The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
This week’s d’var Torah is in memory of Rabbi Chaim Zev Bomzer, zt”l.
Parshas Mishpatim focuses primarily on torts and civil laws bein adam l’chavayro, between man and fellow man. Given that Parshas Yisro concluded with the restrictions regarding the building of the altar, why didn’t the Torah continue in that vein and introduce the laws regarding the construction of the tabernacle, that are detailed in Parshas Teruma? Why was it necessary to interrupt the flow of the narrative with the laws presented in Parshas Mishpatim?
According to various opinions (including Rav Saadiah Gaon), the Ten Commandments encompass all 613 mitzvos. We could have expected that the explanation of these mitzvos would have been left to Torah Sh’Beal Peh. Instead, the Torah teaches us that the details of these mitzvos are important. The specification of the act as well as the associated punishment at this point demonstrates the significance that Torah ascribes to the details of each law. We receive the same reward for Talmud Torah whether we are studying the laws of sacrifices, the building of the tabernacle or torts. All are equally Toras Hashem. The Torah is also stressing the importance of civil and moral law by placing the topics at the beginning of the detailed laws presented in the Torah immediately following the 10 Commandments.
The importance of understanding details of mitzvos can be seen in areas such as torts as well as Shabbos. For example, an action classified as a melachah can be permitted a fraction of a second before the onset of Shabbos yet carries a severe penalty for one who transgresses a second after the start of Shabbos. We are commanded to study and master these details, whether they be related to treatment of a slave or keeping the holy Shabbos as part of our acceptance of the Torah.
Permit me to extend the Rav’s idea by examining the connection between the various sections presented in the Mishpatim, including laws regarding slave ownership, tort responsibility, the obligation to provide for the less fortunate such as widows and orphans and to lend money to those in need. The parshah concludes with Moshe offering a sacrifice, sprinkling the people with the blood and their proclaiming Naaseh venishma, accepting the Torah. Why was so much detail provided immediately after the receipt of the 10 Commandments on the treatment off the slave? Why so much emphasis on the widow and orphan at this juncture? How are these topics connected to the Naaseh venishma at the end of the parshah?
The Gemara (Shabbos 31a) tells us the story of the prospective convert who approached Shammai HaZaken and sought to convert on condition that he be taught all of Torah on one foot. The Talmud tells us that Shammai did not agree to this. The perspective convert decided to try the same approach with Hillel HaZaken, who converted him and told him that the principle he needed to understand was to refrain from doing to others that which he would not want done to himself; the rest of Torah is an explanation of this principle which you can now study further. At first glance, Shammai’s approach seemed appropriate, as understanding the laws of Hashem require time and effort to understand and appreciate. They surely can’t be learned on one foot. Why did Hillel agree to the bizarre request?