Setting the Table and Letting People Taste the Torah
Have you ever been to a wonderful dinner and enjoyed the presentation? Have you ever been to a great restaurant and had wonderful meal, greeted by a chef who is enthusiastic to explain the fine points of his dishes? I think that is what most of find most appealing about fine dinning.
Now I have learned a little bit about fine dinning recently. Not that it’s necessarily my first time. However, I’m more than comfortable to admit that my everyday food fare is generally less than sophisticated. I eat a lot of simple foods and humble dishes, stuff that I can eat on the run. So being treated to a fine dinner prepared by an internationally acclaimed chef was a thrilling treat!
Chef Moshe Basson, of “Eucalyptus” Restaurant in Jerusalem, prepared one of his acclaimed meals based on biblical ingredients and themes, last weekend for a large group of us from Beth Shalom of Whittier. Chef Basson is known worldwide for skillfully blending middle eastern flavors and holy land tastes in his dishes, taking peoples taste buds on a journey through the region and through history.
We stuffed ourselves on Israeli style salads, hummos, lentil soups, lamb stew, baked figs filled with savory meat, broiled eggplants drenched in tehina and pomegranate sauce, all forms of delightful couscous dishes, and more. However, the star of the show seemed to be the maqluba – a traditional Palestinian-Jordanian style upside down casserole (similar to Tebit, often considered the Iraqi take on cholent).
And still I must admit, one of the things I loved most about the meal was how passionate he was about each dish, and the care he took in explaining the bold flavors and the subtle hints of each of them. He helped me learn about the depth of this food and of the unique touches, and so I was able to really appreciate what he was so finely placing before me.
Now normally I don’t start out with a story, especially one which risks distracting people with hunger. However, this is the thought which immediately comes to mind as I read and consider the first line of this weeks Torah portion.
Our text reads:
“And these are the ordinances
that you shall set before them.”
וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים |
אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם: |
“V’ayleh hamispatim asher tasim lifneihem.” What does this text mean? That Moses is commanded to set these mishpatim – these ordinances, rules, judgments and these matters of justice – before them? Who is this “them” being spoken about here? They are the children of Israel, who are now receiving the Torah at Sinai.
This parsha is one of the parashiot in which G-d is mostly laying out a good-sized list of mitzvot which Moses is to communicate to the Israelites. And it is in this parsha that Moses is told to write these laws down and explain them to the people.
But why does this text here brings to mind for me my experience with the good chef and his fine meal? It’s because of a most interesting and very important commentary by Rashi for this text here.
The Rashi for this verse reads:
that you shall set before them: the Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses: Do not think of saying, “I will teach them the chapter or the halacha [law, or rule] two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.” Therefore, it is said: “you shall set before them,” like a table, set [with food] and prepared to eat from, [placed] before someone. — [From Mechilta, Eruvin 54b]
אשר תשים לפניהם: אמר לו הקב“ה למשה לא תעלה על דעתך לומר אשנה להם הפרק וההלכה ב‘ או ג‘ פעמים עד שתהא סדורה בפיהם כמשנתה, ואיני מטריח עצמי להבינם טעמי הדבר ופירושו, לכך נאמר אשר תשים לפניהם, כשלחן הערוך ומוכן לאכול לפני האדם:
Rashi. Exodus 21:1
In this midrash the rabbis want to try to fill us in on the details of a conversation they imagine between G-d and Moses. And G-d has some news for Mosheh Rabbeinu – for Moses our teacher.
G-d tells Moses in this story “lo ta’aleh al datecha.” Don’t even think about it Moses! Don’t even conceive of the thought that you going to get off easy when it comes to teaching this Torah to these people.
And here in this midrash the rabbis have G-d addressing Moses, our greatest teaching, challenging the very foundations of standard education. G-d tell Moses something which goes against the conventional method of instructing people.
Here we learn from this that Moses was taught from the beginning that he was not going to be able to just toss the Torah before these people and expect them to learn. Nor would Moses find himself only having to teach it to them maybe even two or three times. Repeating it to them just until they could memorize these laws and matters well enough to recall them. According to the rabbis G-d say no, that will not do!
And here we get more than just a jab at the rote method of learning! We actually get a negative characterization for those who use this method. You can take it as a description of either laziness or arrogance, but our rabbis here have divine charge against those who feel like they don’t have to give people reasons and explanations for the Torah’s laws.
This midrash calls our attention to be careful of the almost natural tendency of the teacher to retire to the idea that it’s just their job to make sure people get the basic material, without following through in helping people actually understand the deeper meanings of it.
I also read this text another way, I think many of you Hebrew speakers will see what I’m getting at. I think that there is a more full way of way of understanding the phrase: I shouldn’t have to trouble myself with figuring out how to get them to understand the reasons behind the laws and their specific meanings.
You know for all the warning our ancient rabbis gave us against this folly, it still happens in Jewish education today. Far too often in Torah learning and when being taught regarding the mitzvot, people have been told what they should remember to do religiously, though left without any understanding of why. And for this reason the Torah and its mitzvot remain yet incomprehensible to many people.
