And these are the laws that you should set before them. (Shemos 21:1)
Like a laid out table (Shulchan Aruch) and prepared for a meal before them. (Mechilta)
It’s interesting to note that not one of the many laws mentioned in this week’s reading can be properly executed based upon the bare bones of the verses alone. In fact, not one Mitzvah in the entire Torah is capable of being carried into action given only the parameters provided in the text. There are almost 30,000 details that comprise phylacteries and 5,000 in the ubiquitous mezuzah with little information to guide to their uniform completion. What’s called “killing”? When does life begin? When does it end? What one person calls “family planning” another calls murder!
The Torah cries out for explanation. There must, by definition, have been a concomitant corpus of information that accompanied the giving of the laws and that is what we call the “Oral Torah”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch uses the analogy that the Written Torah is like the notes to a scientific lecture. Every jot and squiggle has significance. If properly understood it can awaken the actual lecture. The notes remain practically useless to someone who has not heard the lecture from a Master. Therefore in the Oral Torah is the sum of the lecture while the Written Torah is merely a shorthand record. Why was so much left to Oral Transmission? What is the wisdom of this system?
A) It is designed to make easier the carrying of large amounts of information. If one grasps the handle the rest of the package will follow. Theoretically, with a Torah Scroll alone, as a memory queue, the entire oral tradition can be reconstituted and transported compactly throughout history.
B) The Oral Torah provides all the necessary cases that are meant to be applied to the changing material conditions of life. To produce a book that would include all the detailed laws of the various times and places over 3315 years would be cumbersome and impractical. What sense would it make to speak about the role of electricity on Shabbos before Franklin ever flew his kite? Instead, all the principles that guide the applications of law for all time are found and founded in Written and Oral Law.
C) Even though the Oral Torah can be found in written form it was written in such a way that it must be verbalized. It cannot be read like a novel or an op-ed piece It invariably needs to be discussed vigorously. This helps to ensure that the ideals of the Torah do not remain on the book shelf alone but are internalized and refined in every generation by the fires of passionate debate.
D) The Oral Torah teaches a method of thought. It is more interested in teaching “how” to think than “what” to think. It is not an answer book. It is process driven by questions. Like a good math class where one must prove a theorem the teacher wants to know how you arrived at your answer. If one gave a correct answer without showing work the grade may be lower than if one showed all the work and made a minor math error. How you got there matters.
E) The Oral Torah was set up in such a way that in order to gain a true appreciation one would have to have had real contact with a living teacher. That real teacher would have to have had more than a passing contact with a real teacher or teachers going all the way back to Sinai link after link.
F) The real benefit here is that the Torah is not just a set of rigid laws or an academic pursuit but rather a system of living. If one would have a chance to witness the behavior of someone whose life is saturated with Torah ideals they would be experiencing a living symphony as opposed to studying sheet music. There are often as many subtleties between the words as in the words. To behold an artful master applying the priorities of principles to the complexities of life is to see Torah being lived and it speaks volumes in volume.
Text Copyright © 2004 Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org