Parashat Mishpatim

Friday, February 1, 2019 /26 Shevat, 5779
Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18

Dear Friends,

It can be difficult to learn the Mitzvot – the commandments of Jewish life. Most of us spend a lifetime learning what we know, and moreover, learning what we do not know. Yet, in all of those endeavors, there may come a few learning “Aha!” moments, which are truly unforgettable. Then, it gets easier.

Hence, the teaching in our Torah this week: our portion begins with God instructing Moses, “Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them.” (Ex. 21:1) Imagine, here comes a list of 613 commandments, presented to a weary, unlettered, fractious group of newly-freed slaves, out in the desert wilderness, unaware of what they have just gotten themselves into. No wonder some of them wanted to turn back and return to Egypt!

Yet, the Midrash (Mekhilta) teaches, as cited by our teacher, Rashi, that God understood this wariness, and hence the language is gentle, “set before them.” Instead of teaching the Israelites a commandment or chapter, one or two at a time, it suggests to lay out before them the precepts. And, the midrash indicates, “Therefore it is stated, ‘which you shall set before them – like a table which is set and prepared for eating before a person.'”

Teaching requires that we commence with the capacity of the learner, not with the genius of the teacher. Every trained teacher knows that they must build the “teaching moment,” the moment when the learner is comfortable and curious and ready to understand. Until then, no amount of knowledge can pass between them.

A great sage once taught, ‘that when the mind is ready, a teacher appears.”

Torah tries to be there, so that when we are ready, the messages might be revealed. Our task is to keep generating “Aha!” moments, that we might be able to eat from the sumptuous table spread before us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn