Our Sidra begins with the words, “And these are the judgments which you shall set before them,” and the last phrase of this sentence has troubled many commentators. What is the precise meaning of the expression “set before them?” Several different answers have traditionally been given, and the Rebbe explores the relationship between them. The word “judgments” (mishpatim) also requires comment, for this is a technical term in Torah, referring in general to social legislation of the kind which, had it not been given by G‑d, man could have devised for himself on rational grounds. It is to be contrasted with “testimonies” (edut) such as the Shabbat and the festivals, which though they are rationally comprehensible, could not have been invented by man; and with “statutes” (chukim) which are laws whose purpose lies altogether beyond our understanding. Why are only “judgments” singled out to be “set before” the people? In answering this, the Rebbe explores the difficult and much misunderstood relationship between our obedience to and our understanding of G‑d’s law.

1. The Meaning of “Before Them”

“And these are the judgments which you shall set before them.”1 The Rabbis have given several explanations of the phrase “before them.”

The first2 is that every legal dispute amongst Jews should be tried “before them,” before a Jewish court of law, which tries cases according to the Torah. They should not take the case before non-Jewish judges, even if their law in this instance coincides with that of the Torah.

The second3 is that when one is teaching the Torah to a pupil, he should “show the face”; in other words, he should explain the reasons for the law,4 so that the pupil understands it rather than receiving it as a dogma.

The third, given by the Alter Rebbe,5 is that “before them” means “to their innermost selves.”6 The verse therefore means that the knowledge of G‑d should enter the most inward reaches of the Jewish soul. There is an allusion to this in the Jerusalem Talmud,7 which relates the phrase “You shall set” (tasim) to the word “treasure-house” (simah). The treasure-house of the Torah should thus awaken the treasure-house of the soul, that is, its innermost core.8

2. Three Kinds of Law

It is a general principle that different interpretations of the same words of Torah bear an inner relationship to one another.9 What, then, is the connection between these three explanations?

Also, why should the words “before them,” however they are interpreted, be attached specifically to “judgments?” There are three kinds of commandments contained in the Torah: Judgments, testimonies and statutes.10 Statutes are laws which transcend our understanding and which we obey simply because they are the word of G‑d. Testimonies can be rationally explained, but they are not necessitated by rational considerations: Had G‑d not decreed them, man would not have invented them. Judgments, however, are laws which reason would have compelled man to devise even if they had not been Divinely revealed. As the Rabbis say, “If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat and honesty from the ant….”11 Why, then, is it judgments that the Torah singles out to be set “before them?”

If we take the first interpretation of “before them,” this is easy to understand. It is only in the sphere of judgments that Jewish and non-Jewish law are likely to coincide. Hence the necessity to urge, specifically of judgments, that disputes concerning them to be taken to a Jewish court. In the case of testimonies and statutes, which can be derived only from Divine revelation, there would be no possibility of taking disputes to a non-Jewish court which based its laws on human reason.

In the second interpretation, however, we run up against a difficulty. If “set before them” means to teach them with explanations, then this is surely more applicable to testimonies and statutes, which are difficult to understand, than to judgments. It is obvious that judgments should be explained. Whereas it would be a significant point to demand that testimonies (which can be comprehended, even if they are not necessitated, by reason) and statutes (which reason cannot grasp) should also be taught as far as possible through explanation and rational acceptance.

The same difficulty arises with the third explanation. It surely is not necessary to awaken the innermost reaches of the soul to be able to obey judgments, when reason is sufficient to compel adherence to them. But obedience to testimonies and statutes is not demanded by reason, and so it requires the arousal and assent of the inward self if it is to be done with a feeling of involvement rather than simply in blank response to coercion. Again, the connection between judgments and the phrase “before them” seems misplaced.

3. Action and Intention

An important truth about the Divine command is that “the principal thing is the act.” If, for example, a person has made all the appropriate mental preparations for putting on Tefillin but stops short of actually putting them on, he has not fulfilled the commandment. And if on the other hand he has put them on, but without the proper intentions, he has nonetheless performed the Mitzvah, and must make a blessing over it.

