Hard work, without fanfare: Mishpatim and my rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Kahn
Parshat Mishpatim lies smack in the middle of the Book of Exodus.
The first five parshiot — Shemot, Vaera, Bo, Bishalach, and Yitro — are devoted to the epic story of the redemption of an enslaved people. Ten terrifying plagues, a miraculous escape through a split sea, and all of it culminating with Divine revelation and the birth of a nation. In contrast, the last five parshiot of the book — Terumah, Tetzaveh, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel, and Pekudei — discuss the building of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and all of its holy vessels. Though not quite as colorful, here too we find ideas that are central to our Judaism and which live on today through our community synagogues, as well as in our homes
But on this Shabbat, we will read Parshat Mishpatim, literally, the “parsha of laws.” In fact, lots and lots of detailed, very specific, and not exactly thrilling laws. The Sefer HaChinuch counts 53 mitzvot in Mishpatim, more than any other parsha in Exodus.
At first glance, Parshat Mishpatim is entirely out of place in an otherwise soaring and inspiring narrative. It is dry, arcane, and deals with the minutiae of civil law that one imagines could have easily been tucked into some other corner of Torah. Must we really hear about the ox that gores another ox right here, right now between the revelation at Mount Sinai and the building of the Mishkan? Why would the Torah deliberately interrupt the story of Mount Sinai with all of these laws and effectively dampen the power and the thrust of the Book of Exodus?
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this parsha appears at this juncture. From the strategic placement of Parshat Mishpatim in the middle of what are otherwise sweeping and inspiring basic themes of Judaism, there emerges a very powerful message. Our practice of Judaism has two parts to it. On the one hand, there is the palpable spiritual value that we find in keeping the mitzvot, or in any one mitzvah in particular. We identify with the underlying purpose of the mitzvah and the message imbued in ourselves and in our children by observing it. We enjoy this spiritual aspect of the mitzvah. It is the part that makes sense to us in the greater context of our religion and engenders happiness and pride in our Judaism. We can explain to ourselves why it is worth it for us to engage in the observance of something that certainly has its costs, but also has so many benefits.
And yet, what makes Judaism meaningful in a concrete way is the law — all of the very detailed laws, both positive and negative, that are incumbent upon us and that guide our every move. While often very difficult and demanding, it is those very details of a day like Shabbat, for example, the minutiae of halachic observance that make Shabbat different and prevent it from turning into just another day. By interrupting the awe-inspiring experiences of the giving of the Torah and the building of the Mishkan with the many detailed, civil laws of Parshat Mishpatim, God teach us that we cannot have one part of Judaism without the other. Inspiration without attention to the nitty-gritty does not last.
Both the overall experience and the day-to-day observance are important. When it comes to the giving of the Torah, we value not only the actual receiving of the law, but also our grand rendezvous with the Divine Presence (the Shechinah) at Mount Sinai. As we astoundingly say every year at the seder, אילו קרבנו לפני הר סיני ולא נתן לנו את התורה דיינו — Had Hashem just brought us before Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough. Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein explains that if we had just had the experience of standing before the Divine Presence even without learning anything, it would have been plenty. The Torah was taught over the next 40 days and 40 years, but the standing at Mount Sinai was the day of speaking to God face-to-face, of being uplifted. We truly value religiously inspiring experiences. Jewish law without the experience of Mount Sinai is a code without a sense of purpose and mission. Mount Sinai without a code of Jewish law, however, is just another short-lived spiritual high.
Many Jewish educators today are focused on providing their students with religiously inspiring experiences. Rabbi Moshe Kahn zt”l, however, understood that in order to effectively transmit our mesorah, a true Torah educator needs to find ways to ground that inspiration in hard work and effort, as well as in commitment to the intricacies of our halacha. Rabbi Kahn was not afraid to take on this mission. His career was not centered around charisma, inspiring messages, or uplifting classes. He was in the trenches, sweating with us as we toiled through difficult sugyot (passages).
In Stern College, I took a halacha course with Rabbi Kahn on the topic of hafka’at kiddushin — annulment of marriage. Although it was listed as a course of Jewish law, we spent the entire semester working through challenging talmudic passages and medieval commentaries relating to when a marriage could be annulled. Only on the very last day of the class did we get to the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law (a work of halacha), who we were shocked to discover had only one line to say on the entire subject. And yet, I remember the look of joy on Rabbi Kahn’s face and his overwhelming excitement as he showed us how every word in the Shuchan Aruch was a loaded choice and could only be fully appreciated after you had learned the sugya in its entirety and understood the meaning and the reasoning behind every word that Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, chose to write. This passion for learning was infectious and truly empowering and energizing. These are the gifts we received as his students, and they are why I took him over and over again, every single semester of college.
Rabbi Kahn was not driven by popularity or by the desire to fill a classroom. He had no interest in being known as an “influencer.” Throughout his decades of teaching women Torah on the highest of levels, helping them develop skills, and connect to their learning and their avodat Hashem, he never put himself at the center of that process. Every one of his talmidot (students) felt and understood deeply that he was there only to facilitate something for us. He respected his students for who we were and wanted and trusted us to think for ourselves. There were no shortcuts, there was no diluting or watering down of material, there was no shortage of patience to work at something until it came together.
He taught us to value every word, to appreciate nuance, to notice complexity, to be deliberate and intentional in the way we learn and speak. He was not afraid of what others thought of him, he did what he thought was right and was true and he fully stood behind his values and his decisions with a quiet and strong unwavering confidence. That confidence gave us confidence. As a member of the first class of GPATS (Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies), quite controversial at the time, knowing that Rabbi Kahn believed in us, believed in Torah, believed in teaching us the most challenging chapters of Gittin and Bava Metzia, without apology or looking over his shoulder, is what gave us the peace of mind to throw ourselves into our learning without fear.
Twenty years later, this model of an educator continues to give me strength in a world of education that does not always value complexity, sophistication, patience, effort, long-term investment, hard work and high standards. I have thought a lot over the last years and especially over the last few weeks about the incredible impact that Rabbi Kahn made and the enormous legacy that he has left behind. All of which was created quietly, humbly, slowly, meticulously, and without fanfare, student by student, relationship by relationship, one Tosfot after another.
Under the tutelage, trust, sensitivity and care of Rabbi Kahn, multiple generations of women have been fortunate to develop their own, confident, independent and nuanced relationships with Hashem, with Talmud Torah, with Halacha and with their Judaism. We (and, in turn, our children and our own students) are eternally grateful. May his memory be a blessing.