by Rabbi Heshy Grossman
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Some time ago, I was listening to an Israeli secularist critique the
thousands of Yeshiva students who, in his opinion, are not open-minded
enough in their studies. "Tell me, have you ever been inside the walls of a
Yeshiva?", I asked. "What, do you imagine, is studied there?"
"Well, they probably sit around and talk about G-d, discuss philosophy, say Tehillim, and the like."
I laughed. "Have you ever opened a Gemara? Do you know what is discussed in Bava Kamma and Bava Metzia? The laws of damages, property loss, two individuals disputing an item's ownership, contract law, business relations, laws of usury, etc. Do you know that you can sit in a Bais Medrash for months and never understand how this relates to G-d?
As we study Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah portion that is the basis of much of our legal codes, perhaps it is appropriate that we, ourselves, stop to think. How does the detailed analysis of monetary and property law help us connect to the One Above?
" 'Magid D'varav L'Ya'akov, Chukav U'Mishpatav L'Yisrael' - 'He relates His word to Ya'akov, His statutes and judgments to Israel'......for the characteristics of G-d are not as the traits of [a man of] flesh and blood. The measure of man is to instruct others what to do, while doing nothing himself. G-d is unlike that, rather, what He does, He tells Israel to do, and to keep." (Midrash Rabbah, 30, 6)
The Mitzvos of the Torah are more than mere commands, they reflect the true will of G-d, as human expression of G-dly action. This, according to Sfas Emes, is the implication of the blessing, 'Asher Kiddeshanu B'Mitzvosav' - Who has sanctified us with His commands. The Mitzvos are His, for G-d, as well, carries out His word.
There is a distinction between 'D'varav' - 'His word', and 'Mishpatav' - 'His judgments. While the Aseres HaDibros, the basis of all morality, obviously stems from Sinai, one might assume that the Mishpatim, our legal code, is not Divinely rooted. Man relates too easily to its clear logic, sensing intuitively the decisive precision of Halachic process.
It is with this in mind that Moshe Rabbeinu hesitates to present the reasoning of law before the B'nai Yisrael. Yet G-d commands, "V'Eleh HaMishpatim Asher Tassim Lifneihem" - "And these are the judgments that you should place before them". Just as the first commands originate at Sinai, these laws, as well, originate in heaven. And still, place them all before Israel, "K'Shulchan Aruch U'Muchan L'Echol" - "As a set table, ready to eat" (Rashi, Shmos, 21,1), with their reasoning intact, readily digestible to the mindset of mortal man.
Let us explain these ideas.
" '.....and you should make known to your children, and your children's children'. After which is written, 'The day you stood before Hashem, your Lord, at Horev....'. Just as further on [at Horev] they stood in awe, fear, and trembling, here, as well [Torah study], should be with awe, fear, and trembling." (Brachos 22a)
What is true fear?
While walking down a dark city street, you notice five young toughs menacingly approaching. You are terribly frightened. Why? Is it the threat of physical suffering, your worry that it will hurt? Is it the sense of imminent pain that scares you?
It is not the pain that you fear. It is the attack. You sense a loss of self, a situation out of control. Your existence is threatened. Weakness leaves you with no hope to salvage your deflated pride.
True fear, then, is a limited sense of being, an honest perspective on life.
Fear of G-d reflects a unique vantage point, the sense that one's continued existence depends entirely upon G-d's goodwill.
Imagine sitting deep within a war bunker, in the midst of battle. Fire, missiles, and explosions rage just a few feet away. You cannot move, paralyzed with fear.
The man who fears G-d feels the same way. Living in the shadow of G-d's impending justice, he will not lift a finger without being certain that such is the will of G-d.
He is aware of this: the presence of G-d is constant, no deed is free of His command.
Hashem is the heart of existence, all of life reflects this core.
It is for this reason that the altar rests upon the midpoint of the earth. Man's sacrifice brings him nearer to his Source, with every point upon the surface expressing a different aspect of the hidden center that unites all life.
The Lishkas HaGazis, seat of the Sanhedrin, occupies the same space. "Ki MiTzion Tetze Torah" - "From Zion the Torah goes forth". The decisors of Jewish law sit astride the altar, for they too, unite all of existence. G-d's presence is everywhere, within the confines of Halacha. Though the finer points of observance may be picayune to those who think in grandiose physical terms, the one who fears G-d lives with constant awareness: every deed counts. The Halacha dictates his every move.
