Monday, January 24, 2022

Mishpatim: "Master of Hesed"

 "Master of Hesed"

Thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim 2022

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Rav Hayim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) is widely recognized as one of the greatest Torah minds of the 19th Century. His unique halakhic methodology and novel Talmudic insights have echoed off the walls of most batei midrash from his time until today. Yaakov Gromer was a student of Rav Hayim, and after learning from him for several years, left to study with Albert Einstein in Berlin. He later compared his two teachers, explaining that although both of them were truly moral people, “Rav Hayim had more kindness in his little finger than Einstein had in all his heart and brain.”[1]


I believe that this difference between Rav Hayim and Albert Einstein is owed to the different sources from which they fashioned their respective ways of life.


Parashat Mishpatim presents an elaborate list of instructions regarding interpersonal conduct and behavior. It begins:

And these are the rules that you shall set before them… (Shemot 21:1)

Rashi commented that these rules immediately followed Parashat Yitro, which first told of the Ten Commandments at Sinai and then of the missvah to build a mizbe’ah:

What is the case with the former commandments (the Ten Commandments)? They were given at Sinai. So, too, these were given at Sinai. If this is so, why is this section dealing with the “civil laws” placed immediately after that commanding the making of the altar? To tell you that you should seat the Sanhedrin in the vicinity of the Mikdash.[2]

Surprisingly, the rules of Mishpatim were instructed together with the Ten Commandments at Har Sinai, and they will be applied in the future from the holy location of the Mikdash. While the mishpatim are certainly important for building a structured society, are they that important? Couldn’t they just be formulated in future Jewish communities and settlements, wherever they might be? Did they really belong at Har Sinai and in the Mikdash?


In a well-known Midrash, the Hakhamim distinguished between “hokhmah – knowledge” and “Torah”. They posited that although non-Jews may attain hokhmah, they can’t naturally discover Torah.[3] Maharal of Prague wrote that while hokhmah represents knowledge “as it is,” Torah is knowledge “as applied.” He explained that the very name “Torah” derives from “hora’ah,” which means instruction. The difference between hokhmah and Torah, then, is the difference between “just knowing” and “knowing and doing.”[4]


Coupling the Ten Commandments and mizbe’ah of Parashat Yitro with the many rules of Parashat Mishpatim, we’re exposed to the uniqueness of Torah. We learn that the Torah isn’t merely a system of thought and understanding which draws a straight path through life for us; it’s a programmatic guide to action which keeps us on that path.


I remember when I first visited Auschwitz, almost twenty years ago. As the bus I was riding on turned off of the highway, the guide turned on his microphone. He began describing the German society of the 1930’s. “It was the leading society for studying philosophy, applying psychology, and appreciating culture,” he told us, “Germany’s thinkers were the most prominent voices in the field of ethics and morality of that day.” He turned off the microphone to let the thought set in. A minute or two later, he turned it on again, and continued, “Somehow, the very people who first climbed to the upper the rungs of humanity then fell to its bottom, in a very short period of time.” Lowering his voice, he rhetorically asked us, “How could that be?” Those words haunted me for the rest of the trip. “How could that be?” I repeatedly asked myself. “How could people who were so refined in character plunge to the depths of depravity so quickly?”

After much thought, I discovered the answer. It came a day or two later, when we visited the ancient Jewish cemetery of Warsaw. Our guide led us to a small room, tucked away in the corner of the cemetery. There were two huge tombstones lying in the middle of the room. My eyes caught hold of the stone on the right. The name “Hayim ha-Levi Soloveitchik” was emblazoned on its center, in tall and wide letters. I read the epitaph carefully:

“Our great rabbi, rav ha-hesed (master of righteousness), minister of Torah…”

Rav ha-Hesed! I was immediately struck by the contrast to the Germany society I had just learned about. Germany boasted hokhmah. But they never had Torah. Hokhmah stands independent of action. Torah is enmeshed with missvot. A minister of Torah, then, is a master of righteousness – a person who holds a world of kindness even in “his little finger.”


Although humanistic thought is important in its own right, it’s severely unstable without the practical applications of mishpatim. Even an intricate system built on ethics and morality can topple without the real-world instructions of Torah.


The Torah which God gave us at Sinai coupled the wisdom of hokhmah with the practicality of mishpatim. And the future home of those divine mishpatim was, of course, in the holiest of places – God’s Mikdash.

[1] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch (New York, NY, 2008), pg. 120-121

[2] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 21:1, s.v. ve-eleh.

