Watch: A short lesson by Reb Yoel Kahn on Parshas Mishpotim with English subtitles and transcript.
Watch a short lesson by Reb Yoel Kahn on Parshas Mishpotim with English subtitles and transcript.
Scroll down for the English transcript.
Parshas Mishpatim begins with laws of an eved ivri, stating: “And these are the laws that you shall place lifneihem, before them: Ki sikneh, if you will acquire a Jewish slave…”
When examining the grammar of these pesukim, it would appear that Ki yiknu would have been a more appropriate choice of words. Since Hashem had just referred to Bnei Yisroel in the plural and in the third person (lifneihem), it would be logical to continue in the same way by saying Ki yiknu, “If they will acquire.” Why does the possuk state Ki sikneh, which is both in the singular and in the second person?
The words Ki sikneh are expressed in this way because they are referring not only to Bnei Yisroel at large, but also to Moshe Rabbeinu specifically. With these words, Hashem was imparting a message how he was to teach the people Torah, a message hinted to in the word sikneh, acquiring.
What is the message of kinyan, an acquisition?
Moshe was instructed to teach the Jews Torah until they would acquire it. As Rashi explains on this possuk, Moshe was told to explain the laws and lay out their details before Bnei Yisroel, so they wouldn’t be merely repeating what he had said, but would actually master the information until it became their own. Indeed, this instruction extends itself to anyone who is teaching Torah to another.
Kinyan expresses another idea as well. The spiritual world of Atzilus is associated with kinyan (as hinted to in Kiddush Levanah, where boruch koneich refers to Atzilus). With the word sikneh, Hashem was conveying to Moshe two seemingly opposite ideals. On the one hand, he was to explain the Torah to them until they grasped it, as stated above. But at the same time, he was to imbue them with the feeling that the Torah they were learning is Atzilus. The world of Beriah, although lofty as well, marks the beginning of Creation. A teacher must instill within his student the realization that the Torah he is learning is higher than Creation—it is G‑dliness.
Starting with Slaves
This paradox can help us understand another puzzling fact. Parshas Mishpatim begins with the laws of acquiring an eved, a slave. This is surprising, because the Torah generally describes situations that arise on a common basis. Yet, here the Torah speaks of an unusual situation, in which a thief who cannot pay is sold in order to repay the theft. There are many other laws in this parshah that relate to everyday situations. Why start precisely with this law?
By beginning with the laws of an eved, the Torah is teaching us the proper perspective we should have toward mishpatim, the subject (and name) of the parshah.
Mishpatim are mitzvos we can understand (unlike chukim, which are beyond human intellect). Furthermore, mishpatim are directives we could have arrived at on our own, even without the Torah’s command (unlike eidos which, although comprehensible now that Torah commanded them, would otherwise not have been dictated by human logic). Yet, how does the parshah begin its list of mishpatim? With the laws of an eved. This teaches us that although we are instructed to understand mishpatim, at the same time we must approach them with kabbolas ol, like an eved.
This is the paradox of kinyan. The Torah is completely higher than Creation; it is a kinyan, Atzilus. It is the wisdom of Hakadosh Boruch Hu, which is completely beyond our grasp. Yet, Hashem gives us the ability to study His infinite wisdom until we “acquire” it.
The Alef-Beis Changeover
The Gemara relates that when the seventy elders translated the Torah into Greek for Talmai Hamelech, Divine intervention arranged for all of them to independently make the exact same emendations to the text. Their first change: they translated the possuk of Bereishis not as Bereishis bara Elokim, but as Elokim bara Bereishis. The reason they did this was because they were afraid Talmai might imagine that there existed some entity called Bereishis, and that entity created Elokim.
When you think about it, there is more to the emendation than a change in sequence of words. The commentators give various reasons why the Torah begins with a beis and not with an alef. Yet, in the above translation, it indeed starts off with an alef! True, that wasn’t why the translators made the emendation; they did it to prevent a possible idolatrous thought. However, since this narration is part of Torah, there must be a reason behind the alef-beis change, as well.
The Alef-Beis of a Jew
As explained above, the Torah is Hashem’s wisdom, yet He lowered it to a level in which we can study and grasp it. But we must remember that the Torah begins with a beis. What we understand is not all there is to it; it’s no more than a beis, the secondary dimension of Torah. The alef and primary dimension of Torah is that “Torah and Hashem are one.”
[This should not be understood in the same way as the common conception of tzimtzum, in which a teacher cannot convey the full depth of his understanding to a student, so he merely teaches him a small part of it. One might think that the same applies with Torah, that the Torah studied above is the real Torah, and we are limited to studying a lower level.
However, this is not the case. As we say in the berachah before studying Torah, “venasan lanu es Toraso, He gave us His Torah.” The Torah we study is the same Torah studied Above, and all of the greatest levels and loftiest qualities are concealed within the Torah studied by each one of us.]
This is the alef of Torah—that Torah is Hashem’s wisdom, essentially beyond human grasp.
But this is only true with the Jewish nation, to whom Hashem gave the Torah. When a Jew studies Torah, what he understands is merely the beis, an outer layer that contains within it tremendous and infinite depth—the alef. However, when a non-Jew studies Torah, what he understands is all there is to it, and there’s nothing more hidden inside. What he understands is the alef; it’s the beginning and end, and there isn’t anything higher.
This is why is the elders transposed the Torah’s first letter from a beis to an alef. When it came to Talmai, a gentile king, there was nothing more to Torah than what he was able to grasp.
Appreciating the Inability to Grasp
This is the double meaning of Ki sikneh. On the one hand, it is an instruction to Moshe—as well as to every teacher since then—to explain the words of Torah in a way that enables the student to acquire them. On the other hand, Ki sikneh introduces the concept of eved and kabbalas ol, reminding us that the Torah is inherently Atzilus.
When a Jew studies Torah, he’s not merely collecting another piece of information. Every teaching that he learns refines him and connects him with a level that is entirely beyond his understanding.
There’s another point here: The idea of acquiring is associated not only with the subject matter being studied, but also with the recognition that it is beyond his understanding. Realizing that Torah is essentially beyond his grasp does not dampen his spirits; to the contrary, this realization is something he “acquires” as well, and it gives him chayus and energy.
For further study, see Sefer Hamaamorim Melukat vol. 3 (Adar-Sivan), pp. 18ff. Likkutei Sichos vol. 15, pp. 1ff.