February 9th 2013

SHVAT 29th 5773


Ordinances and Laws: The Fulfillment of Torah

by Rabbi David Pinto Shlita

After the account describing the greatness of the Children of Israel and the exceptionally high level which they reached during the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah [when they heard the words of G-d coming literally from the mouth of the Divine], the Torah deals with down-to-earth subjects that return us to the basic human condition: A thief sold as a slave to pay for his crime, a killer who strikes another man…laws concerning the crudest of human actions. This juxtaposition is surprising: Why does the Torah bring the Children of Israel down from such a high level (the knowledge and perception of Hashem’s essence and the acceptance of His kingdom) to the depths of the abyss (laws dealing with slaves and conflicts among men)? Instead, why did the Torah not choose at this point to teach mitzvot such as Shabbat or tefillin, noble and honorable concepts?

Another detail regarding the subjects in this part of the Torah also raises a question: Between the account of the giving of the Torah and Parsha Mishpatim, the text contains two mitzvot that seem to be out of place: “When you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build them hewn, for you will have raised your sword over it and desecrated it. You shall not ascend My altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it” (Shemot 20:22-23). We need to understand why the Torah inserts these two mitzvot here, which have nothing in common with what comes before (the giving of the Torah) or what comes after (the ordinances and laws between man and fellowman).

In trying to answer all these questions, we should recall a fundamental principle given by our Sages: To receive the Torah, the Jewish people must be united and its members must feel connected to one another. We learn this from the verse, “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Shemot 19:2). The verb “encamped” is in the singular, signifying that they all felt like one man, with one heart. It was only after the Children of Israel formed a single entity that they became fit to receive the Torah.

In previous issues, we have explained that the unity of the Jewish people was a prerequisite for receiving the Torah. We shall now approach this issue from another perspective. There are a total of 613 commandments in the Torah, with 248 positive and 365 negative commandments. Nevertheless, no single Jew can fulfill them all in practice, for some commandments pertain only to kohanim and Levites, others pertain only to the king, and still others pertain only to women. In that case, how can a Jew fulfill the entire Torah, meaning its 613 commandments? These commandments correspond to a Jew’s 248 limbs and 365 sinews, physical and spiritual, which they infuse with light and vitality, as our holy books explain.

This problem only arises, however, when each Jew is considered as an individual in regards to his obligations and mitzvot. When the Jewish people are united and form a single entity – when we view ourselves as being truly part of the same body, all of whose parts perceive and experience the feelings and pains of others – then this problem automatically disappears. When the Levite carries out his obligations, he does not act alone. Rather, all Israel is connected to him when he does so. Likewise when the king writes a Sefer Torah for himself, the entire Jewish people are partnered with him in this mitzvah of his. Thus every Jew can fulfill all 613 mitzvot because of the connection that binds the entire Jewish people together, a connection that he is an integral part of. This is the secret of their mutual responsibility.

We now have a new perspective on the verse, “Israel encamped there,” which had previously been interpreted to mean: “Like one man, with one heart.” We can now understand it to mean that the need for the Jewish people’s unity did not end with the revelation at Sinai, which made the people fit to receive the Torah. Rather, all Jews are obligated to be constantly united with one another for all time, so that every Jew can fulfill the Torah in its entirety.

This is why, immediately following the revelation on Sinai, the Torah discusses laws that deal with man’s relationship to his fellowman, for these laws constitute the foundation, the pillars and bases of the fulfillment of Torah! Without them, the Jewish people would not be able to fulfill all 613 mitzvot. Thus immediately after the giving of the Torah, by means of the “social” laws, G-d makes everyone aware of the importance of treating his fellowman – both his person and his possessions – with the utmost respect. The meticulous observance of these mitzvot, which deal with considering and valuing others, enables the Jewish people to survive and endure. This is the secret behind the true fulfillment of Torah.

The mitzvot dealing with the altar are therefore in their proper place, namely between the giving of the Torah and Parsha Mishpatim. Concerning the phrase, “do not build them hewn,” Rashi writes that by its very essence, the altar establishes peace in the world. In fact the sinner is held accountable by Hashem and is distant from Him. By atoning for his sin, the altar brings him closer to his Father in Heaven and makes peace reign among men. Once a person has repented and his sin has been forgiven, he is cherished and wanted by G-d. As a result, it is not proper for an object that cuts and injures (an object made of iron) to touch the altar, whose role is the establishment of peace and unity between Hashem and Israel. In regards to this subject, the Gemara states: “For him who divorces his first wife, the very altar sheds tears” (Sanhedrin 22a). It “suffers” as a result of a dispute or division among people, which runs counter to its very essence and purpose.

