Thursday, 19 February 2009

Teaching Torah - Lay the Table (Parshat Mishpatim)


In the book of Exodus (21:1), G-d commands Moses to teach the children of Israel Torah, "And these are the laws that you shall place before them." Seems quite straight-forward. G-d is talking to Moses and tells him that there are a number of laws that he must tell over to the Jewish people.

The Torah consists of 613 main laws which every Jew is obligated to fulfil in his/her daily life. It's true, some laws can only be done by certain people (for example, men fulfil certain laws, women fulfil certain laws, the Kohanim and Levites perform certain things etc.) In truth, not every Jew fulfils all 613 laws, but together as a nation, every law must be fulfilled. Those laws applicable to each individual much be fulfilled by that individual.

The question is, to what degree would Moses be required to teach the laws? Would it be good enough to simply state over "You may not steal"? Could he simply say "You may not murder"? Naturally each law carries with it thousands of "read the small print" points. While first degree murder is totally forbidden, killing someone who is in the process of attacking another to kill him – is certainly permissible, and in fact a Mitzvah – the necessary thing to do. Likewise, although by most people's standards, embarrassing another person is something called for at times, the Torah calls it murder too.

The blood of a person rushes to his faces, literally emptying out from the remainder of the body, and in this way, the murder takes places. As a consequence of the embarrassment, this person may feel so humiliated, that he may well feel better off not being alive altogether. Embarrassment = Murder. But who would consider it so, without the "read the small print"?

With the myriad of laws, learning Torah becomes a tremendous task. In fact, with the "small" amount of easily available Torah today, including the entire Tanach (24 books of the Bible), the Babylonian Talmud (2411 pages), Jerusalem Talmud, Midrashim (homiletic explanations of Torah,) main Halachic (law) works, Tur, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch etc., main mystical Kabbalistic works, including the Zohar and the writings of the Arizal etc., the average person finds himself at a loss for knowing just what to learn and what to do.

But although the "small" amount of material needed to learn is quite well laid out, this is still nothing in comparison to the literally infinite amount of material available for those managing to work through these "basic works." With all this, the average Jew has no idea how to approach Torah.

What really is the law?! Do the Rabbis agree, disagree, or simply agree to disagree or disagree to agree?! Is there one law or a plethora of different opinions that one can choose to follow? Worse yet, unless one sees with one's eyes what it's really all about, listening in to an average Talmud class can have one wondering if one may well be better off taking the day off and relaxing, than trying to solve an intricate debate which may not have any final conclusion.

Here, in this beautiful verse that G-d says to Moses lies one of the most important lessons being taught to any learned teacher or rabbi. Here lies the secret of teaching correctly and letting others – less knowledgeable, know what to do and how to do it.

Rashi (1040-1105) the famous commentator studied by young and old alike, explains clearly what this verse is really all about:

"These are the laws that you shall place before them":

The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses, "Do not let it arise in your thought to say, 'I'll teach them the chapter and the law (i.e. the Oral Law) two or three times, until it becomes clearly organised in their (own) mouths like it was taught, and I won't burden myself to make them understand the reasons of the thing and it's explanation.'" For this reason it says, 'that you shall place it before them,' like a LAID TABLE and ready to eat in front of EVERY person.

Teaching Torah is not an act of sharing information to another so that they too can simply regurgitate the material off by heart. It is something that must be understood and clear. It is not sufficient to teach over so that the other can read the material as well. Torah is something that must be so clear to another that it is as if everything he needs to know and understand lies before him – much like a table that is laid and prepared for someone to eat off.

So too, just as a table which is prepared can clearly be seen as such; one sees the knives and the forks, the spoons and the cups for real; one doesn't have to imagine what a spoon looks like, what a fork looks like, or what food looks like – let alone to have to imagine it well enough so as to have an actual effect in one's stomach.

So too those who teach Torah must know that their obligation is not to simply share the information with students in the hope that they'll be able to "say it over" for them well enough to write an exam to earn 80% or more. The main thing is that the material is so well taught, that anyone learning it can actually visualise and know what it's about, and he can literally be able to "eat" from the table himself.

It's a tough task. But it's the most important task that every Torah educator faces right now – today – in seeing to it that the next generation will continue to love the taste of the food of Torah – the bread and the wine. That they should be able to implement into their own lives, much like one's stomach digests the food – without the need for one to have to consciously think about the need to get one's insides moving in the hope that this will cause things to happen.

When Torah is taught correctly, everything moves smoothly. Those learning, come to understand clearly what is required of them. In return, they do what is required of them, loving everything they do, and being excited to share this with others. Those who take the path of Moses' initial possible reaction, will end up with students who are academic parrots impressing everyone with their knowledge.

Those taking the correct approach – as instructed in this verse, will bring blessing in to the world, of students and Jews who are humble, understanding Jews who know how to implement what the Torah requires. This is our duty – each and every one of us. Lay the table of Torah for everyone to eat from.

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