe even the laws that we have nowadays, like ritual slaughter, that seemingly have no reason, must have originally been taught with the reason. Everything in Judaism needs to make sense, logic is an integral part of the Jewish religion. Without logic there is no understanding and without understanding there is no true learning.

People nowadays are all to content with just learning the basic halacha, how to pray and go through the motions without ever understanding what they are doing. These actions are essentially worthless without deeper understanding. That is why G-D gave the Torah and specifically told Moshe, "Place it before the Jewish People." G-D was saying make sure they understand what they are doing and the reasons behind these actions. Knowledge leads to a closer connection to Torah and to G-D.

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