The holy Torah shows us just how to build the altar, meaning the way in which we can acquire the dimension of peace that it embodies, and how to fulfill the two prerequisites for peace in the world. The first of these is: “[Do not raise] your sword over it” – when you want to establish peace, you must first rid yourself of all iron (the material from which destructive implements and weapons are made). In other words, put down the weapons with which you quarrel and focus exclusively on drawing closer to others. As for the second prerequisite, the Torah alludes to it by the second mitzvah regarding the altar, which establishes peace: “You shall not ascend My altar on steps.” In fact we must distance ourselves from a sense of pride and not allow ourselves to chase after vanity. We must not accentuate our own merits and success, but rather we should reflect on our own insignificance in order to attain humility. Generally speaking, a humble person is protected from all kinds of conflicts or disputes with others, for he accepts what happens to him with love and obedience, as King David said: “Because Hashem has said to him, ‘Curse David’ ” (II Samuel 16:10). Obedience is the root, the foundation for accepting the verdict, for an obedient person will not get quickly carried away when his honor is affronted. Humility is thus the cornerstone that allows for the establishment of peace and brotherhood. In fact every quarrel stems from pride and presumptuousness, which make everyone stand their ground and argue their cause.

These are the necessary prerequisites for acquiring peace: Distancing yourself from strife and pride, reflecting on your own insignificance, and demonstrating obedience in all things. Just prior to this week’s parsha, we find the verse: “An altar of earth shall you make for Me” (Shemot 20:21). This means that in order to build an altar and achieve the peace that it embodies, we must consider ourselves like the earth, meaning humble and obedient (as we read in the daily prayers: “May my soul be as dust to all”).

The Torah therefore gave these mitzvot, which provide us with the necessary tools to build an altar (in other words, for the acquisition of peace, upon which the relationship between man and fellowman is founded) before teaching us the laws of Mishpatim. By adopting such behavior – by distancing ourselves from disputes and being obedient – we can perfectly fulfill mitzvot regarding others, respecting our fellowman and safeguarding his possessions. As we have explained, this constitutes the foundation of the Jewish people’s fulfillment of Torah.

From here we learn that the explanation of “Israel encamped before the mountain” (i.e., that they were “like one man, with one heart”) is not a simple precondition and requirement for the giving of the Torah. In reality, it is the foundation for fulfilling the Torah and its continued existence among the Jewish people.

Regarding the subject of loving our fellowman and peace among men, our Sages have said: “The generation of Ahab worshipped idols, and yet they were victorious when they went out into battle. Why? Because there were no informers among them” (Devarim Rabba 5:10). Conversely, men were all righteous in the time of David, but often lost in battle because there were informers among them. We also know that the Tannaim, righteous and good men such as the students of Rabbi Akiva, died because they lacked respect for one another. Hence we see that an absence of love for one’s fellowman, and a lack of brotherhood among the Jewish people, denies them the right to spiritual existence (the fulfillment of Torah) as well as material existence.

Real Life Stories

The Second MRI

The permission given to doctors to heal the sick is delineated by the command of the Torah: “Healing, he shall heal” (Shemot 21:19). From here we learn that doctors have been given permission to heal, but not permission to make people lose hope or make somber predictions.

Oftentimes, when doctors feel that they have done everything they can, the power of prayer reveals itself in all its intensity. Collective prayers for the healing of the sick hasten the arrival of incredible deliverance. This is perfectly illustrated by the following story, taken from the book Aleinu Leshabeach:

As often happens, it all began with some intense headaches. A young girl of eight years old was complaining of headaches and extreme pain. Her parents tried to relieve her suffering by administering some Paracetamol, but when they saw that regular medication did not help, they quickly brought her to the Tel Hashomer Hospital. After some exhausting tests, doctors diagnosed her condition as a worrisome inflammation around the brain, “probably meningitis,” they said.

The little girl was given the prescribed treatment, but her condition did not improve. It was then discovered that her brain itself was affected. Several theories were forwarded, some more troubling than others, but the doctors were unable to pinpoint her condition. They finally declared that they could not present a logical medical explanation for her symptoms.

The MRI they performed had eliminated all possible disorders, leaving no alternative but a malignant brain tumor, G-d forbid. Clearly, this necessitated an urgent operation, during which a portion of the young girl’s brain would be biopsied.

It goes without saying that the doctors did not paint a reassuring picture of what would happen after surgery.

The operation was scheduled for two weeks later. In the meantime, the little girl’s parents undertook a special “campaign” to ask their friends to make an effort to pray for her during the Asher Yatzar blessing. They contacted hundreds of orthodox families around the country, spread the name of their little girl, and asked people to recite this blessing aloud and with special concentration.

