The Nitty Gritty of Torah
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
These are the laws which you shall place before them. When you will
purchase a Jewish slave ... (Shemos 21:1-2)
As is the case every year, the drama of redemption and the receiving of
Torah has passed, and it is now time to get down to the "nitty-gritty" of
Torah -- the laws of living by that Torah, or which there are many.
However, that should never be intimidating. As a young yeshiva student, I
ran to philosophy classes and walked slowly to halacha (Jewish law)
classes. But, with the help of an excellent halacha teacher one year, I
learned that, ultimately, there is really no difference between halacha
and hashkofah (philosophy) -- they are really only two different approaches
to the same goal: self-perfection and closeness to G-d.
In fact, if halacha is learned properly, then it becomes an invaluable
tool for putting conceptual "flesh" on an abstract concept. We human
beings, as abstract as we may be and as esoteric as we may become, require
analogies and parables to help us bridge the gap between the intellectual
world beyond us and the physical world within which we live.
Why is this important? Well, aside from providing intellectual satiation
from the realm of ideas, more importantly, it allows us to recognize how
what we know is part of the fabric of everyday life, in order to maximize
our taking advantage of spiritual opportunities. Such intellectual and
emotional recognition transforms theory into the basis of everyday life,
and allows us to interact with G-d on a spiritually-mature plane.
In our day-and-age, technology has provided excellent examples of this
idea. Personally, I have found computer technology (as much of it as I
understand) to be especially helpful at allowing me to relate to very deep,
abstract ideas, and to communicate those ideas to others. Discussions such
as, "ain mazel l'Yisroel/yaish mazel l'Yisroel" (the Jewish people are not
subject to destiny - are subject to destiny; Shabbos 156a) have become
clearer to me because of the whole concept of computer programming.
(Some of you may be wondering what this means. However, I am writing this
d'var Torah on a flight from Minneapolis to Denver, and my battery on my
computer is running low. B"H, I will write out this explanation in full
later, and those wishing to understand the analogy can write me at a later
This is what the Kabbalists say: When G-d desires that a certain generation
should better relate to a Torah concept, He will cause society to perform
in such a way PHYSICALLY to give us insight into what is happening in the
It is true of mitzvos in general and halachos in specific: they are ongoing
analogies and expressions in the physical world of what is going on in the
invisible and mysterious spiritual realm. And this is one of the reasons
why Parashas Mishpatim comes at this time, on the heels of Beshallach and
Parashas Yisro, i.e., to give everyday meaning to what, until now, has been
very lofty and abstract.
Perhaps this is why, also, there is a "vav" at the start of this week's
parshah to connect Mishpatim to the previous one(s), as Rashi and others
For example, as the Ramban points out, on the very first mitzvah taught in
this week's parshah, there is a connection between the leaving of Egypt and
the leaving of one's master, when one has been enslaved for six years. The
first of the Ten Commandments adjures to recall that G-d redeemed us from
Egypt and gave us freedom to allow us to build independent lives for
ourselves; the law to free the slave and to send him out with gifts is,
was, an ongoing throwback to that crucial time in Jewish history.
Furthermore, explains the Ramban, the connection to the idea of freedom in
the seventh year of the Sh'mittah cycle connects us up with the concept of
rest from our labors on the seventh day of the week, i.e., Shabbos --
another of the Ten Commandments. Concludes the Ramban:
"... It is all one matter, and it is the mystery of the days of the world
from [the first word of the Torah] 'Bereishis' until [the end of G-d's
creating when it says] 'and G-d completed.' Therefore, it is very fitting
to begin with this mitzvah, because it hints at very important matters from
the creation of the world." (Ramban, Bereishis 21:2)
From Rashi, to the Ramban, to the Orach HaChaim HaKodesh, to the great
Arizal, it is all one approach. Personally, I like to view mitzvos and
halachos as spiritual "envelopes" with messages waiting inside. Some peoplesimply receive the envelopes, but never peek inside. But "inside" is where
the "heart" of the matter resides, and it is THIS that inspires OUR hearts
to perform the mitzvos with zealousness and our life's energy. Before you
write off what appears to be a "technical" law of Torah, and accept it as
it is, deliberate on that judgment, and reap the benefits in This World --
and the Next One.
And you shall serve Hashem, your G-d and He will bless your bread and your
water, and remove illness from your midst. (Shemos 23:25)
This is a short verse, but there is a lot going on over here. To begin
with, as the Pri Tzaddik points out, the command to serve G-d is in the
plural (va'avad'tem), while the blessing is phrased in the singular
(lachmechah, etc.). The Pri Tzaddik explains:
"This is because 'service of the heart' is prayer, and likewise, saying the
Shema is a matter of accepting upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of
Heaven ... and everyone has his own way, unique to himself, to serve [G-d]
and therefore, the service of the heart is written using the plural.
