Can more ink be spilled on the portion of Mishpatim?
Why does this portion, of all others, follow the dramatic and impressive portion of Yitro? I went in search of answers.
The question reminded me of a story from the tractate of Shabbat (10:1), which I will paraphrase: Rav Ami and Rav Assi were immersed in Torah study in the beit midrash. But every hour they would get up, knock on the entrance and proclaim: “If anyone is in need of adjudication, let him enter the beit midrash and we will render judgement.”
Two Talmudic scholars are said to be sitting in the hall of study, supposedly detached from the outside world. And yet every hour, they make a point of going out into the street to inquire whether anybody needs them to adjudicate in any matter or dispute.
What this story comes to teach us is that Torah study cannot remain secluded within the walls of the beit midrash. Rather, Torah must be accessible to all, such that every individual is able to feel that he has a part in it. This means that those who teach Torah as well as those who render Torah judgements must be intimate with the ways of the world that exists beyond the Study Hall.
Interestingly, in Midrash Tanhuma on our portion, we come across the figure of Rav Assi once again. This time however, we get more than just a glimpse into the character of this fascinating persona. The Midrash relates a conversation between Rav Assi and his nephew, when the former is on his deathbed. The nephew sees that his uncle is crying and asks: “Why are you crying? Is there any part of Torah which you have not studied? Are there any acts of kindness in which you were not engaged? You have immersed yourself in all of these! Your greatest virtue is that you were unwilling to take on lofty positions of power and refused to serve as a public official.”
And to this Rav Assi gives a fascinating answer: “Precisely for this I weep. Perhaps God will be angry because I was supposed to have served as a judge and I did not; I was supposed to have been involved in public affairs and chose not to.”
What a wondrous reply this is – an attestation to Rav Assi’s chosen way of life: living and operating upon a continuum that stretches from within the beit midrash to the outside world.
The portions of Yitro and Mishpatim exemplify this notion precisely. While the portion of Yitro focuses on the great and awesome Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, and the giving of the Ten Commandments which are the guiding principles of our lives, let us note that as these events were unfolding, the people stood from afar. The reason being that this great and formative moment was also a formidable one, and naturally intimidating to the ordinary individual.
But immediately following this extraordinary portion comes the portion of Mishpatim – without any fuss or drama. What Mishpatim does is deconstruct the Ten Commandments so that we get to see the minute details. In this way it conveys the message that the Torah belongs to everybody, the mitzvot are meant for all. It is as if God is calling out to us and saying: “Come closer, sit with me, and let me explain to you how I wish for you to live your lives.”
And this exactly is the point. It’s not about how I, as an individual, wish to live my life. The story is not just about me, as is demonstrated by Rav Assi’s story. If it were only about Rav Assi and his own personal story, he would not have cried before his death.
The questions we should be asking are: What will our society look like? Will it be a healthy and robust one? Will our judicial system be a just one? God Himself, in so many words, tells us that the world of Torah and the mundane world are one and the same. Neither focuses solely on the individual; rather, emphasis is placed on the individual vis-à-vis his neighbors; the individual as a resident of his city; the individual as part of a nation.
It therefore seems to me that the tractate of Nezikin, which expounds upon the basic laws presented in our portion, would have been superfluous had the halakhic debate remained within the walls of the beit midrash. However, the halakhic discourse which takes place within the Study Halls is, in itself, necessary for maintaining a robust society. Without profound learning and a true investigation of Torah laws, how will we know how to live our lives?
Our life as Jews, whose ultimate desire is to serve God, live by His Torah and fulfill His mitzvot, must be a life lived upon the continuum which stretches from within the walls of the beit midrash all the way to everyday life outside of these walls. At times we will be the dwellers of the Halls of Torah, and sit and learn for hours on end; and sometimes we will be among those who walk about outdoors managing their mundane affairs, and, at times, go in search of the Torah scholars who come out into the street to render Torah judgement.
Rabbi Kook gave an apt description of this state of affairs in his book Ein Ayah on the tractate of Shabbat, in reference to the story about Rav Assi mentioned earlier. He writes, “The Torah must be relevant to practical life by illuminating the paths of life, rather than being solely a lofty text of wisdom.”
Let me end with a profound thought I came across when learning about the mundane world vs. the world of Torah study. In his book Birkei Yosef on the Orach Chayim, the “Hida HaKadosh” (Rabbi Yosef David Azulai) writes that “one must distinguish between the study of Torah and the observance of the mitzvot. One who engages in a mitzva is exempt from performing another mitzva at the same time; however, not so with Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. This is because the study of Torah comes to teach us the true essence of Torah, which is the observance of the mitzvot, rather than Torah study unto itself. Moreover, the greatness and glory attributed to the study of Torah only holds true when Torah study leads to deeds.”
The Hida teaches us something of extreme importance. We are all familiar with the halakha that one who engages in a mitzva is exempt from performing another mitzva at that moment. But this is not the case when it comes to Torah study. This means to say that if one is engaged in the study of Torah and another mitzva suddenly presents itself to him, he must cease his learning and fulfill the mitzva right away – the reason being that Torah study is only deemed great when it leads to practice.
This is the idea behind Parshat Mishpatim. Real Torah is one that leads to deeds. True Torah study must be an integral part of the practical world, for our mundane life cannot exist without it.