Friday, February 12, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Mishpatim, this week's parasha has many, many laws. So many, that one may be misled to believing that the entirety of one's obligation as a Jew is halakha and mitzvah. However, as was discussed last week and as is explicit at the end of this parasha, all of these mitzvot occur in the context of a brit, a covenant. A brit demands more than just adherence to the laws, it demands a partnership, a sharing of the vision and an incorporation of that vision into one's day-to-day life. One way this manifests itself is in the obligation to live up not just to the letter of the law, but to its spirit.

Hazal saw this already in Yitro' s advice to Moshe. Moshe had described his role as teaching the People, "the laws of God and God's teaching" (Shemot 18:16). Yitro, in giving his advice and in perhaps picking up on this second element, "God's teaching," toratav, says to Moshe: "You shall admonish them regarding the laws and the teachings, and you shall inform them the path that they shall walk, and the action that they shall do." Hazal explain: "'the path they shall walk' - this is the law; 'the action they shall do' - this is beyond the letter of the law." (Baba Kama 99a). To go beyond the letter of the law, to live according to the spirit of the law even when not legally demanded to do so, is to live the life not just of commandedness, but a life of a brit.

To live according to the spirit of the law requires inquiry into the underlying values of the mitzvot. This is often a highly speculative endeavor, as any study of the literature of ta'emei ha'mitzvot, the reasons of the mitzvot, will bear out. The range of different explanations as to the underlying value for certain mitzvot can sometimes be breathtaking. Nevertheless, it is a process that we are required to undertake if we want to truly be parties to the brit, to truly live our lives according to Torah values and not just Torah law.

Hazal themselves attempted to do this, while recognizing that the answers would not always be clear. Regarding the mitzvah in this week's parasha to unburden a donkey which is struggling under its burden (Shemot 23:5), the Talmud asks whether the underlying principle here is one of concern of the suffering of animals, or whether it is to help the owner whose property might become damaged. In other words, is tza'ar ba'alei chayim, preventing animal suffering, a Biblical principle or not? (Baba Metzia 32b).

The relevance of this question is asked first in regards to interpreting the exact parameters of this mitzvah itself (an approach that seems to contradict, or at least qualify, the principle that we do not use Biblical reasons in interpreting the mitzvot - lo darshinan ta'amah dikra). However, once the Gemara establishes that this is a Biblical value, it becomes an independent obligation that plays out in many different contexts in the Talmud (see, for example, Shabbat 128b, and Shulkhan Arukh OH 305:18-20). This endeavor, to work to identify the values and then to see the values as operative in our lives, is a core part of understanding the mitzvot as part of a brit, and not just as halakha narrowly defined.

One way to sensitize ourselves to the Torah's values is by paying attention to the written Torah - to its narratives and to its pshat, its simple meaning. As Ramban in the very beginning of his commentary to the Torah states (Breishit 1:1), the Torah is not just a book of laws, but begins with Breishit, a book of narrative, so that we can learn the meaning of our place in this world, and the values with which we must live our lives. Similarly, when it comes to the mitzvot of the Torah, the pshat of these mitzvot, even when in contrast to the narrow halakhic interpretation, is often an insight into the underlying values. Thus, the mitzvah not to oppress the stranger (Shemot 22:20) is understood by the Rabbis to refer only to the convert, while on its pshat level refers to a non-Jew who resides within our territory. As a result of this pshat, Sefer HaChinukh interprets this mitzvah as referring to anyone who is marginalized and vulnerable, and we can certainly state that this is the underlying value that must be operative, regardless of how one defines the narrow halakhic obligation. Similarly, the verse that states "an eye for an eye" (Shemot 21:24) teaches us - according to Ibn Ezra and Rambam - that while we only demand monetary payment for such injuries, on a moral level a person who willfully took out someone else's eye deserves a similar fate, and thus has not discharged his moral responsibility merely by paying for damages.

It is through this closer reading of Torah shebikhtav, of the written Torah, and by actualizing it in our lives that we can be more full partners in the brit. It is thus not surprising that according to a number of commentators the understanding that the obligation to care for the suffering of animals that was the underpinning of the mitzvah of unburdening the donkey, was learned from a verse "And God's compassion is on all of God's creatures, a verse from Tehillim (145:9). It is through the study of all of the words of the Torah, the written and the oral, the Five Books, and all of Nakh, the halakhic sections of the Talmud and the aggadic, through learning the Torah's laws and its values and actualizing them in our lives, that we will begin to live our lives as full partners in the brit with God.

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