The word “mishpatim” means “laws” and Parashat Mishpatim, true to form, is most definitely a portion of laws. It is a veritable potpourri of laws of all shapes and sizes: laws between man and G-d, laws between man and his fellow man, criminal law, tort law, and everything in between. Parashat Mishpatim is not outwardly built according to any defined structure. The laws seem strewn haphazardly. Rivers of ink have been spilt in trying to reveal connections between any two successive laws.
What interests us in this lesson is not any one particular law or the connection between two or more laws, but, rather, one single verse that seems to summarize the entire portion [Shemot 23:13]: “All that I have told you, you shall guard. Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.” There are a few things about this verse that we should find striking:
- The verse appears in the middle of the portion, between the laws of Shabbat and the laws of the festivals. Would it not have made more sense to first command us all of the laws and then to summarize the whole kit and caboodle by telling us “All [the laws] that I have [just] told you, you shall guard”?
- What is the connection between the general “guarding all the laws” with the very specific prohibition of idolatry? Why do they both appear in the same verse?
While both of these questions are admittedly tantalizing, we will not be addressing either of them. What concerns us in this lesson is the simple meaning of the verse. The verse is written in Hebrew as “Uv’chol asher amarti aleychem tisha’meru”. Most of the translations proposed by the medieval commentators are essentially identical: The first word in the verse, Uv’chol, is translated as “All” and the last word in the verse, “tisha’meru”, is translated as “guard” or “beware”. The problem is that neither of these words has been precisely translated. The Hebrew word “Kol” means “All”. The Hebrew “B’kol” (or “V’chol”), with a “bet” prefix, means “With all”. As for the last word in the verse, the Hebrew “tishmoru” is the imperative “you shall guard”. The word “tisha’meru”, however, is written in the reflexive (nifal) tense and literally means “you shall be guarded”. To summarize, the grammatically correct translation of the verse should be “With all that I have told you, you shall be guarded”. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco during the first half of the eighteenth century, interprets the verse precisely according to this grammatically correct translation: Our Sages note that there are two hundred and forty eight positive commandments in the Torah, exactly the same as the number of organs in the body, and there are three hundred and sixty five negative commandments in the Torah, exactly the same as the number of sinews in the body. That is to say, there is a one-to-one mapping of commandments to body parts. The Or HaChaim takes this one step further by asserting that each commandment, each law, governs exactly one body part. Performance of any particular commandment strengthens its corresponding body part. And therefore, concludes the Or HaChaim, G-d promises, “With all that I have commanded you” – if you will perform all of the commandments – “you shall be guarded” – each part of your body will be guarded and you will remain healthy and strong. The problem with the explanation of the Or HaChaim is that the grammar in the Torah does not always fit into the grammar lessons we learnt in High School. While the word “tisha’meru” should be in the reflexive tense, the Torah often uses the same word in an overtly imperative manner, commanding us to “Beware!” The upshot is that the explanation of the Or HaChaim is overkill. The (Torah)-grammatically correct translation of the verse is “With all that I have told you, you shall guard”. The only question that remains to be answered is “What in the world does this mean?”
To answer this question, we need some basic understanding in image processing. We live in a digital world, where everything is represented by ones and zeros. A picture taken on your iPhone consists of twelve million microscopic dots called “pixels” arranged in rows. Each pixel has a colour chosen from a palette of nearly seventeen million different colours. Our eyes merge the pixels into what we perceive as a coherent picture. Problems can occur if we attempt to enlarge the picture into, say, a mural to display on our wall. If we enlarge the picture sufficiently, we will begin to perceive the individual pixels. This effect, called “pixelation”, pretty much ruins the picture. The way to get around pixelation is by adding more pixels between two consecutive pixels. This is called “resampling”. Say we want to enlarge our picture by adding one pixel between every two pixels. What colour should the new pixel be? The easiest case is when all pixels in the vicinity are the same colour. It should be pretty obvious that the newly added pixels are going to be that very same colour. Now let’s add some complexity. Consider two adjacent pixels, one black and one white. If we add one pixel between the black and white pixels, one would assume that that the new pixel would be grey. Nevertheless, that is not always the correct decision. Remember that a picture has two dimensions, meaning that the pixels located immediately above and below the colours of the pixels we are trying to resample should also be included in the calculation. If these pixels are black, then the new pixel should probably be a darker shade of grey and if they are white, the new pixel should be a lighter shade of grey. The process of calculating the colour of the additional pixels is called “interpolation”. Many different interpolation algorithms have been devised, from Nearest Neighbour Interpolation, probably the most straightforward method, to Bilinear Interpolation, all the way to Lanczos Interpolation, one of the more complex and time-consuming methods. Each method of interpolation will result in a resampled picture that looks slightly different and choice of an interpolation method is typically a function of computation power, convenience, and taste.
The Torah is a book or rules, six hundred and thirteen of them, to be exact. That said, the Torah cannot be used as a standalone rulebook because in any halachic conundrum, a multitude of parameters must be considered. Here is one example: The Torah commands us in Parashat Mishpatim [Shemot 23:19] “Do not cook a kid goat in its mother’s milk”. That seems clear enough. But what about cooking milk and meat from another animal, say, a cow? What about eating them together? Things become even more convoluted when we encounter a real life problem: “Can I eat this meaty dish that I cooked in a milky oven?” In order to provide a ruling, multiple parameters must be considered, including the size of the oven, the temperature of the oven, when the oven was last used, whether or not the food is covered and by what material it is covered, the day of the week, and the occasion at which the dish is being served. And that is only a partial list. The Torah cannot address every individual halachic query. Instead, it gives us a finite number of discrete cases. It also gives us algorithms – accepted rules of exegesis – with which to “interpolate” between the cases. Eventually, some of these interpolations will be incorporated into the halachic corpus, where they, too, will be used for interpolation in some future halachic conundrum. In this way, a finite Torah can become infinitely applicable.
Now we can return to our problematic verse, “Uv’chol asher amarti aleychem tisha’meru”. Recall that the Or HaChaim translated “V’chol” as “With all”. It turns out that the “bet” prefix has another meaning: It also means “inside of” or “within”, and our verse is translated as “Within all that I have told you shall [be able to] guard”. The Torah contains both the raw material and the necessary tools with which to apply it to an ever-changing world. If we look within the Torah, if we read between the lines, we can see forever.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, Shachar Yehuda ben Irit, and Tehila bat Adi.
 After all, we need to save something for the future, no?
 This statement is not necessarily biologically correct, nor is it clear what “sinews” are, but let’s allow the Or HaChaim to make his point, please.
 Seventeen times, to be precise. See, for example, Bereishit [24:6] and Devarim [15:9].