parasha

Clarity and Choice

Mishpatim 5780
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
Last week, we read about the most significant event in Jewish history – the Revelation at Mount Sinai.  We were amazed by the description of the peaks of faith and of the transcendent experiences.  This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, sets us back down on the ground of grey, murky reality.  Laws of damages, responsibility, slaves; bribery and exaggerated interest, violence, murder, theft… These are the halachot (Jewish laws) we read about this week.
At the end of the parasha, we are surprised to discover that all these halachot are included in a document termed “Sefer HaBrit”, the Book of the Covenant.  It turns out that dealing with the lowest levels of life, and with the less attractive aspects of human society, is an inseparable part of the covenant between the Jewish people and G-d.  The Revelation at Mount Sinai did not end with lofty experiences, but wished to awaken in man the desire to make real social change that penetrates all aspects of life.

In the first verse in the parasha, we read:
“And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.
(Exodus 21, 1)

The phrase “that you shall set before them” is interesting.  Of course, this is metaphorical, since the laws of the Torah are not a tangible item that can be set down before a group of people.  What is the reason for using such a metaphorical phrase rather than the often-used phrase in the Torah, “speak to the Children of Israel”?

And who is the “them” referring to? In front of whom are these biblical directives supposed to be set?

The classic commentators understood that the “them” refers to the entire Jewish nation. So, for example, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (Morocco 1696 – Jerusalem 1743), among the important biblical commentators, expands and explains that one might have thought that there are parts of the Torah that every person has to be aware of, like laws of kashrut and Shabbat, versus parts of the Torah, like damages, that only professionals have to understand carefully.  This is what the Torah wants to negate.  Even laws of damages and other negative social issues have to be set before the entire nation.  Knowing these laws is part of the educational process that shapes a person who feels a closeness with and identifies with the moral life that is reflected in these laws.

The phrase “set before them” demands examination.  Two of the greatest commentators of the Middle Ages expressed their opinions about the meaning of the phrase and thus taught us two important educational principles.  The greatest of biblical commentators, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France 1040-1105) saw the phrase “set before them” as a directive regarding the necessary clarity in education and learning:

“The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses: Do not think of saying ‘I will teach them the chapter or the law two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.’ Therefore, it is said: ‘you shall set before them,’ like a table, set and prepared to eat from, before someone.”

(Rashi, Shmot ibid, ibid)

When we teach, our goal is not only to bequeath knowledge.  We want to have our student internalize the content.  The material has to be presented to the students “like a table, set and prepared to eat from”.  This is also how Rabbi Yosef Karo (among the greatest rabbinical authorities, Spain 1488 – Tzefat 1575) explains his choice for the name Shulchan Aruch (literally meaning “set table”) that he gave his monumental book of halacha:

“And I named this book the Shulchan Aruch because the thinker will find in it different delicacies set, preserved, organized, and clear.”

(Introduction to the book Shulchan Aruch)

In contrast, a different Middle Ages commentator, the Ramban (Nachmanides – Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain 1194 – Jerusalem 1270) read a different meaning into the phrase “set before them”:

“Moses said to them: Here I presented you with everything, choose today if you will follow them… So they will say if they choose and take upon themselves to do them.”

(Nachmanides on Exodus 19,7)

Here we are focusing on another educational principle.  It is not right to coerce a student into adopting the points of view of the educator. The educator must present the student with the content, values, and laws – and the student must choose if to adopt them or reject them.  We should not think we have the ability to force students, or our children, into taking the path we choose for them.  We are obligated to clearly present what we believe so they will internalize it on their own and understand what the correct path should be.  But ultimately, they have the freedom to choose.

 

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