[3] Eikhah Rabah 2:13.

[4] R. Yehudah Loew b. Bessalel, Derashot Maharal: Al ha-Missvot.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

BeShalah: "The Words That We Speak"

  "The Words That We Speak"

Thoughts on Parashat BeShalah 2022

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Following the battle against Amalek, God instructed Moshe:

Write this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Yehoshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. (Shemot 17:14)

Remembering Amalek is a unique missvah. While God commanded that Moshe write all the missvot in the Torah, this one entailed “writing in a document” and “reading aloud,” as well. What is the meaning of this dual directive to both write and speak about Amalek?


Several years ago, I unexpectedly discovered the significant difference between the words that we read and those which we speak. I was asked to teach a class to a large group of adults, on the topic of “How is the Talmud Relevant to the 21st Century?” I prepared several seemingly “theoretical” discussions which are found in the Gemara, planning to show their central role in determining contemporary issues. I was barely through my introductory sentence, though, when a man stood up from his seat. “I don’t understand the purpose of this class!” he shouted, “Learning Talmud is necessary because it informs us of our national history.” I objected that I it would probably be easier to understand our past by reading a book written by a historian – on history. A woman chimed in, “The Talmud is important because it teaches us how to think.” I told her, as well, that she’d probably prefer a book on Jewish philosophy in order to learn how to think as a Jew. The men and women broke into a chaotic debate on this issue for the next few minutes, each one yelling at the next. The room then fell to a silence. Everyone looked in my direction for perspective.


I paused for a minute to collect my thoughts. Clearing my throat, I began to recall the first siyum that I made as a young man. It was on Masekhet Bava Kama. I remembered how as I stepped down from the podium on that day, my grandfather approached me, tears in his eyes. “The only masekhet that I learned in Romania before the War was Bava Kama,” he told me, “Listening to you talk about it now, I felt that world which I’d lost come alive.”


I explained to the class that while the many books that I own on history and philosophy are for reference – to research a particular era or idea, Gemara is my life. It is for me – and our nation for over a thousand years – a “way of speech.” We’ve viewed the world through the lenses of Talmud, discovered God’s ways on its pages, and found ourselves in its words. Gemara is different than the many books which collect dust on our shelves because its words transcend the pages they’re written on. They express our sense of self and our way of life.


Write this in a document, and read it aloud to Yehoshua…

God demanded that Am Yisrael remember Amalek during their first days in the desert. Write this in a document. He taught them, though, that the lesson of Amalek is greater than just a fulfillment as the other missvot which are written in the Torah. Remembering Amalek represents the pursuit of goodness and the destruction of evil from this world. It is our moral compass. And so, remembering Amalek determines how we speak about ourselves. We articulate our values and spread our mission through its words. Read it aloud to Yehoshua.


We fulfill the Torah’s lesson from Amalek in so many ways. We spread goodness by speaking words of gratitude to the cashier, smiling at the people on line, and helping the elderly cross the street. We obliterate evil by repairing our fractured relationships and brokering peace amongst others. And we do so by investing our time and money to bettering the health and lives of others. But vanquishing evil and practicing goodness aren’t just words that we read and aspire to achieve. They’re our way of life and mode of existence. They are the words that we speak.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Should You Follow the Customs of the Minyan You Pray in?

Listen to this morning's class, "Should You Follow the Customs of the Minyan You're Praying in?" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Nefesh HaHayim 4.22


Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 4.22 here.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Square in The Circle

Listen to tonight's class, "The Square in The Circle," here.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Daat Tevunot 40

Listen to tonight's class on Daat Tevunot 40 here.

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Monday, January 10, 2022

Swimming Pools on Shabbat (2)

Listen to today's class, "Swimming Pools on Shabbat (2)," here.

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Listen to Part 1 here.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Swimming Pools on Shabbat (1)

Listen to this morning's class, "Swimming Pools on Shabbat (1)," here.

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Listen to Part 2 here.

For further research:

Listen to our class on "Exercising & Running on Shabbat" here.

Listen to our class on "Showering on Shabbat" here.

Nefesh HaHayim 4.21

Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 4.21 here.

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Sunday, January 2, 2022

When There's No Wine for Havdalah...


Listen to this morning's class, "When There's No Wine for Havdalah," here.

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Listen to our class on "Not Eating or Drinking Before Havdalah" here.

Nefesh HaHayim 4.20


Listen to this morning's class on Nefesh HaHayim 4.20 here.

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