I heard Nechama Leibowitz zt”l speak only once in my life. At the urging of a teacher and mentor, Dr. Joel Wolowelsky, I crashed an annual summer seminar for educators, while I was still in college.
To my good fortune, she packed in more than one life-long lesson. The one relevant to Parshat Mishpatim started with her asking the group how we know Jews may not lie. After some suggestions, none correct, she pointed to an explicit verse in Mishpatim (23: 7), mi-devar sheker tirchak, keep far from false matters.
(Over the intervening years, I’ve realized she fudged a bit. Some commentators do apply the verse to lying in general, such as R. Chaim Paltiel, but more see it as primarily addressed to judges. All the times Rambam notes the verse, for example, relate it to court cases.
Sefer Ha-Chinuch shows the logic in her extrapolation. Mitzvah 74 echoes Rambam’s Prohibition 281, a judge may not hear one litigant’s claims in the absence of the other because it come close to fostering falsehoods, since the litigant can speak with impunity, unafraid of the other side of the story. In Mitzvah 407, a prohibition against violating vows, Sefer Ha-Chinuch recognizes a person might mislead others into thinking s/he violated such a vow. While the mitzvah does not cover such a deception, it’s all included in mi-devar sheker tirchak.
He apparently assumed—as did Nechama Leibowitz, I believe—the legal use did not exhaust the verse’s power. Aside from court-related implications, it also tells us not to lie, full stop.)
Back to the educators, whom she then asked for the source of the idea a Jew might be sold into indentured servitude, known as ‘eved ‘ivri. They all knew the verses at the beginning of the portion, with many details, the maximum of six years of servitude, the possibility of the master giving him a Canaanite wife, the piercing of his ear if he chooses to stay beyond the six years, and more.
They had fallen for her trap. How come they all immediately knew ‘eved ‘ivri, an institution not practiced in hundreds or thousands of years, but the direct Scriptural source not to lie escaped their memories?
After a pause for them to recognize they did not know the answer, she gave her view: ‘eved ‘ivri comes with many rules and permutations. To ensure students absorb the information, teachers go slowly, offer a chart, give homework, perhaps a quiz.
The rule against lying seems obvious, the teacher reads the verse, says, “it’s important not to lie,” and moves on. We remember what we spend time studying.
Her point extends beyond the specific instance: the topics or values to which we give time and attention matter in a way others do not. We communicate values also by how we act, in competition with (and maybe more than) what we say is important.
I did write a book on the topic, We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How To Fix It, and I don’t mean to rehash it here. However, one example has played around in my head since it happened, because it shows what happens when we’re not careful with our emphases.
In many high schools, the halachah curriculum focuses on Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, tefillah, and berachot. It’s on the one hand sensible, since these are the halachot students will encounter year after year. On the other hand, it can lead students to think of Judaism as centered on a few specific rituals.
I once was allowed to instead develop an halachah curriculum based on Sefer Ha-Chinuch, in the hopes of giving the students a broader sense of mitzvot (we studied about forty Biblical commandments the one year I was involved with the program, all of which apply currently).
At some point, I asked one of the teachers how it was going, and he said he didn’t like it, explaining (after I asked) he thought of it as hashkafah (Jewish thought, fuzzier and less exact than specific laws), not halachah. I asked what mitzvah he was teaching, and he said kibbud av va-em, honoring parents. Which, as I said to him, is a mitzvah, a Torah law, with very specific rules as well as broader ramifications of how we treat our parents, almost definitely a question most teens would do well to hear. He wasn’t convinced, had become too sure what appears in the sections of Shulchan Aruch he happened to know counts more as halachah.
Examples abound, and won’t make the point any more solidly than Nechama a”h did all those years ago, with Parshat Mishpatim as her example: what we spend time on says as much or more about what we truly value than what we might occasionally mention. And we would do well to be sure we spend our time and efforts on what we do in fact care about more or most.