Despite this, it is also G‑d’s will that every facet of man be involved in the Mitzvah; not only his power of action and speech, but also his emotion, intellect, will and delight. This applies not only to the commandments which obviously involve feeling and understanding—like the Mitzvot of loving and fearing, believing in and knowing G‑d—but to every command, including those which require a specific action. Each Mitzvah must be affirmed by the deepest reaches of man’s being, especially by his delight, so that he performs it with joy12 and a willing heart. This is true, furthermore, even of statutes, which by nature lie beyond his understanding. It is not enough to obey them in action only, as if he had no choice but to submit to G‑d’s will without sense or comprehension. Nor is it enough to say: I do not understand them, but G‑d must certainly have a reason for decreeing them, and that is sufficient for me. For this attitude is not one of unconditional obedience. It is as if to say: I will obey only what is reasonable, but I will allow a mind greater than mine to decide what is reasonable and what is not. Instead, the true acceptance of statutes is one which goes beyond reason, and which makes no conditions. It is one in which the desire to serve G‑d for His own sake is so strong that even the intellect positively assents to the call of He who is beyond it.

In the light of this we can understand the Rabbinical saying about the word “statute”: “It is a decree before Me: You have no right to speculate about it.”13 This is strange because, since “the principal thing is the act” it would have been more natural to say, “you have no right to disobey it.” However, the saying implies that the physical act is not enough: It must be accompanied by the assent of the mind. And this means more than the silencing of doubt, more than the prudential acquiescence in G‑d’s wisdom. It means that simple faith floods his mind, leaving no room for second thoughts.

This is why statutes need the awakening of a Jew’s innermost soul. Without it, there would still be room for “speculation” or doubt even if outwardly he continued to obey. With it, his thoughts and feelings are fired by an inner enthusiasm. And this is the connection between the second and third interpretations of “before them”: “Inwardness” leads to “understanding,” to an acceptance of the law by mind and heart.

But a question remains. Why are these insights attached by the Torah to judgments instead of statutes, where they would seem more appropriate? There is no difficulty in understanding judgments, and reason—without inwardness—is sufficient to lead a man to obey willingly.

4. Faith and Reason

The answer is to be found in another Rabbinic commentary to our verse. Noticing that the Sidra begins with the word “and” (“And these are the judgments….”) they said, “‘And these’ indicates a continuation of the previous subject.”14 In other words, the judgments of which our Sidra speaks, are a continuation of the Ten Commandments, and were, like them, given at Sinai.

The Ten Commandments fall into two categories. The first commands concern the highest principles of the unity of G‑d. But the others state simple, social laws like “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not steal,” judgments whose purpose is immediately intelligible. By fusing these extremes, the principles of faith and the judgments of reason, the Torah teaches that even commands such as “Thou shalt not steal” should be obeyed not simply because they are reasonable but because they are the will of He who said, “I am the L-rd thy G‑d.”

Thus, when the Rabbis said that the words “And these are the judgments….” were a continuation of the Ten Commandments, they meant that these judgments should be obeyed not because they are understood, but because they were commanded by G‑d at Sinai.

This explains the first interpretation, that one should not bring a Jewish dispute before a non-Jewish court. Even if the laws coincide in practice, a law which has its source in reason is not the same as one which is based on the words, “I am the L-rd thy G‑d,” and its verdicts do not emanate from Torah.

The third interpretation also becomes clear. Even judgments, which can be obeyed for the sake of reason, must be obeyed from the inwardness of the soul. Judgments must be obeyed like testimonies and statutes: Not from reason alone but from an inward response which animates every facet of one’s being.

And this explains the force and subtlety of the second interpretation: That the judgments should be taught so that the pupil understands them. The point is that on the one hand they should not be regarded as the mere dictates of reason; on the other, they should not be thought of as irrational. They are to be obeyed with but not because of the mind’s assent. The mind is to be shaped by what lies beyond it.

Why is human reason not sufficient in itself? Firstly because it has no absolute commitment: “Today it (one’s evil inclination) says to him, Do this; tomorrow it tells him, Do that; until it bids him, Go and serve idols.”15 This description of the gradual erosion of spiritual standards is interpreted by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, thus: The Jew’s evil impulse cannot begin with enticement to a forbidden act. Rather, it bids him “Do this,” “Do that,” i.e., a Mitzvah, but do it because your intellect and ego concur. Thus, gradually the framework is developed in one, whereby even a forbidden act is not excluded.

Secondly, because even though it might lead a man to obey judgments, it would not bring him to closeness with G‑d. This is the difference between an act which is reasonable and an act which is a Mitzvah. “Mitzvah” means “connection”: It is the link between man and G‑d. Speaking of G‑d’s statutes and judgments, the Torah tells the Jew: “He shall live by them.” If he brings the whole of his life—action, emotion, reason and inwardness—into the performance of a Mitzvah because it was given at Sinai, he recreates Sinai: The meeting of man and G‑d.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 895-901)