"Master of Hesed"
Thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim 2022
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.”
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.
presents an elaborate list of instructions regarding interpersonal conduct and
behavior. It begins:
are the rules that you shall set before them… (Shemot 21:1)
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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
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.