If an ox gores a cow and we find the cow's aborted fetus beside her, but we do not know if the cow miscarried after she was gored [in which case the owner of the ox is liable] or if she miscarried before she was gored... Sumchus says: Money whose ownership is in doubt should be divided [between the parties]. The [other] Sages say: He who is seeking to extract money from his fellow, the burden of proof is on him...

Talmud, Bava Kama

The Torah reading of Mishpatim ("Laws" — Exodus 21:1-24:18) is the source for hundreds of laws like the one cited above: laws governing restitution for damages, penalties for theft and assault, the repayment of loans, etc. A large chunk of the Talmud's 2,711 folio pages are devoted to analyzing and formulating the laws contained in these verses.

What do these laws mean? There are several approaches to understanding what the Torah is all about:

1) It means what it says. An ox is an ox, a cow is a cow, money is money and a thief is obviously a thief. That's what the Torah is — a guidebook that instructs us how to live our lives in the physical world.

2) It's all a metaphor. The Torah is the mind of G‑d. Has G‑d nothing better to think about than oxen goring cows? The "ox" the Torah speaks of is the supernal pnei shor ("face of the ox") which the prophet Ezekiel beheld in the Divine "chariot"; the "cow" is the feminine aspect of that lofty spiritual entity. It's a code, for the masses to study and memorize and for the enlightened to decipher.

3) You need to read it from the top down. Why must the Torah be either spiritual or actual? It can be, and is, both. Of course, its basic significance is spiritual. But the physical reality we inhabit derives from and is nurtured by the spiritual. So the spiritual truths contained in the Torah also translate into laws applicable to our physical lives. When the Torah describes the dynamics of spiritual "oxen," "loans" and "responsibility for damages," it can all be also applied to the physical analogues of these spiritual entities.

4) The Torah reads from the bottom up. The Torah is both a spiritual idea and a pragmatic rulebook, but it is first and foremost the latter.

The fourth approach is predicated on the concept that the physical world is the objective and focus of G‑d's creation, the arena in which the Creator's purpose is actualized. The spiritual creations are but a prelude to this world, and exist solely to serve it and enrich it. While the physical world receives sustenance from the spiritual, the spiritual worlds receive their significance, purpose and raison d'etre from the physical. So it is the spiritual that "derives" (in the ultimate sense) from the physical — not vice versa.

It is with the physical world that the mind of G‑d is most preoccupied; this is the world of which the Torah speaks. It also speaks of spiritual realities — because the spiritual mirrors the physical. Indeed, we can better understand and better apply the Torah's laws when we also study their spiritual significance, thereby "illuminating" the pragmatic law with its inner soul and supernal meaning. But the source and end of it all are the rules dealing with goring oxen, pregnant cows, monetary loans and stealthy thieves.

The Talmud records a debate between Moses and the angels. When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah from G‑d, the angels argued that the Torah belongs in the supernal realms and should not be brought down to earth. G‑d indicated that the angels have a point and instructed Moses to respond to their argument. Only after Moses brought a series of proofs that the Torah's laws relate to the physical world did G‑d give him the Torah to take down to the people.

On the face of it, the whole story doesn't make sense. There are thousands of Jewish communities all over the world, and each one of them has the Torah. The Torah is an idea, not an object — it can be anywhere and everywhere at the same time. What's to prevent the angels from studying the Torah after Moses carries it down the mountain? And if the angels would have "kept" the Torah, what's to prevent us from getting a copy of it as well?

One might explain that it's not quite as simple as that: that the debate between Moses and the angels is not merely where the Torah will be, but what it will mean. Until Moses showed up in heaven, the Torah was interpreted solely in the spiritual sense. What the angels objected to was this human coming along and reinterpreting it as a document about oxen and cows.

Still, one might ask: why can't it be both? Let the angels understand it their way, and we'll understand it our way.

But the issue was not just how the Torah will be interpreted, but what the Torah is. The angels understood that G‑d had invited Moses up to heaven not just to reinterpret the Torah, but to redefine it. Up until the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Torah's basic meaning was spiritual. Human beings could (and did) study it, use it to understand the spiritual realms, and even apply it as a guide to physical life; but the physical meaning remained a metaphor, a "shadow" or projection of the deeper, spiritual meaning. In giving the Torah to human beings, G‑d determined that the basic meaning of Torah is the physical meaning, while the spiritual meanings are its metaphors and shadows.

Why is it so important to determine which is the Torah's "real" meaning? What difference does it make? All the difference in the world.

Let's say that the Torah tells us that a certain thing in our world should be a certain way. And let us further say that that thing is not the way that the Torah says it should be, and is showing resistance to changing to that way. If the Torah was basically a spiritual idea that we were applying to our physical world, we would probably say: "Well, here is a piece of our world that is not yet conforming to its spiritual analogue. This part of Torah shall, for the time being, remain in its supernal meaning. The 'translation' will have to wait for a better set of circumstances — or for a better translator."

But we know that G‑d gave us the Torah. In fact, right after He gave it to us, He declared, "It is not in heaven!" Of course, the souls populating the heavens can study it, too, and the Kabbalists here on earth can delve into it and derive from it the loftiest spiritual truths. But those are metaphors, shadows, expressions. Underneath it all, what the Torah is saying, and what G‑d is thinking, is: Do this. Don't do this. Take this and make it this.

If G‑d thinks so, it can be done.