Parashat Mishpatim: Setting the Table
In Parashat Mishpatim, G-d presents many of the fundamental rules governing the Torah’s system of civil law. G-d introduces this section by instructing Moshe, "These are the statutes which you shall place before them." Rashi explains: "The Almighty said to Moshe: Do not think to yourself, ‘I will teach them the chapter and the law twice or three times until it is properly arranged in their mouths,’ and I will not go through the trouble of explaining to them the reasons and explanations of the matter.’ It therefore says, ‘that you shall place before them’ – like a table that is set and ready for people to eat."
Rashi explains that wen G-d instructs Moshe to "place" the laws before Beneh Yisrael, He means that Moshe must not simply state the law, but also provide the background explanation, "like a set table" ("Ke’shulhan Ha’aruch").
How are we to understand this comparison between teaching Torah and a "set table"?
Rav Haim Vital, in his Sha’ar Ha’kedusha (1:2), writes that all people are made from four basic elements – fire, water, air and earth – and all negative qualities in people stem from an imbalance caused by these elements. Arrogance is the result of excessive fire, as fire rises and thus represents feelings of superiority and self-absorption. This also includes outgrowths of arrogance, such as anger and the pursuit of fame. Desires for forbidden pleasures stems from the water, which is what produces food and is thus the symbol of indulgence. Sins of speech are the product of abundant air, and earth, which is stationary, represents depression, which leads to lethargy and inactivity.
The experience of bringing a sacrifice upon the altar in the Bet Ha’mikdash served to correct these imbalances and restore proper equilibrium to the spirit. Fire constantly burned on the altar; salt, which is taken from the water, is poured on all sacrifices; the penitent sinner confessed over his sacrifices, using his faculty of speech; and the altar was constructed on the site from which G-d took earth for creating Adam. Thus, the process of offering a sacrifice incorporated all four elements, and it thus served to rectify the deficiencies in the soul affecting all four areas of human conduct.
The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (55) comments that after the Temple’s destruction, a person’s table brings atonement in place of the altar. This is why Jewish tradition requires conducting oneself with respect and decorum during a meal, as the experience of sitting by the table is seen as a religious act, whereby we earn atonement. Rav Haim Vital relates that his great mentor, the Arizal, always ensured to eat his meals at a table that had four legs. The reason, perhaps, is that the four legs of the table signify the four elements of the soul which require correction. As the table is meant to replace the altar in bringing us atonement by helping us refine our souls, it must have four legs to signify the four elements.
Torah wisdom also consists of four categories, known by the acrostic "Pardes" – Peshat, Remez, Derash and Sod. These are the four different areas of Torah knowledge, and they, like the four legs of the table, correspond to the four elements of the soul. By studying all four areas, we can repair the imperfections of the various parts of our being, thus bringing ourselves ever closer to spiritual perfection. And thus when a teacher teaches Torah, this must be the ultimate goal – to incorporate all four areas of "Pardes" in order to help his students refine and perfect all four areas of their souls.
This might be Rashi’s intent in comparing the instruction of Torah to a "set table." Significantly, Rashi compares teaching Torah not to the food on the table, but rather to the table itself. Torah must be arranged before the student as a four-legged table, including elements from all four areas of Torah for the purpose of refining all four elements of the students’ souls. This is the desired effect of our study – not merely the acquisition of precious wisdom for life, but also the cleansing of our souls so they can become purer and more perfect.