It is this sensitivity that allows him to unify all existence, seeing the word of G-d at every turn.
This is as we say each morning: "Amar Rebbi Elazar Amar Rebbi Chanina: Torah scholars increase peace in the world."
With all this in mind, let us take a fresh look at one particular Mitzva.
The Torah forbids the use of all metal instruments in the building of the altar. The function of the Mizbe'ach was to bring peace and life to the world, while metal is the primary element in tools of death and destruction.
This seems to be a stretch. Metal is representative of death? Does it not serve man, enabling him to make better use of his world?
The building of steps to the altar is also prohibited, as a precaution against 'Gilui Arayos' - forbidden relationships. A ramp was used instead, one that did not require the Kohanim to spread their legs as they climbed to the top.
Really? Climbing steps as an element of Gilui Arayos?!?
The lesson is this: the Torah is teaching us of a higher sensitivity, training man to be aware of the deeper meaning inherent to all physical deed.
Wouldn't anyone recoil at the sight of a huge butcher knife adorning the Sefer Torah? The difference between a weapon of death and a small metallic blade is merely one of degree. It is the Torah's acute awareness of hidden implications that is transmitted through the Mitzvos, the commands that legislate spirituality.
Similarly, the association of huge steps with 'Gilui Arayos'. Every act in the Temple connects the physical earth to its heavenly source, no muscle moves without perfect refinement. This special dimension is a microcosmic replication of G-d's creation, and Divine service is reflected through every deed. Though far removed from any form of immorality, the Kohen's sensitive soul blanches at the slightest hint of sin. He walks with precision, epitomizing the honor of G-d's faithful servant.
Mitzvos are generally conceived as Divine instruction, directing man towards a moral life, and guiding him through a maze of physical distraction.
For example: Man is commanded to honor his mother and father. It is incumbent upon him to demonstrate his gratitude; for bringing him to life and raising him with devotion.
This explanation however, does not suffice to explain G-d's will. Why was a human being created with parents? Certainly, G-d could have brought man to life independently.
Perhaps we should formulate matters thus: it is not because man has parents that Hashem has commanded that they be honored. Rather, because there is a Mitzva of Kibbud Av V'Em, man was created with parents.
In other words, Mitzvos are not aids for good living. They are a pathway to a higher dimension, allusions of a heavenly realm of being. Each Mitzva hints at the G-dly trait that is its source, embodying the characteristics of Divinity expressed in physical form. G-d wishes to imbue man with His essence, and has created a world where His Mitzvos can be imitated by mortal man. The Mitzvos are at the center of creation, connecting heaven and earth, bringing peace to our world.
Reb Yisrael Salanter was once questioned as to the source for a particular action of his. He responded: "It's a Din clearly stated in Shas!" "Where", he was asked. "Perhaps it's not in your Shas", he said, "but, it is in mine!"
How are we to understand this? Don't we all have the same Shas? Is there more than one Shulchan Aruch?
The details of Halacha are not the total expression of Jewish life. Halacha is just the beginning, the minimal standard for one who hopes to approach his Maker. Each Mitzva is a world unto itself, with Halacha merely outlining the general framework of an infinite dimension.
It is in this manner that Mishpatim, the legal codes, enable us to relate to the One Above. Like Reb Yisrael Salanter, in the Talmudic analysis of each and every law, the sensitive student faithfully discerns G-d's will in all situations.
Is there any system of law that endeavors to address, with logic and precision, a response to every legal quandary that should ever arise? Can any secular court respond with certainty to "Shnayim Ochazin B'Talis", or "Modeh B'Miktzas"? Are there 'Kushyos' and 'Tirutzim'? 'Hava Amina' and 'Maskana'? 'U'R'Minhi' and 'Hacha B'Mai Askinan'?
On the contrary, it is the reasoning of the Mishpatim that demonstrates the supremacy of a system that consistently reflects a higher reality. One good truth leads to another, and the faithful Dayan is partner with G-d, each decision encompassing heaven and earth, in the never-ending spiral towards eternity.
"Yiras Hashem Tehorah, Omedes La'ad, Mishpatei Hashem Emes, Tzadku Yachdav. HaNechemadim MiZahav U'MiPaz Rav, U'Misukim MiDvash V'Nofes Tzufim."
Any questions or comments? Please address them to grossman @actcom.co.il
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