The echoes of this campaign reverberated far and wide. Numerous families contacted the parents of the little girl in order to sincerely thank them for the benefits they derived by committing themselves to reciting this blessing aloud. They expressed their warm wishes for their little girl to be healed and free of all trouble.

This is where we should mention the unique character and great sanctity of the Jewish people, who agreed to fulfill the mitzvah of, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” They all committed themselves to sharing the heavy burden of others with love and compassion, as if they themselves were the ones who were suffering. Happy are you, O Israel.

Even Jews who were not very observant, friends of the little girl’s father, committed themselves to fulfilling this mitzvah for the child’s recovery. Yet since they were not familiar with the Asher Yatzar blessing, the father asked them instead to recite Psalm 20 (“For the conductor…. May Hashem answer you on the day of distress”). These friends didn’t understand exactly how it would help, but in times such as these, everyone was prepared to do what they could for the child’s recovery. Hence they committed themselves to reciting this psalm every day until they received some good news.

Twenty-four hours before the scheduled operation, the little girl underwent a second MRI exam, after which the medical team prepped for the operation (blood tests, etc.). Nevertheless, they were surprised to see the girl’s mother at peace, not losing any hope, not even for an instant. In fact she asked the doctors to interrupt their preparations, asking them: “Did you get the results of the last exam?” They responded, “We don’t need to check now. What can happen in so short a time?”

“Many things have already happened,” she retorted. The doctors continued to insist that they didn’t need to check the results of the second MRI before preparing the child for the operation. However the mother stood her ground. In fact she knew how many blessings she had received from rabbis and great Torah figures, and she was aware of the number of psalms, prayers, and blessings that had been said for the healing of her little girl.

What happened next surprised everyone: Upon the mother’s insistent requests, the doctors reviewed the MRI, at which point a cry of astonishment escaped their lips. “What? How is this possible?” They again looked at the image before their eyes: The size of the “tumor” had shrunk to 25% of its original size, meaning that it couldn’t possibly be a malignant tumor, for the situation would never have improved in that case.

The most surprising thing of all was the reaction of the lead doctor, who was moved to tears. He turned to the parents and said, “What psalm can save a person from such an illness!” The little girl, who was standing nearby, proud of her parents and of G-d, responded by saying: “It wasn’t just one psalm, but many chapters of psalms.” During those same surprising moments, while her parents were extolling and thanking the Creator, the harmless microbe responsible for the entire situation was discovered.

When the father again contacted his none-observant friends, those who had recited Psalm 20, he told them the good news and added: “Please understand the great power of a chapter of psalms!” At that point they expressed their doubts as to the connection between the psalms and his daughter’s recovery. However their doubts quickly vanished when the father revealed the lead doctor’s question to them: “What psalm can save a person from such an illness?”

At that point, a powerful sanctification of Hashem’s Name took place in many hearts.

At the Source

He Saw and Spoke

It is written, “If he knocks out the tooth of his slave…he shall set him free” (Shemot 21:27).

Why must a Canaanite slave be freed for a tooth or an eye?

Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom said in the name of Rabbi Yaakov bar Zevdi, who heard it from Rabbi Abahu: It is because Ham saw with his eyes and spoke with his mouth, as it is written: “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers outside” [Bereshith 9:22]. Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, said that if we strike a Canaanite slave in his eye or tooth, he must be freed.

– Midrash Tanchuma

Thirty Mitzvot

It is written, “Thirty silver shekels shall he give to his master, and the ox shall be stoned” (Shemot 21:32).

Thirty shekels, for he received seven mitzvot from the children of Noah, as well as their details, which number thirty. Ula also said: The children of Noah took upon themselves thirty mitzvot.

– Midrash HeChafetz

Repaying Five and Four

It is written, “If a man shall steal an ox or a sheep” (Shemot 21:37).

Rabbi Yehudah said, “Israel said to G-d: There are many commandments here: If a man shall steal an ox or a sheep – because we stole an ox and made a calf, we had to pay five oxen in its place – our ancestors [Moshe, Aaron, Miriam, Nadav, and Avihu] died in the wilderness; and four sheep for a lamb – these being the four kingdoms [Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome] that reigned over us. And because we stole Joseph, we spent 400 years as slaves in the land of Egypt.”

– Shemot Rabba 30:7

Gratitude to Converts

It is written, “You shall not wrong a convert, nor oppress him” (Shemot 22:20).

The Holy One, blessed be He, greatly loves converts.

