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Parashat Mishpatim 5780 — 02/22/2020

Parashat Mishpatim 5780 — 02/22/2020

Shemot 21:1-24:18

And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them (21:1)

Everywhere where “these” is said, it makes a break with [lit. “invalidates”] the previous subject; where it says “and these” it adds to the previous subject (Tanchuma 3; Shemot Rabbah 30:3). Just as the previous subject was from Mt. Sinai, so these [ordinances] are from Sinai (Mechilta). Why was the section on civil and criminal law [i.e. our section] juxtaposed to the section on the sacrificial service [in last week’s parashah]? To tell you to place the Sanhedrin next to the Temple [other readings: the altar]. (Rashi ad loc).

There is a dispute in the Talmud as to what, exactly, did Moshe Rabbeinu receive on Mt. Sinai. Or haChaim explains:

Now R. Yishmael and R. Akiva disagree in Mechilta (to our verse): R. Yishmael says: The “and” tells us that just like the laws mentioned above (i.e. the 10 Commandments) were given at Sinai, so were the laws mentioned below (in our parashah) given at Sinai. R. Akiva says: “And these…”: one might have thought that [the Jewish people] were to review the laws [superficially], but Moshe was not required to make sure they knew them in depth, with their reasons and explanations. Therefore (to disabuse us of this notion) Torah says “and these…”: Arrange the laws before them like a set table.

Or haChaim goes on to indicate that this dispute is related to a more fundamental dispute:

Now, according to R. Yishmael, who explains that the phrase, “And” these are, tells us that [the laws that follow] were said at Sinai, we are forced to explain that the verse needs to tell us this is to teach that even the details of this mitzvah were said at Sinai. For if the verse is coming to teach that the broad principles [of the mitzvah] were said at Sinai, it is redundant, because R’ Yishmael himself says in the last chapter of Zevachim (115b) that the broad principles of all the mitzvos were said to Moshe at Sinai, and their details were said to Moshe later in the Ohel Moed (i.e., the Mishkan). The citation of the Gemara in Zevachim ends here. These ordinances (the laws our parashah), therefore, are also included in that rule, and [the Torah] would not have had to say, “Andthese are, to teach this matter, i.e., that the broad principles of these laws were given at Sinai. Rather, the Torah must be teaching that even the details of these laws were given at Sinai. But according to R’Akiva, who disagrees there with R’ Yishmael in the baraisa [RAR: Mishnaic teaching not included in the “official” Mishnah] cited in Zevachim and holds that both the broad principles and the details of all the mitzvos were said to Moshe at Sinai, it is impossible to explain that the phrase, “Andthese are the ordinances, is coming to teach us that [these laws] were also said at Sinai, for there is no need to tell us this, since we already know that even the details of all the laws of the Torah were said at Sinai.

This dispute is actually about the nature of Moshe Rabbeinu’s Revelation on Mt. Sinai. The Rabbinic literature has a wide spectrum of opinions on the issue, presumably because nobody else has come anywhere near Moshe’s stature or clarity of vision. Some take a very maximalist view and hold that every bit of Torah, including “everything an intelligent student will say to his teacher” was revealed to Moshe. On the minimalist end of the spectrum, some hold that Moshe was only told the general principles of halachah and a few details, and could derive everything from that. Moshe passed what he learned down through the chain of transmission (see Pirke Avot 1:1), and the Rabbis were able to derive halachot in every generation from these general principles (both principles of law and principles of exegesis).

There are, of course, indications in both Scripture and the Rabbinic writings that support both views and positions in between as well. The principal objection to the first view is that Torah is infinite and can’t possibly be grasped by a finite mind. Furthermore, how could Moshe have learned such a vast body of detailed knowledge, including knowledge of events and technologies that were far in the future (“is heating something up in a microwave oven called ‘cooking’ for purposes of the laws of Shabbat?”), in just 40 days? Another argument is that if Moshe had already been told at Mt. Sinai the disastrous result of the sending of the spies (in parashat Shelach), why would he have sent them?!?

On the other side, even the Written Torah contains much more than a list of general principles, and the Oral Torah that goes along with it is even more detailed and richer. Therefore it is obvious that Moshe was not given just the principles.

(If you are interested in exploring some of these issues further I highly recommend you look into some of the courses on R. Anthony Manning’s web site:

It appears that the underlying assumption behind all these approaches is that the human mind is finite and incapable of comprehending the whole of Torah. Certainly, in the realm of thought, this is correct. Thoughts are boundaries, and whenever we are thinking, we are in boundaries. If, however, the mind is allowed to settle down until thinking stops, and our consciousness is alone within itself, then it is, in fact, unbounded – all the boundaries of thought and perception are gone. One might think of the waves on the ocean – when the waves, the activity of the ocean, settle down, the surface of the ocean is flat and featureless, unbounded. This state of consciousness is first experienced as completely silent and motionless.

With greater familiarity, one can begin to perceive a kind of infinite, yet virtual dynamism within the silent, flat unbounded state of consciousness. This dynamism is in the form of vibrations, which, as we have discussed, our Sages tell us can be perceived in terms of speech, specifically the Hebrew language. Since this dynamism is the basic structure of all of creation, a mind situated on the level of the unbounded can, in fact, perceive the totality of knowledge, the structure by which the underlying, unbounded Unity expresses itself in multiplicity. We have to assume that Moshe Rabbeinu was stationed at that level of awareness, as is hinted at in Rashi’s comment to Numbers 7:89 – Gd was speaking with Himself and Moshe heard on his own.

