“The Big Picture” Parashat Mishpatim 5776

Parashat Mishpatim contains a large array of mitzvot, fifty three of them, to be exact. These mitzvot are preceded by a peculiar statement [Shemot 21:1]: “These are the ordinances that you shall set before them.” Not only do these words seem superfluous — most mitzvot are not preceded by a preface of any kind — but the wording itself is murky: precisely how was Moshe meant to “set” the mitzvot before Am Yisrael? Rashi, quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin [54b], answers that Hashem told Moshe: “Do not think of saying, ‘I will teach them the chapter or the law two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the law or its explanation.’ Therefore, it is said: ‘you shall set before them’ like a table, set [with food] and prepared to be eaten from, [placed] before someone.”

The Talmud’s source most likely comes from Avraham Avinu’s servant, Eliezer, who travelled to Haran to find a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer meets Rivkah at a well and she proves herself a worthy wife for Yitzchak. She invites him back to her home to meet her father, Betuel, who sits Eliezer down at his table and gives him to eat [Bereishit 24:33]: “And [food] was set before him to eat, but [Eliezer] said, ‘I will not eat until I have spoken my words.’” Eliezer was given everything he needed: a seat, a plate, cutlery, and all the food he wanted. All he had to do was dig in. This is the way in which a teacher is required to teach the laws of Parashat Mishpatim to his students.

The thing is that this requirement seems unnecessary. Most of the mitzvot in the Parasha pertain to the Jewish legal system, including torts, financial law, and court procedure. These laws are, for the most part, logical and contain few surprises. The reasoning behind the laws is usually straightforward. I believe that a first-year law student — not necessarily Jewish — could read these laws and understand them well enough to implement them. Further, many of the laws bear a striking resemblance to laws in the Code of Hammurabi, written in Babylon at around the time of Avraham Avinu[1]. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, writing in “Eder HaYakar”[2], teaches that we should not be surprised by these similarities, as ancient laws are based, to a large extent, on justice. As man is, by nature, a social creature, it is fair to assume that human law would always be influenced by concepts of truth, fair play, and justice. The point is that the laws of Parashat Mishpatim should be easier to understand than many of the other laws in the Torah. Why, then, is it especially important to teach them “set [with food] and prepared to eaten from”?

The Netziv of Volozhin proposes the following answer: The laws in Parashat Mishpatim are typically given in a very concise form. In many cases the Talmud extracts a law from a single word. In other cases it is impossible to understand the law unless the Talmud is consulted. Consider this example [Shemot 21:33-34]: “If a person opens a pit… and does not cover it, and a bull or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall pay; he shall return money to its owner, and the dead body shall be his[3]”. To whom does the dead body belong– to the owner of the donkey or to the one who opened the pit? A cogent argument could be made for either case. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama [10b] rules that “[The dead animal will belong to] the one [owner] who sustained the damage. They assess the carcass, and [the owner] takes it for its value, and the damager pays him in addition to [the carcass] payment for his damage”. If a student learns the halacha merely by rote, he will not know this. Only if the reasoning is clearly laid out before him will he understand.

I’d like to propose an explanation of my own. This explanation is based on crowd dynamics, which model the way groups of large people move about. When a group of people is sufficiently large, it is often possible to model individual human beings with a “cellular automaton”, where each person is modelled by a point on a grid and the dynamics of movement are determined solely by the status of neighbouring points on the grid. The simplicity is almost depressing: a person’s goals, his feelings, even his soul, can all be modelled with high fidelity with only a few simple rules. But, hey, it works.

Actually, it does not always work. Each day the London Underground moves nearly five million people from Point A to Point B. Within fifteen years this number is expected to exceed ten million. Currently the hard part is not getting people from station-to-station, but, rather, getting people in and out of the station. Most stations are underground and to enter or exit a station an escalator must be used. In the UK there is an unwritten rule: The left hand side of the escalator is for people who are walking and the right hand side is for people who are standing. Heaven forbid a person should stand on the left hand side of the escalator — he will arouse the ire of his fellow travellers.

Recently, someone at the TfL (Transport for London) had an epiphany. Some underground stations are deeper than others. For instance, Holborn Station, near the British Museum, is located twenty four metres — nearly ten stories — underground. At a station this deep, very few people walk up the escalator because it is so long and so steep. The result is that while the right hand side of the escalator is carrying its full capacity of passengers, the left hand side is nearly empty. In other words, the escalator is carrying only about half of its full capacity of passengers. Trains arrive at the station and discharge passengers, who pool at the foot of the escalator until they can get on. In order to compensate for the time it takes for the station to empty after the arrival of a train the frequency of the trains must be reduced.

Now here is the epiphany: The escalators could be made more efficient if people were allowed to stand on both sides of the escalator. In the words of The Guardian, “The theory, if counterintuitive, is also pretty compelling”. The problem was in the implementation of the theory. Londoners had been raised believing that people who stand on the left hand side of the escalator were destined for hell. The TfL had to persuade Londoners to abandon their moral code. “That meant teams of staff standing at the bottom of the escalators with loudhailers, asking commuters, as cheerfully as possible, if they would mind standing on both sides. It mean plain-clothes “plants” — “great, big lift engineers” — being sent up the escalators to block the way for others and create a new sort of social pressure. It even meant asking amenable couples to hold hands across the escalator, the better to thwart those who wished to slalom through the line.” But it worked, and with both sides of the escalator being used, traffic increased by more than twenty five percent.

This, I believe, is what Rashi means by “setting the table”. Regarding the laws in Parashat Mishpatim[4], humans have an inbred insight of right and wrong: It’s wrong to stand on the left hand side of the escalator. It’s wrong to cause damage and it’s right to compensate someone for damage incurred. But sometimes human insight clashes with the Divine definition of right and wrong, as determined by Halacha, and so it must be realigned. In order for this to occur, a person must be shown “the big picture”. He must be taught the Talmud and then he must follow the evolution of the Halacha through the halachic arbiters. He must be shown the rationale and the logic. Only this way can he defeat his natural tendencies. But the reward is great: understanding the Jewish concept of law means understanding, in a small way, how Hashem thinks.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yoav ben Chaya.

[1] One surprising example is the law of “an eye for an eye”. In both the Torah (as explained in the Talmud) and in the Code of Hammurabi, the punishment for injuring a person’s eye is monetary (although the Code of Hammurabi allows for the court to amputate the offender’s eye).

[2] Rav Kook expounds on this concept in “LeNevuchei HaDor”.

[3] Replace the word “car” for “donkey”. A person’s car hit a pothole and was damaged. Whose responsibility is it to extricate the car from the pothole — the driver or the city? If the car is further damaged while it is lying in the pothole, who is liable?

[4] As opposed to the laws of, say, Kashrut, where human insight is irrelevant.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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