Parshat Mishpatim

Torah Reading for Week of January 19-25, 2014

Digging a Pit: What Falls In, and What Returns?
by Rabbi Toba August


I love teaching Torah, and experiencing my students’ delight in learning is profoundly rewarding. Over the years I have used various methods of interpretation to make Torah relevant for contemporary learners. This week’s Parsha can be presented to students through rigorous intellectual study.

Following the Ten Commandments, the portion contains 53 seemingly unrelated laws. These “Mishpatim” – civil ordinances, include rulings about Hebrew slaves, goring oxen, taking bribes, ‘eye for an eye’, and much more. Though there seems to be no planned structure, an overarching theme is taking responsibility for your personal actions, caring for others and their animals and creating a safe and just public domain. These laws are pertinent in contemporary times and are the foundation for much of Jewish Halachah – law codes. Students enjoy applying the ancient teachings to present-day situations.

There is however, another approach, using Hasidic interpretations, which takes us away from the actual Peshat – literal and contextual meaning of the text, and help uncover a deeper introspective meaning.  According to Rabbi Aryeh Wineman, “Hasidic homilists focus on psychological insight, and the Torah passage is read as an existential observation of human life, emotions, conflicts and growth in spiritual awareness.”[i]

An example of this type of Hasidic teaching is brought down by Rabbi Arthur Green in his latest book, from verses in our Parshah, Mishpatim:

If a person opens a pit, or digs a pit, and does not cover it and an ox . . . falls into it, the owner of the pit must make restitution. He shall return money to the owner, but the dead animal is his. (Exodus 21:33-34) 

The 18th century Hasidic text, Noam Elimelech says that ‘opening the pit’ alludes to ‘wellsprings of awe and holiness that can be opened in people’s hearts, by teaching them Torah.’[ii]

“Digging” a pit is like “digging” into people’s spirits, carving out wonder and devotion. These Torah verses about digging pits and falling oxen are saying that when a righteous teacher helps students learn the truths within Torah and come closer to God (by ‘digging’ into their hearts), the instructors will be rewarded.  The kindness and good deeds of their students will be returned to them. This is the ‘restitution’ discussed in our verse.

The Hasidic text supports its explanation as it interprets the rabbinic saying: “Mah sh’yozeh min hal’ev, nichnas la’levWords that come from the heart enter the heart.” Noam Elimelech explains, “this can mean, the heart that the words came from – those same words enter back into it and increase the holiness within it.”

“Digging a pit” then is an allusion to the art of teaching and influencing others, and ‘making restitution’ becomes the impact the students have on their teacher.

As an instructor, I feel rewarded knowing that I enliven my students’ lives with holy learning, but did not often reflect on how much this process increased my own internal growth. One of the greatest rewards of teaching is the gifts that students offer. The ‘restitution’ the students give a teacher for opening the wellsprings in their hearts, opens up her heart even more!  Shabbat Shalom.

[i]“How the Hasidic Masters Read the Torah” by Aryeh Wineman. Conservative Judaism, Fall/Winter 2007-2008

[ii]  Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was the scholarly brother of Reb Zusya of Anipoli, best known for his sincerity in devotion and simplicity of life. They were among the earliest Hasidic rebbes (late 18th century).

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