The name of this week's parsha, Mishpatim, means "laws." It contains many civil and criminal laws that expand upon the laws given in the Ten Commandments. The parsha begins: "And these are the laws which you should place before them."
Why does G-d direct Moshe to place the laws "before" the Jewish people?
The Hebrew word lifnay means before, as "in an earlier time," as well as "in front of." HaRav Moshe Swift of blessed memory explains that Torah was placed before the Jewish people as an advance guard. The Torah predates man; it existed before G-d created man. Therefore, we have no right to decide for ourselves what is ethical, appropriate or just; G-d has already determined this. We must follow the laws, not just because they make sense to us intellectually and logically, but because G-d has legislated them.
Furthermore, the Torah is constantly in front of us as a guide as we go through life. It is in the forefront of our minds as we make decisions, conduct our business and our personal lives. In all of these situations, we are held to the standard of ethical conduct that G-d has set before us; we must follow His directives to navigate our way through the issues we confront daily at home, at work and along the way.
As parents, it is necessary for us to place these laws before our children. The foremost Torah commentator, Rashi, writes: "You should place [it] before them like a set table." HaRav haGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis explains. When we bring our children to the table, they see how beautifully it is set, and they notice the food that has been lovingly prepared especially for them. They cannot help being drawn to the table and tasting the food. Similarly, if we place the beautiful precepts of Torah before our children, the Torah teaching will reach their hearts.
HaRav Swift notes that in the same manner in which ordinary stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments have been consecrated, a table can become an altar, food can be elevated to a meal offering and a house can become a sanctuary. So, too, can children become holy by infusing them with Torah laws.