To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock that used to go out into the field and return at night. So it was each day. A stag once came to the flock, mingling among the goats and grazing with them. When the flock returned to the fold, it returned with them; and when they went out to graze, it went out with them. The king was told: “A certain stag has joined the flock and is grazing with them every day. It goes out with them and returns with them.” The king felt affection for it. When he went out into the field, the king gave orders: “Let it have good pasture, such as it likes. No man shall beat it. Be careful with it!”

The servants said to him, “Sovereign! You possess so many he-goats, you possess so many lambs, you possess so many kids, and yet you never warn us about them. However you give us instructions every day about this stag!” The king said to them, “The flock has no choice. Whether they want to or not, it is in their nature to graze in the field all day, and to return at night to sleep in the fold. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Shall we not, in that case, confer merit upon a stag that has left behind the entire vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?”

[The Holy One, blessed be He, says:] “Similarly, should we not be grateful to the convert, who has left behind his family and his father’s house? Indeed, he has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, choosing to come to us.” Accordingly, He has provided him with special protection, for He exhorted Israel to be very careful in regards to converts so as not to harm them. Thus it says, “You shall love the convert” [Devarim 10:19] and, “You shall not oppress a convert” [Shemot 23:9].

– Bamidbar Rabba 8:2

Even a Perfect Tzaddik

It is written, “[A bribe] perverts the words of the tzaddikim” (Shemot 23:8).

Each time that the word tzaddikim appears in the Torah, it is written without a yud. Only once is it written with a yud, in the above verse.

This verse comes to teach us that even a perfect tzaddik can be tempted to twist justice as a result of a bribe.

– Midrash Chaserot VeYeterot

In the Light of the Parsha

Nothing is Worse than Being a Slave to Money

It is written, “These are the ordinances that you shall place before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve, and in the seventh he shall go free, for no charge” (Shemot 21:1-2).

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra explains why the Torah begins the parsha (which deals with various laws) with the law on a slave. He writes, “There is nothing more difficult for a man in this world than to find himself dependent on another man like himself.” In other words, the holy Torah proceeds from more difficult to less difficult. Since there is nothing more difficult than slavery, it begins with the laws of slavery.

From this explanation, we learn that there is nothing more difficult than slavery, and that a slave – after he endures hardship for six years by serving his master, and yet wants to continue being enslaved and completely sold for money by taking on his master’s yoke – enslaves himself to money at that point. In fact he only enslaves himself in this way for the sake of money, which is why his ear is pierced if he asks to remain with his master, for it was this ear which heard on Mount Sinai: “The Children of Israel are My servants,” and yet he went to acquire another master for himself.

Hence the parsha that contains the account of the giving of the Torah is immediately followed by one that deals with Hebrew slaves. This teaches us that there is nothing worse than for a man to run after every penny. However the holy Torah has the power to remove him from the destructive trap of money, which so greatly entices men. In fact one who studies Torah becomes a servant of the Holy One, blessed be He, not a slave to money, which is a form of idolatry.

As Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, writes: “I heard from the mouth of a Torah luminary that the Men of the Great Assembly killed the evil inclination of idolatry [Yoma 69b]. This is very surprising, for how can one kill an angel, which possesses no body, but is completely spiritual? Rather, they simply diverted it from its initial activity. What does it occupy itself with now? Every angel was created to accomplish a mission! Because of our many sins, it has been entrusted with the craft of deceiving men by enticing them to pursue money and wealth, which is similar to idolatry!” These are beautiful words of wisdom.

In the Gemara our Sages teach, “I created the evil inclination, but I [also] created the Torah as its antidote” (Kiddushin 30b). Thus a person who studies Torah frees himself from the evil inclination of money, which belongs to the category of idolatry.


In one of the letters of the Chazon Ish Zatzal (Kovetz Iggerot II:132), he writes: “In every trial, I usually concentrate on believing that nothing in this world happens by chance, but only by Divine providence, and I force myself through prayer to distance the evil decree.”

What else do we have that is more effective than a prayer recited with great concentration and a pure heart, which can tear up decrees and perform miracles and wonders?

In the journal of the Lvov Chevra Kadisha, it is written that the gaon Rabbi David HaLevi Segal Zatzal, the author of Turei Zahav, wore a very torn tallit. This tallit was extremely old, and he wore it for numerous years. When the women in town saw the Rav praying with his torn tallit, they all contributed to buying him a new one. Thus they purchased a magnificent tallit and brought it to him. When the Taz (as Rabbi David HaLevi Segal was known) saw the new tallit which they had bought for him, he refused to accept it. He said to them, “I congratulate you on your kind initiative, but I cannot wear a new tallit. This old tallit will testify for me in the World to Come that I was never distracted when praying Shemoneh Esrei.”

