Jewish Law and the Secret of Infinity

Following the festive, yet awe-inspiring Divine Revelation at Sinai, Parashat Mishpatim jumps straight in at the deep end of Jewish law. In this parashah, we make a sharp transition from the lofty world of spirituality to the criminal underworld.

The Finer Details

Moses engraved the Ten Commandments that we received at Sinai onto two tablets of stone. As we saw in Parashat Yitro, the commandments are vessels that contain the great spiritual lights that we experienced. The descent from the heights of Divine revelation into mundane reality begins with the difference between the commandments on the right-hand tablet and those on the left-hand tablet. The first five commandments (on the right) deal with spiritual generalities, such as faith in God and Shabbat observance. The second five commandments (on the left) descend into our lowly everyday life.

In Parashat Mishpatim, the descent into reality is even more pronounced. For example, the eighth commandment is a general prohibition: “Do not steal.” Parashat Mishpatim expands on the laws of theft, teaching us how a thief must reimburse his victim with twice the value of the item stolen. If the item is livestock, he must pay a quadruple or quintuple fine for slaughtering or selling it. The laws pertaining to burglars are specified in detail in this Torah portion, together with many other laws. This paves the way for the broad spectrum of details discussed in the Oral Torah.

The sharp difference between the momentous revelation of God in Parashat Yitro and the down-to-earth legalities of Parashat Mishpatim, reflects two aspects of the Torah. Some individuals live on the spiritual peaks of Mt. Sinai. They might find it difficult to integrate the fine details of the law. Other individuals prefer the legal give-and-take. For them, the Revelation at Sinai may not be something to ponder upon.

As different as they seem, both aspects of the Torah are one. They represent two sides of the same state of perfection. To emphasize this identity, Parashat Mishpatim immediately follows Parashat Yitro; as the sages state,

And these are the laws that you shall place before them… “And these” adds to the previous ones. Just as the previous [laws] were from Sinai, so these too are from Sinai. (Rashi)

What is the secret that unites the Torah’s spiritual and legal aspects?

Infinity at Sinai

Chassidic teachings explain that at Sinai God’s limitless nature was revealed. “When God gave the Torah, He opened the seven heavens for them, and just as He parted the upper ones, so He parted the lower ones, and they saw that He is the ‘Single One.’” At Sinai, God tore down the limitations of the mundane world to reveal His singularity and His infinitude. The revelation of God’s infinity was so absolute that the souls of the Jewish people, bound in their physical bodies, were unable to contain it. “With every commandment that God spoke, the souls of Israel left them.” Yet, God miraculously returned their souls to their bodies, and they remained alive.

The Finiteness of God’s Infinity

The breathtaking revelation at Sinai gave us a glimpse of infinity. This was the revelation of God’s limitless nature. In contrast, Parashat Mishpatim reveals His ability to be limited by the finite. To explain this sentence, we will touch upon a profound subject discussed in Kabbalah and Chassidut.

Human intellect is limited. By nature, we cannot perceive the essence of infinity. For example, we might imagine millions and trillions of stars in the universe, but we cannot truly imagine an infinite number of stars.

Moreover, to the human mind, something that is limited cannot be unlimited at the same time. There is an essential contradiction between the finite and infinity. This creates an existential paradox: if God is infinite, then He cannot be finite; therefore, His infinity is limited! Expressed more simply, if God is perfect, He must also be imperfect; but, if He is imperfect, then He is not perfect! This defies human logic.

Kabbalah explains this conundrum by teaching us that God is the ultimate paradox of all paradoxes. By creating our reality, which is governed by limits, the Almighty demonstrates that His infinity is so all-encompassing that it contains both the power of finite limitation together with boundless infinity.

The Torah that was revealed at Sinai is the essence of God. It contains both aspects of His paradoxical nature: the finite and the infinite.

The Finiteness of the Torah’s Laws

God’s power of limitation manifests in the revealed dimension of the Torah. This reaches its apex in the monetary laws of Parashat Mishpatim. Someone who studies the fine details of halachah is occupied with the Creator’s finite dimension. Here at ground-level, the Torah’s legal dimension fashions our mundane life.

If you feel more attracted to studying Parashat Yitro than poring over a page of Talmud, you may be suited to studying Chassidut. The inner dimension of the Torah and its secrets diffuses an aroma of unlimited spirituality that aspires to reach the essence of God. We link to this boundlessness by studying Kabbalah and Chassidut, which deal with the infinite “Giver of the Torah.”

At Sinai, the unlimited nature of God was revealed, exposing the hidden dimension of the Torah. In Parashat Mishpatim, God’s limited nature is revealed through the many detailed laws, but the Torah’s hidden dimension is concealed.

The revealed and concealed dimensions of the Torah are like two sides of the same coin. When one is revealed, the other remains hidden from view. Yet, the greatest Torah scholars in every generation have always embraced both dimensions. Usually, one aspect is evident to all, while the other remains concealed. Many great Kabbalists present books on Kabbalah in their lounge, but a large library of halachic literature lies hidden in an inner closet. For such a sage, Kabbalah—the concealed dimension—is revealed and halachah—the revealed dimension—is concealed, as when God revealed Himself at Sinai. In contrast, many of the greatest halachic authorities hide a vast collection of books on Kabbalah in an inner sanctum, which they also study in depth. They are publicly known as teachers of the Torah’s revealed dimension, but in private, they are also students of its hidden aspect.

The great challenge of our generation is to unite the revealed and concealed dimensions of the Torah. We must study Talmud in depth, or a paragraph in the Shulchan Aruch, together with the relevant topics addressed by the inner dimension. We must also strive to study the revealed facets of the Torah’s hidden dimension. Our generation is called upon to unite Parashat Mishpatim with Parashat Yitro. By connecting the two paradoxical aspects of His Torah, we will reveal how God is at once both infinite and finite.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class 25th Shevat 5767


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