Friday, February 01, 2008

Mishpatime 5632 First Ma'amar

The first pasuk of this week’s parsha states, “וְאֵלֶּה֨ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃/And these are the laws that you will place before them.” That the first sentence of the parsha starts with the word “and” implies a connection to the end of last week’s parsha. Last week’s parsha ends with laws concerning the altar of the Beis HaMikdash. The very last pasuk states, “וְלֹא־תַעֲלֶ֥ה בְמַעֲלֹ֖ת עַל־מִזְבְּחִ֑י אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־תִגָּלֶ֥ה עֶרְוָתְךָ֖ עָלָיו׃/And do not ascend by steps upon My altar so that your nakedness will not be revealed on it.” What is the connection between these two apparently unconnected pesukim?

Chazal, addressing this question, say that just as a priest may not ascend the altar with large steps so as not to reveal himself (even if only to the stones on which he walks), so too, judges may not take “large steps” – jumping to conclusions without proper investigation – when judging. This explanation itself needs an explanation. The large steps of the priest are literal. The large steps of the judge symbolize hasty judgment. They are obviously not the same at all. The Sfas Emes, therefore, understands this Midrash homiletically.

The word used in the pasuk for steps is מַעֲלֹת which also means virtue. Ascending upon the altar is a metaphor for serving God. Accordingly, this pasuk can be translated as, “Do not attribute virtue to yourself for activities which you perform in God’s service. Doing this reveals your own weakness.” If a person thinks that he succeeds in serving God because of his own strength, he is only revealing a weakness in himself. The Sfas Emes says, in fact, that by adding his own strength to the equation of serving God, he is actually weakening himself. In a subtle way, he is showing that his service to God has ulterior motives. Rather, perform those activities for the sole purpose of fulfilling God’s will.

Another indication for this metaphor is the expression Chazal use for “large steps – פְּסִיעָה גַסָה.” In other contexts גַסָה/large, is used in connection with haughtiness. Taking large steps, then, is a metaphor for haughtiness. There is a certain amount of conceitedness in attributed success in serving God to one’s own strength.

The first pasuk of our parsha, too, teaches us to serve God humbly. How so? Studying the first pasuk of our parsha, we notice that the end of the pasuk needs an explanation. Why does God tell Moshe to place the laws before them? Why not command him simply to teach the laws to the nation? What is the significance of placing the laws before them? The Sfas Emes explains that “before them” is significant. Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to teach the nation that the Torah should be before them in everything they do. Before any activity we need to ask ourselves, “Is this activity the will of God?” When we ask ourselves this question, in affect, we are our own judges. Judging our actions beforehand means that we are not taking “large steps.” By asking this question before each action we show a desire to serve God through all our activities. We show that we want to be motivated solely by the desire to serve God.

Chazal hint at this when they teach us in Maseches Avos, “הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִין/Be measured in judgment.” The word מְתוּנִים/measured suggests נְתוּנִים/given. Chazal are clearly giving good advice to judges. However, Chazal are also hinting at what we’ve said. We should give ourselves over to our own judgment before each activity to determine if we will be fulfilling God’s will. May we merit it!

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