Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 896ff; Vol. XVI, p. 242ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 243ff.

When the World Stood Still

When G‑d gave the Torah, “There was thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud on the mountain…. Mount Sinai was all asmoke… the entire mountain trembled violently.”1 “And all the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn, and the mountain smoking. And the people trembled, standing far off.”2

Far more intense than these physical phenomena was the power of G‑d’s voice. And so, upon hearing the Ten Commandments, the people’s “souls took flight.”3 Moreover, the effects of this revelation reverberated throughout the world: “No bird chirped…, nor did an ox bellow, nor did the sea roar.”4 Silence reigned while G‑d spoke.

After describing such an all-encompassing experience, one might think the Torah would continue with a discussion of matters that reflect such self-transcendence. Instead, the Torah continues:5 “And these are the judgments.”

What is the difficulty? Our Rabbis6 divide the mitzvos into three general categories:

a) Mishpatim (lit., “judgments”): those mitzvos which are also dictated by reason, such as the prohibitions against theft and murder. Even if the Torah had not been given, ח׳׳ו, we would probably have instituted laws of this nature.7

b) Eidus (lit., “testimonials”): commemorative mitzvos, e.g., observing the Shabbos or eating matzah on Pesach, which enable us to relive the events of history, and more easily grasp their spiritual significance.

c) Chukim (lit., “decrees”): mitzvos that are superrational, that are “a decree from Me, [which] you have no permission to question.”8

Presumably, the Giving of the Torah should have been followed by chukim, for their superrational nature reflects the spiritual feelings aroused at Mount Sinai. Why instead does the Torah continue with laws that could (seemingly) be postulated by reason, parallels to which exist in all civilized society?

To Advance, Not to Withdraw

This question can be resolved based on a point of Hebrew grammar. Rashi states:9

Whenever [the Torah] uses the term אלה (“These are”), it negates what was mentioned previously. Whenever it uses the term ואלה (“And these are”), it adds to what was mentioned previously. Just as those mentioned first (the Ten Commandments) [were revealed] at Sinai, so too, these (the laws of Parshas Mishpatim) [were revealed] at Sinai.

Rashi is emphasizing that the judgments which are the subject of our Torah reading are not a departure from the revelation of Mount Sinai, but an outgrowth of it. The Torah is more than transcendent spirituality. On the contrary, the main thrust of the Giving of the Torah is the clothing of G‑d’s will and wisdom in concepts which mortals can understand.10 When a person studies Torah, he is comprehending G‑dliness, and joining his mind with G‑d’s. For intellectual comprehension involves the establishment of a bond between one’s mind and the concept under consideration. Indeed, such a bond is most completely established in the study of those dimensions of the Torah which relate to worldly matters, for these are ideas which human intellect can thoroughly comprehend.11

Fulfilling G‑d’s Purpose

The giving of the Torah completes the purpose of creation. G‑d brought all existence into being because He desired a dwelling place in the lower worlds.12 The objective of creation is thus not the revelation of G‑d’s transcendent power, but rather that worldly entities as they exist be permeated by the truth of His Being.

This is accomplished through the mishpatim of the Torah. For they communicate G‑dliness in relation to the everyday lives of mortals.13 The comprehension of these laws brings G‑dliness into each person’s mind, making it a “dwelling for G‑d.” And the application of these laws creates a society that enables man to achieve spiritual goals in peace, and to satisfy material needs in righteousness establishing a “dwelling for G‑d” in the most complete sense.

Back to Sinai

Parshas Mishpatim concludes with a description of some of the details of the giving of the Torah,14 including the declaration naaseh venishmah (“We will do, and we will listen”), which represents the ultimate declaration of faith. Even before one has been told what to do, one promises to obey.

This complements the lesson of Mishpatim.15 After a person has been able to internalize G‑dliness through the systematic study and application of the Torah’s laws, he is fit to experience dimensions of G‑dliness which transcend human comprehension the heart of the Sinai experience.

The study and practice of mishpatim refine the believer’s personality, making it possible for the infinite dimension of the Torah to erase any dichotomy that might exist between his self and his faith.

Knowing, and Not Knowing

The above allows for an extended interpretation of a famous statement of our Rabbis:16 “The ultimate of knowledge is not to know You.” The simple meaning of this statement is that a person should realize the limits of his intellect, and therefore understand that knowing G‑d is impossible, for He transcends all limits. There is, however, an allusion to the concept that when a person has fully developed his mind, he appreciates that even the concepts which he knows possess an inner dimension which transcends intellect.17 And going further, one can infer dimensions of G‑d that are infinite, internalizing this knowledge to the point that it shapes our personalities.18

Knowledge of G‑d in this manner anticipates and precipitates the coming of the Redemption, the era when “A man will no longer teach his friend…, for all will know Me, from the small to the great.”19