However, once the people unify for the purpose of serving G-d, then they
merit to collectively receive the blessing of ... the Written Law and the
Oral Law, which are often referred to as 'bread' and 'water' ..." (Pri
Tzaddik, Mishpatim, 7)
The Pri Tzaddik doesn't mean to say that, on a pshat level, "bread" and
"water" are not to be taken literally, for the same vort can be true on
that level too: unity in service of G-d brings collective sustenance.
However, the Pri Tzaddik is adding another dimension to the discussion,
explaining that even an individual's success in Torah is part of a
collective blessing resulting from a unified devotion to G-d!
The posuk itself goes one step further by applying this concept to the
realm of personal health as well, because "in your midst" is also in the
singular (mikirbechah). Perhaps this is a partial (at best) explanation for
why disease and illness have been so persistent even among those of the
Jewish people who have devoted themselves entirely to G-d and His holy
Torah. Even tzaddikim are subject to what is going on spiritually with the
rest of the nation.
If so, then, perhaps the reason why all the infirmed were healed at Har
Sinai was not just because of the revelation that occurred, but, because of
the achdus that occurred as well. But then again, such a high-level
revelation of G-d's Presence can only result in such a high level of unity,
and the healing powers that come along with such spiritual cohesion as
But, a person will say, "How is such sublime unity possible today? Look at
us! If the Jewish people were a piece of earth, we'd have more fault lines
than the San Andreas Fault! And talk about baseless hatred! It's way out of
So, I will answer back what I do to people who tell me that making aliyah
to Eretz Yisroel is next to impossible for them (which can be the case,
sometimes): At least YEARN to go, and be PAINED by the fact that you are
NOT there. Perhaps, in this merit, G-d will help you work it out and remove
obstacles you can not control and help you fulfill the dream of living in
the Holy Land.
So, too, must we look at Jewish unity this way. First, we must make peace
with those whom peace is a possibility, though, perhaps, not without
some/much effort. Then, we must YEARN for peace among ALL Jews, even those
of whom make our blood boil. We must be PAINED by the lack of Jewish unity
today, and the profanation of Torah and G-d's Name that results.
And, if that is difficult to do, then go visit a local cancer ward of a
hospital and see how many Jews are there suffering from the "machalah"
(Rachmanah Litzlan) -- non-religious AND religious. Take a look at the
statistics and see how many Down Syndrome and Autistic babies are being
born to Jews -- non-religious AND religious. See how disease and illness
are affecting our people, perhaps like never before, at least in recent
Then, go back and read Shemos 23:25, and meditate on that verse for a
while. And then, perhaps, we will raise our collective voice Heavenward,
and bring down the necessary Divine assistance to assist us in bridging the
gaps and unifying the ENTIRE Jewish people around the flag of Torah, and
merit the collective brochah to which the Torah refers.
He (Moshe) took [the] Book of the Covenant and read it in the ears of the
people, and they said, "All that G-d said we will do (na'aseh) and we will
listen to (v'nishmah)." (Shemos 24:7)
Famous last words. How many generations of Jews have seen epikorsim --
heretics -- spring up from within their midst, even creating entirely new
religions to counteract Torah Judaism. Well, at least we meant it at the
time ... But then again, who wouldn't have meant it at Mt. Sinai, if G-d
held the mountain over YOUR head like a barrel (Rashi, Shemos 19:17)?!
However, there is an explanation for our deviation from the angelic words,
"na'aseh v'nishmah" (Shabbos 88a). According to the Pri Tzaddik, these two
words correspond and counteract two specific negative forces in creation --
one embodied by Eisav and his descendants, and one embodied by Yishmael and
Which one corresponds to whom? Logically, since the Hebrew root word of
Eisav is "to do," "na'aseh" came to counteract the force of his people.
Likewise, the Hebrew root word of Yishmael is "to listen," and therefore,
"nishmah" represents the counteracting force against Yishmael's people.
Explains the Pri Tzaddik, when the Jewish people allowed the golden calf to
be built, "na'aseh" was broken. The golden calf was a physical and base
creation, and represented a desire on behalf of those who participated in
its construction and worship to remain in the everyday world of "Asiyah" --
of action. However, since there was not a complete abandonment of Torah,
says the Pri Tzaddik, "nishmah" remained intact, at least somewhat.
Hence, as a result of the golden calf, the spiritual protection against
Eisav and his people throughout the ages, whether against physical attack
or spiritual attack, whether to convert or to assimilate, was obliterated
that day. We have not since recovered it, and we have paid dearly -- in
Roman times, Middle-Age times, Russian times, and Nazi times -- and STILL
are paying for it -- witness the Dulberg Sisters ongoing tragedy in Italy
today, and world-wide assimilation into Western Society -- dearly.