Now I know that far too often us Jewish educators spend too much time on pedagogy, discussing how we need to change Jewish learning to save Judaism today. However, this lesson touches me more as a personal and student level, than as a teacher.
When I was young I used to annoy both my teachers and my parents, because I always had to known why something was so. I was always asking questions, wanting to known the specifics of the how and why. And this really flew in the face of the culture of my family and home, being raised by a hard-nosed family who just couldn’t be bothered.
When I was a kid I was most often told in anger, “I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.” So the very thought of having someone repeat themselves was something always avoided. And I grew up in an environment where people firmly asserted, “I shouldn’t have to explain myself! Just do it.” Which left me frustrated and confused.
Interestingly, one of the other issues between me and my family was my picky eating. I always wanted to know what was for dinner and what was in it, because I just didn’t know a lot of foods. However, this was always met with the standard parental response of: “If you’re gonna eat, you’ll eat what I make and put on the table!” So the fact is I just didn’t eat many times.
Truth is I have learned from this negative experience. And with this generation of kids in my family I am always the one to answer their questions, wanting to help them grasp knowledge and also enjoy the experience of learning.
And these kiddies tastes are even pickier than mine, so I go out of my way to make things which are going to appeal to them. Though sometimes I certainly do have to go out of my way to show them why they are gonna enjoy this dish I made for them. Pointing out the flavors they will appreciate in order to spark their appetite. All this fuss simply because I want them to eat well, and also enjoy eating some of our cultural favorites instead of dreading them.
Why does all this also come to mind right about now as I reflect on this text? Why am I back talking about food again? It’s because of this analogy used here in the midrash to help us visualize exactly how to instruct people regarding these Torah ordinances.
Our rabbis here present us with a most famous phrase to bring the lesson of this midrash together in a very beautiful way: “L’kach ne’emar asher tasim lifneihem kashulcha he’aruch umukhan le’ekhol lifnei ha’adam / This is why it is said: That you shall set before them; like a set table, set and prepared [with food] to eat, placed right in front of someone.”
When the rabbis present the concept of setting the Torah before the people, they would have us see ourselves setting it before people like we would a set table. They would have us imagine the Torah as a fine meal, filled with all kind of delights and delicacies. While it is our job to make it palatable to people, as well as accessible to them. Indeed we need to prepare it well, so that it is ready for one to devour it. And we are also told that we need to serve it up, by setting it right in front of them.
And this is the lesson of the rabbis. Don’t think that you are going to get off easy teaching this Torah to people, just tossing the basic ingredients their way a few times and leaving them without instructions. Expecting them to make it and eat on their own; and indifferent to if they don’t or cannot. Instead we need to humble ourselves in order to cater to the needs of those who are spiritually starving, so that they can begin to appreciate and learn how to partake of it for themselves.
This may sound like a lot of work and dedication. However, for those of us who are truly passionate about the Torah we aught to be nearly as intentional and creative about what we are presenting to people, as a chef is about setting the table for his fine food. Even explaining what makes this table fare such a wonderful treat for each to enjoy!
We need to present the Torah in a way which is palatable, indeed we need to make it appetizing for our people and children. And it must be something finely prepared for each person to immediately partake of, presented in a way which is easily digestible (no puns intended; but all puns appreciated).
Here our rabbis are making a very vivid illustration of how we are to present the Torah to people. Of how we have to get people to take the chance to taste and see that G-d’s Torah is good (Psalm 34:8). To readily eat from it and be nourished with holy inspiration.
Something to consider: In the year 1563 the Sephardic master Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Maran) codified the rules of Jewish law; calling the work the Shulchan Aruch – “the set-table.” It then inspired a work of glosses which were added to it, by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema), regarding the Ashkenazi customs for applying Jewish law; which became know as the mappa – “the table clothe.” This body of work has together become popularly known as the “code of Jewish law,” which religious Jews turn to for rulings of Jewish law.
These works tell us how to apply Jewish law for each matter, according to both customs, in a concise fashion. Listing each law, so that people don’t have to go hunting through the Talmud to know the halacha (law).
This form of codification has taken a huge role in defining Jewish law ever since. While this form of comprehensive listing of laws has certainly helped people quickly find answers, some rabbis suggest that too much emphasis upon these codes actually strangles halachic invitation and flexibility. [See: “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity” by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. As well this fine tradition response: “Against the Shulchan Aruch: The Critique of the Maharshal” by Shlomo Brody]
I’m not so sure how I feel about this entirely, but am intrigued by this discussion. How do you feel about this?
Nonetheless, I do personally think that it can most correctly be asserted that merely giving religious people something like a little Kitzur Shulchan Aruch – a further abridged form of a standardized book of rules – and then expecting people to get something out of these mitzvot is not what our sages had in mind; that was not really their intention for how we are to be laying out these Torah ordinances before our people.