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.