A Bullet Flew Over His Head

When the great grandfather of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi David, began working for a non-Jew, he was hired on condition that he would be given time to pray every day. The non-Jew accepted this condition, but in his heart he was furious that precious time was being wasted because of a Jew’s insistence on praying. His anger increased when he saw Rabbi David whispering Shemoneh Esrei with great concentration, which in his employer’s mind took much more time than necessary. Unable to tolerate it any longer, he decided to tell his Jewish worker that he would not soon forget it.

One day, states the book Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as Rabbi David was praying Shemoneh Esrei with his eyes closed, his employer crept up behind him with a gun in his hand. As Rabbi David bent forward in prayer, the sound of gunfire erupted and a bullet flew over his head. The non-Jew, delighted with the difficult predicament that Rabbi David was in, waited for him to whimper in fear or flee at breakneck speed. However he was bitterly disappointed, for Rabbi David continued to pray as if nothing had happened. Afterwards, his employer told him that he was so furious, he would have killed Rabbi David if he had fled, or even if he had simply turned around. Upon seeing his tremendous concentration in prayer, however, he understood that before him was a truly pious man, and he stopped complaining about the length of his prayers.

The Only Answer is to Pray

One day the maggid of Radin, Rabbi Binyamin HaTzaddik, went to see the gadol of the generation, the Chafetz Chaim Zatzal.

The Chafetz Chaim said to him, “Alas, Rabbi Binyamin, what will happen? Such a long exile, such a dark night!”

Rabbi Binyamin responded with a vivid explanation:

“Rabbi, I will give you an analogy: During a rough winter, several ba’alei batim undertook a long journey from Petersburg to Odessa, which was to last several days. Since it was the middle of winter, the journey took place in a special sled that was harnessed to two strong and healthy horses. The travelers in the sled were well-prepared for the cold, and they wore heavy coats. The journey began at night, and they traveled for a long time. To occupy themselves, they recited a few psalms and talked among themselves, during which time several hours passed. At that point they took out some wine, and everyone drank to warm their bones. Then they slept. In the meantime, morning had come. However in the Russian winter, there were very few hours of daylight, and our travelers slept deeply for more than 12 hours. In fact when they awoke, they noticed that it was still dark out, and they again recited a few psalms, chatted among themselves for a few hours, and took out some more wine. Then then drank and slept once again for another day. This repeated itself, for whenever they awoke, it was dark.

“The travelers started complaining to the driver, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? The night can’t be so long!’ The driver replied, ‘What long night? Day has already come, several times in fact, but you were sleeping!’

“The lesson to draw from this,” said Rabbi Binyamin HaTzaddik to the Chafetz Chaim, “is the following: The prophet Isaiah said, ‘ “Watchman, what of the night?” The watchman said, “Morning has come, and also the night. If you will request, request. Return and come” ’ [Isaiah 21:11-12]. We ask the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is the Watchman of Israel: ‘What of the night?’ Why is this night – this exile – so long? The Watchman replies, ‘Morning has come.’ It was already morning – there was already an end to the exile, several ends to it – ‘but also night.’ You delayed the morning and night came again. Rabbi, what can we do? The only answer is to pray!”

This is how the verse ends: “If you will request” – this represents prayer, as Rashi explains: If you present your requests to hasten the end (“If you will request”), then you must do teshuvah (“Return and come”)!

I Am Prayer

It May Still be Valuable

Even if a person does not pray with concentration, his prayer is not completely rejected. Rather, it is put aside. If he prays with concentration later on, such a prayer may cause even the prayer said without concentration to ascend.

This is what the verse on the offerings states: “To what purpose is the multitude of your offerings to Me…. They are an incense of abomination to Me” (Isaiah 1:11-13). Yet in regards to prayer, all that is said is: “When you make many prayers, I will not hear” (v.15). In other words: I will not reject you, but I will not consider your prayer until things improve, meaning that it still has value.

This is what our Sages meant by affirming that prayers are more effective than offerings, which they derived from this verse (Berachot 32b). That is the truth.

– Terumat Ha-Keri

Guard your Tongue

Disparaging One’s Spouse

The prohibition against Lashon Harah applies to both husband and wife. It makes no difference if a man is speaking about his own wife or another woman. Yet because of our many sins, numerous people stumble in this area. They believe that they can speak ill of their wife or their wife’s family to their own brothers and family members. This is forbidden unless there is a constructive purpose behind it, not to disparage them.

– Chafetz Chaim


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