“Which You Shall Set Before Them”
Summarized by Aviad Bristol
Translated by David Strauss
Now these are the ordinances that you shall set before them. (Shemot 21:1)
“He declares His word to Yaakov, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel” (Tehilim 147:19). These are the ordinances… In the morning the Torah was given, and in the evening the ordinances. (Shemot Rabba 30: 9-11)
The laws in Parashat Mishpatim were given after the revelation at Mount Sinai and were recorded in the Torah in between the Ten Commandments in Parashat Yitro and "the covenant of the basins" at the end of our parasha. This is true at the very least from a literary perspective, irrespective of the disagreement regarding the timing of the end of Parashat Mishpatim (whether or not the story of the covenant that is recorded there took place at an earlier point).
The juxtaposition of the giving of the Torah to the lengthy passage containing the ordinances requires explanation. What is the connection between the Torah and these ordinances?
We can discuss a broad spectrum of relationships between the Torah and the ordinances – for example, the need for an essential connection and an existential relationship between the primary idea (the Torah) and its detailed application in the minutiae of the real world (the ordinances). In this context, however, we wish to focus on a different point.
The revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah took place in the presence of all of Israel, the expectation being that the Torah would become the inheritance of every individual in Israel. The expectation from every member of Israel was that he would study the Torah and know it.
The Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav emphasizes that the mitzva of "And you shall teach them to your children," the obligation upon a father to teach his children Torah, applies to the entire Written Law and the entire Oral Law:
For by Torah law a father is obligated to teach his son by himself or to find him a teacher who will teach him the entire Torah. If he does not find such a teacher who will teach for free, even if he himself cannot teach his child, and even if he does not know how to learn anything himself, he is obligated by Torah law to hire him a teacher who can teach him well to know the entire Written Law and the entire Oral Law – that is to say, the Bible and all the codified laws of the entire Torah with their reasons – because they are the explanations of the 613 commandments in the Torah. This includes all their particulars, and even if there are differences of opinions, for both opinions are the words of the living God. [It further includes] even the commandments that do not apply at this time and also all the words of the Sages that they hung on the exposition of the verses, which are the aggadot, as it is stated: "For if you shall diligently keep all this commandment" (Devarim 11:22), and the Sages expounded that one should not say: I learned the halakhot; that is enough for me. Therefore the verse states: "All this commandment" – learn halakhot, aggadot, and Midrash, which is the Talmud, which explains the reasons for the halakhot in the mishnayot and the baraitot, and their sources in the expositions of the verses of the Torah, and the halakhot that do not have a source in the verses, which are by tradition halakhot received by Moshe at Sinai, or by logical reasoning, everything haven been given to Moshe at Sinai. [The obligation includes] also the words of the Sages that they hung on expositions of the verses, which are the aggadot. As the Sages expounded the verse: "And I will give you the tablets of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that you may teach them" (Shemot 24:12). Nevertheless, the study of the halakhot comes before study of the aggadot. (Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:4)
The truth is that we say this almost explicitly in the blessings of Kriat Shema: "Put it into our hearts to understand and to discern …." This is the important point: The Torah is addressed to all of Israel, to each and every individual. At the ideal level, there is a desire for everyone to know the entire Torah, and systems are built for the purpose of achieving this goal, even though in reality it is clear that this objective cannot be realized.
This important idea in itself is an idea the likes of which are not found among any other people. In general, an elite group of individuals is supposed to withdraw from society, seclude themselves and engage in study. This was certainly true in the ancient period, when they were also concerned about maintaining the sterility of the religious writings. But even after those writings were translated into the vernacular, making them accessible to the masses, a broad study movement advocating that every person is obligated to know did not come into being. Among the people of Israel, in contrast, study institutions whose purpose was to make the Torah accessible to everyone were created in the earliest days, the foundation of which was the mitzva upon a father to teach his son Torah.