I believe that in this sense, Moshe Rabbeinu had knowledge of all the Torah, but on a completely abstract, almost unmanifest level. From that abstract level, any one of an infinite variety of concrete outcomes can be structured, especially when human beings, who possess free will, are involved.

The Talmud tells us that after the death of Yose ben Yoezer (see Pirke Avot 1:4) the grape clusters (eshkolot) were no more. What are the eshkolot? Ish she hakol bo – a man who has everything in him. Such a person has all knowledge inside himself by virtue of having unbounded awareness. And why were there no more eshkolot? “Because people could no longer study Torah like Moshe Rabbeinu did.” Apparently Moshe had passed down techniques to bring his students up to his level, but after the time of Yose ben Yoezer the techniques were lost. Torah study became an academic thing, caught in the boundaries of the mind and the intellect. We pray for the day when this knowledge will be restored, and we will all be able to study Torah properly, on its own level.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Mishpatim

“Mishpatim” means “laws.”  In this parshah, Gd gives many laws: The most important is “And you shall worship the Lord, your Gd, and He will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from your midst.”

How are we to know that we are doing well in our worship?

Joy in eating and drinking is a sign that we are doing well and illness is a sign that we are lax in our worship.

Gd gives 53 laws in this parshah — 30 positive mitzvot and 23 prohibitions.

Moses tells the laws to the people and they say, “All that the Lord has commanded we will do”!

These 53 mitzvot are details in our worship of Gd — so worship is not just saying a blessing, praising Gd, but acting in daily life, in and out of formal services, according to Gd’s Will – as best we can. The mitzvot in this parshah illustrate in many ways how we can worship Gd by “loving our neighbor as ourself” – as our Self.

Our ancestors heard Gd speak on Mt Sinai/Mount Horeb (there is disagreement as to whether this is one place or two separate places, whether the Ten Utterances/Words/Commandments were given out on Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb) and they heard Him speak through Moses which He does also in this parshah. This is a sign that despite such faults as worshiping the Golden Calf, our ancestors were quite good in their worship. They must have been doing quite well, generally, in performing the mitzvot – doing what should be done, avoiding what should not.

Some of these laws though clearly moral seem very secular: laws about slaves, homicide, insults, assault, crops. Only a few of the laws pertain directly to duty to Gd.

How are we to know in our time that in our daily life we are worshiping Gd and not just taking care of our individual selves, families, property?

Most of the mitzvot in this parshah are things that good people everywhere learn from their parents and their culture but also there are specific details for which regular reading of Torah and studying Torah can be helpful so that we become more and more attentive to the details of a good life, a life of worship: an example, is offering first fruits, to Gd. Unless we’re farmers or gardeners we have to think about what this means in our life. It could be symbolic of offering some part of any money we receive to Gd or to charity. It could mean that the first fruit of any thought we think we need to align with what we know of what Gd wants.

Worshiping Gd is an ongoing learning experience: Comfort in our life is a sign that happiness is growing, Joy is growing. Comfort is a sign t we are learning how to be natural, unstrained, to act in harmony with Life, with Gd’s Will. And definitely when comfort rises to be Joy in our life we have a sign we are getting better, we are learning, we are becoming increasingly aware that Joy is Gd and by helping others to be comfortable, unstrained, we are sharing Joy, sharing Gd, Loving Gd. We are growing in our ability to know our self and to share this with others: we are growing in our ability to “Love Gd with all our heart, all our soul and all our might” and in our ability to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Opening ourselves to comfort, Joy and Love is opening our awareness to Totality, the Primordial Oneness within which everything and everyone exists as an impulse, a flow – as ripples are the ocean flowing within itself.
Because this is Reality, our growing sense of Gd in this way is a real taste and by devoting our self through comfort and kindness to Gd and to our neighbor we commit ourselves innocently to develop Full Comfort, Full Kindness : Oneness with Gd. The mitzvot in this parshah help us to do this.

Through this commitment, our ancestors worshiped and we worship. Whatever words we recite in service and in prayer raise our awareness to deeper and deeper Tastes of Gd and innocently dedicate ourselves only to One and to nothing less and whatever acts we perform outside of formal religious service are still service, acts dedicated to Totality.

We settle for no partial value. We accept nothing less than Totality – Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omni-Joyful, Omni-Loving, Totality, All-in-All, nothing left out.

Through this commitment we worship and through this commitment we grow in appreciating every aspect of life as truly Gd, we grow in our ability to love every detail of life as our Self, we grow in our ability to “love Gd with all our heart and soul.”  We grow in fulfillment, restoring awareness of Oneness within our self and everywhere and we grow in the extent to which this Fulfillment is shared, experienced by everyone and every thing, every where and every when.

This is a life worth living and the various laws of this parshah, Mishpatim, some seeming secular and some clearly sacred, are aids in living this life and finding that Fulfillment always Is, never is missing, always Is.

Baruch HaShem