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Parashat Mishpatim: Humility and Scholarship

Parashat Mishpatim presents us with a lengthy series of laws dealing primarily with civil matters, situations such as damages, the responsibility of a watchman or borrower for the item entrusted to him, money lending, and similar legal questions.

Rashi, commenting to the opening verse of the Parasha, offers an explanation for the connection between these laws and the end of the previous Parasha, Parashat Yitro. The final verses of Parashat Yitro discuss a number of laws relevant to the Mizbe’ah, the altar upon which sacrifices were offered in the Bet Ha’mikdash. The juxtaposition between these laws and the laws in Parashat Mishpatim, Rashi explains, alludes to the requirement for the Sanhedrin – the highest body of Torah authority – to convene near the courtyard of the Bet Ha’mikdash, where the altar was situated. The Torah linked its discussion of the altar and its presentation of its civil laws to instruct that the Sanhedrin, the body assigned the task of elucidating the law, was to have its offices near the altar.

We might also propose an additional explanation.

The final verse of Parashat Yitro introduces the prohibition against ascending to the altar by stairs. The Torah commands that a ramp be used to reach the top of the altar, instead of a staircase. The Keli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efrayim Luntschitz, Prague, 1550-1619) explains that walking up stairs symbolizes arrogance, as one spreads his legs and takes long, proud strides. We are to serve G-d with a sense of humble subservience, without even a tinge of arrogance, and so the Torah forbade ascending to the altar via stairs.

With this in mind, let us proceed to more closely examine the next verse – the opening verse of Parashat Mishpatim, in which G-d introduces to Moshe the Torah’s code of civil law by stating, "And these are the laws which you shall place before them." Rashi, noting the unusual expression, "Tasim Lifnehem" – "you shall place before them," explains that Moshe was to present the laws to the people in a clear, accessible fashion, "like a set table that is prepared before the people for eating." Torah should ideally be taught like a "Shulhan Aruch" – a "set table," clearly and lucidly, such that the students can easily absorb the information as though taking readymade food from a properly arranged table.

Rashi’s comments are, of course, the origin of the title chosen by Maran, Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1575), for his remarkable Halachic work – "Shulhan Aruch" – which presents the entire corpus of practical Halacha in a clear, organized manner. The Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806), in his book Shem Ha’gedolim, writes that during the times of Maran, there were two other outstanding scholars who worked on this very same project – the composition of a clear, organized code of practical Halacha. However, out of these three projects, only Maran’s Shulhan Aruch was successful and gained universal acceptance throughout the Torah world. The Hida writes that he received a tradition explaining that Maran’s project was successful because of his exceptional humility. He wrote and conducted himself with a sense of humble submission, and it was this quality which earned him the great privilege of producing a work which quickly became the authoritative source of practical Halacha for the entire Jewish Nation.

It turns out, then, that presenting Torah "like a set table" requires humility. In order to succeed in this ambitious endeavor, of teaching Torah in a clear, accessible fashion, one must conduct himself humbly and avoid all arrogance.

Accordingly, we might suggest a connection between the final verse of Parashat Yitro – the prohibition against ascending to the altar with stairs – and the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim, which speaks of presenting Torah clearly, "like a set table." Underlying both commands is the theme of humility, which must characterize our service of G-d and which is a necessary prerequisite for successfully transmitting the Torah to the next generation. Other disciplines can be effectively taught regardless of the teacher’s character; even an arrogant, conceited instructor can figure out how to present information clearly. When it comes to Torah, however, character is integral to the process of learning and transmission. The sacred words of the Torah are accurately and effectively communicated only by those who have developed and refined their characters in the manner required by the Torah, who conduct themselves with humility, patience and graciousness. Only scholars with such character are worthy and capable of presenting the Torah "as a set table," the way Torah is meant to be taught.

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