On the other hand, with "nishmah" somewhat (and I stress the "somewhat")
intact, the Arabs, descendants of Yishmael, have proved equally hateful (if
not more so) as their Eisavian counterparts, but (until now, and may it
remain so) less effective at carrying out their dream-plan of annihilation
of the Jewish people. They are trying hard to do so (and some of our own
people are extending a helping hand), but MIRACULOUSLY, they have thus far
failed, Boruch Hashem Yisborach.
Why? Because European and Russian anti-Semites are smarter, more capable
than their Arab counterparts? One might think so, but quite mistakenly.
When one-hundred and fifty million people can't accomplish what fifty
million people could, then it is time to start considering the supernatural
forces at play in history, and when one does that, he or she arrives at the
brilliant and insightful words of the Pri Tzaddik.
One more point on this idea. Interestingly enough, the posuk, when
referring to the people who responded with these Heavenly words does as,
"ha-umm" -- the people. There is a tradition that, whenever the Torah uses
the term "ha-umm," it is a reference to the Erev Rav, the Mixed-Multitude
that left Egypt with the Jewish people, and upon whom the Midrash pins most
of the blame for instigation against G-d throughout the forty years in the
desert. The question is, why?
Perhaps, the posuk is hinting at the inherent potential for fall from this
lofty level because of the Erev Rav contingent. In other words, even though
the Erev Rav was duly impressed by the giving of Torah, and was moved to
join in unison with the rest of the Jewish people at that moment of
acceptance, something about the Erev Rav prevented them from being able to
hold on to the greatness they achieved that day. They were destined to
fall, it seems, and to bring many Jews down with them along their way.
This would fit in with the Arizal's explanation of the Erev Rav -- where
they came from and who they were. But, it also goes to show how relevant
and important it is to trace back the events of today to their historical
roots, if you want to better understand and respond to the context of your
... Praise G-d from the heavens; praise Him in the heights. Praise Him, all
His angels; praise Him all His legions ... (Tehillim 148:1-2)
It is verses like these that invoke the concept of "poetic license." What
does King David mean, in this tehillah that is the next one in the series
referred to as, P'sukei D'Zimrei? Why does he call upon "heavens" and
"heights" to praise G-d -- as if they can speak!
Can they not?
Well, of course it all comes down to what you call "speaking." The simplest
definition of speaking is what man does when he opens his mouth and
articulates ideas. But, as we all know, even art makes statements, and
people talk about how sunsets and things "speak to them."
Do they mean that they really hear voices? Not usually. But, just as
"actions can speak louder than words," so, too, can creation articulate
concepts, in its own way and make impressive statements that can be more
instructive about life than the deepest book.
There is a reason for this. It is because, as the Midrash says, when G-d
made creation, He used the Torah like a spiritual blueprint to build
everything from scratch. Creation is the physical expression of all that is
spiritually constructed in the Torah.
Thus, just as a good builder can look at a building and recreate the
blueprints in his mind, so, too, should a spiritually and intellectually
sensitive human being able to look at creation, and draw Torah conclusions
by what he or she sees and contemplates. This is what the Rambam is really
saying when he writes:
... What is the way to love and fear Him (G-d)? When one contemplates His
awesome and mighty actions and creations, and sees from them that there is
no way to measure or limit His wisdom, immediately he will love, praise,
and glorify Him, and greatly desire to know His Great Name, like Dovid
said, "My soul thirsts for G-d, the living G-d!" (Tehillim 42:3) ... (Yad,
Yesodei HaTorah 2:1-2)
And, this is what the author of this article meant as well:
"... Perception of the miraculous requires no faith or assumptions. It is
simply a matter of paying full and close attention to the givens of life,
i.e., to what is so ever-present that it is usually taken for granted. The
true wonder of the world is available anywhere, in the minutest parts of
our bodies, in the vast expanses of the cosmos, and in the intimate
interconnectedness of these and all things ... We are part of a finely
balanced ecosystem in which interdependency goes hand-in-hand with
individuation. We are all individuals, but we are also parts of a greater
whole, united in something vast and beautiful beyond description.
Perception of the miraculous is the subjective essence of self-realization,
the root from which man's highest features and experiences grow. (Michael
Stark and Michael Washburn, "Beyond the Norm: A Speculative Model of
Self-Realization," Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1977),
Just like each commandment is like an envelope with a message inside, so,
too, is G-d's world. But we're shooting the messenger. We're becoming
disconnected from the physical world around us, abusing it and lessening
our appreciation of it. Technology is dwarfing the awesomeness of creation,
when, instead, it should be enhancing our reverence for G-d's world.
After all, we are using that physical world to advance our technology!
However, as Dovid HaMelech points out in this tehillah, regardless of
whether we listen or not to the praise G-d's creation sings out to its
Creator each day, by its very beauty and grandeur, the song goes on and the
praise goes out. And knowing this obligates us to open our ears and,
perhaps if necessary, change our spiritual frequency, so that we can hear
that song and join in as well.