The same is true regarding the verse, "Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them." Rashi explains:
"Which you shall set before them" – The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: It should not enter your mind to say: I shall teach them a section of the Torah or a single halakha twice or three times until it will become current in their mouths according to its wording, but I shall not take the trouble to make them understand the reason of each thing and its significance; therefore Scripture says: "Which you shall set before them" – like a table fully laid before a person, with everything ready for eating. (Rashi, Shemot 21:1)
The Torah's ordinances are not for jurists and lawyers; they are for everybody. Every member of Israel is required to study Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra, Sanhedrin and Shevu'ot, just like every member of Israel is require to study Zevachim and Menachot, even if he is not a Kohen. There is no other religion or society in which the obligation to study all of its teachings falls upon the entire community. Once again, we emphasize that at least on the declarative level, this is the ideal. The halakhic ramifications express themselves in the requirement falling upon every man of Israel to teach his children Torah himself, at the level that "the words of the Torah are sharp in their mouths."
This obligation is not simple at all. We are well aware that the reality in which everyone knows Choshen Mishpat is far from us. We must, however, aspire to this goal and work toward it. Imagine a society in which everyone knows the laws of damages. What sensitivity there would be to these matters! As the verse states:
Now, therefore, hearken, O Israel to the statutes and to the judgments which I teach you, to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord the God of your fathers gives you… Behold, I have taught you statutes, and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do so in the land where you go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, “Only this great people is a wise and understanding nation. For what great nation is there who has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is at all times that we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Devarim 4:1-14)
When the Torah will become the inheritance of the entire nation, when every member of Israel will know the statutes and the judgments, everyone will behave differently and follow the righteous judgments of the Torah. Such a reality that makes wisdom and justice accessible to every man gives rise to a more decent society that is conscious of the sensitivities of the Torah, Halakha, and the law.
The transmission of the Torah and its laws to the general public connects with the transmission of justice to the entire nation:
In your own gates you set up tribunals in every district as well as in every city, whereas outside the land of Israel, you set up tribunals only in every district but not in every city. (Makkot 7a)
As opposed to the extended delay of justice caused by modern judicial systems, the Torah aspires to establish courts in every populated area. In such a situation, not only will the Torah and justice be transmitted to the entire people, as was described above, but every individual will merit receiving proper treatment and a fair trial. A nation that has judges and a judicial system that is widely spread in every city and in every district enables broad control, an accessible solution, a system of justice without delay and with endless continuances of the proceedings. "The king by justice establishes the land" (Mishlei 29:4), and corresponding to it: "Thus says the Lord, If My covenant be not with day and night, if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth" (Yirmeyahu 33:25) – these are the two pillars upon which the earth stands, on truth and on justice, and of course, on the peace that issues forth from the connection between them.
The third system, alongside the Torah and justice, is the system of the Temple. Even though the priests perform the Temple service, the Torah emphasizes the need for general partnership.
Parashat Shekalim describes the donations that were made to the Mishkan. There are two types of donations. One, which is more common and familiar all over the world, is that of a rich man, who donates a large sum for the benefit of a particular cause or institution. In Parashat Shekalim, however, we find a different kind of donation: the half-shekel. From a donation of this type are made the sockets upon which the Mishkan stands, and from an additional half-shekel contribution the communal daily and additional offerings are brought. The half-shekel does not differentiate between rich and poor, between a person of one sort and another: it unites all individuals into a single collective that stands before God. In this way the Mikdash was transmitted to all of Israel. Both the foundations of the Mishkan, the sockets, and the ongoing maintenance, the daily offering, are financed by communal donations that do not distinguish between rich and poor. All of Israel are partners in the Mishkan and the holy service.
"Which you shall set before them" – everything is set out before everybody. The Torah and justice do not belong to an elite set of individuals, but to a special nation, a nation of Torah and justice, a nation every member of which can reach the peak and every member of which must aspire to do so.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Mishphatim-Shekalim 5778 .)