24 January 2014

Parshat Mishpatim 5774

23 Shevat 5774
Erev Shabbat Kodesh

Parashat Mishpatim: By justice we inherit the Land of Israel
by Daniel Pinner

Dedicated to the memory of my uncle Alfred Tropp (Avraham ben Shmuel ve-Sarah) z”l, born 9thTammuz 5678 (19th June 1918), who passed away in his sleep last week on Tuesday 13th Sh’vat (14th January), a true mensch. Yehi zichro baruch.

The Midrash ha-Chefetz begins its commentary on Parashat Mishpatim with an exposition on the Jewish concept of mishpat (justice): “Scripture says about justice, ‘Hashem, Master of Legions, will become exalted through justice’ (Isaiah 5:16). Great is justice, which He gave only to Israel who are especially beloved by Him, as it says ‘He tells His word to Jacob, His laws and Hisjustice to Israel (Psalms 147:9). Great is justice, which hastens the redemption, as it says ‘Preserve justice and carry out righteousness, because My salvation is soon to come and My righteousness to be revealed’ (Isaiah 56:1). Great is justice, for which the mashiach is praised, as it says ‘he will judge the destitute with righteousness’ (Isaiah 11:4)”.

The halachic codifiers enumerate 44 mitzvot (17 positive and 27 negative) in Parashat Mishpatim; it actually contains far more, but many of these also appear in other places in the Torah, and are therefore not counted here. Many of these are ordinary work-a-day laws, mundane rules which do not appear to be particularly inspiring: how to treat a slave; how to judge murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and assault and battery; how to deal with an ox (and by extension any animal) which kills someone, and under what circumstances the animal’s owner is responsible; the responsibility of a shepherd or herder for damage caused by his flock or herd to someone else’s field; the prohibition against giving or accepting bribery; and so forth.

For sure, these are all essential to the orderly running of society – but they don’t sound particularly exciting. Certainly not the stuff that epic movies are made of.

Yet the Midrash ha-Chefetz tells us that it is these humdrum laws of justice which exalt God Himself and which hasten the redemption. It is these pedestrian and prosaic rules for which the mashiach is praised.

Commensurate with this, the Midrash Lekach Tov opens its discourse on Parashat Mishpatim by citing the prophet’s words, “Hate evil and love good, and at the gate establish justice – then perhaps Hashem, Master of Legions will show favour to the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

The Lekach Tov continues: “Praised is the Name of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, that He created His world with justice, and built the foundations of the world on justice, and established His Throne with justice. He judges all and judges alone… And he commanded His servants to judge in righteousness… ‘Hate evil and love good, and at the gate establish justice’ teaches us that one who judges righteously is called good, while one who perverts justice is called bad. ‘Judge in your gates with truth, justice and peace’ (Zechariah 8:16) teaches that the prophets warned Israel about judges… None of the prophets added anything to…or took anything away from the Torah which Hashem our God gave us by the hand of Moshe our Master, and indeed the final prophecy ever was, ‘Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant…’ (Malachi 3:22)”.

This series of day-to-day demands of justice may seem like an anti-climax after the magnificent, awe-inspiring, unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated Revelation at Mount Sinai just a few chapters earlier, but it is these that mould our character and our destiny. Neither an individual nor a nation is transformed by a single event, no matter how inspiring. Rather, the individual, like society, becomes holy through mundane, routine actions.

And it is in the merit of justice that we inherit the Land of Israel. As Moshe would tell us forty years later, in his final days: “So now, O Israel, hear the laws and the judgements which I teach you today to do, so that you will live and you will come and inherit the Land which Hashem, God of your fathers, gives you” (Deuteronomy 4:1). And again: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and you will inherit the Land which Hashem your God gives you” (ibid.16:20), on which the Midrash says: “If you pursue justice, you will live and inherit the Land; and if not, you will not inherit it” (Tanhuma, Shoftim 8).

It is no coincidence that in the late Second Temple period, when Hazal divided up the Torah into the 54 parashot with which are so familiar today, they decreed that this parashah, beginning with “mishpatim” (“judgements”), would conclude with the introduction to the journey to Israel (Exodus 23:20-24), the blessings of living in Israel (vs.25-30), the borders of Israel and the warning against making covenants with the idolatrous inhabitants of the Land (vs. 31-33), and finally the public ratification of the Covenant between God and Israel and the leaders of Israel – Moshe, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders – ascending Mount Sinai (chapter 24).

The introduction to the journey to Israel begins with God announcing: “Behold! – I send an angel ahead of you to protect you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20).

Who was this angel? – The Midrash Lekach Tov states that “he is not the angel whom the Torah mentioned earlier, ‘The angel of God who had been travelling in front of the camp’ (Exodus 14:19); rather the angel of whom God said ‘Behold! – I send an angel ahead of you’ is a different angel. ‘To protect you on the way’ – this is the angel Michael who is appointed over Israel; it is he who came in the days of Joshua, as he said ‘I am the Commander of the Army of Hashem, now I have come’ (Joshua 5:14), and it is also written ‘only Michael is your [angelic] Commander’ (Daniel 10:21). And it is he who will come in the future, as it is said ‘At that time Michael, the great Commander who stands up for the sons of your nation, will arise’ (Daniel 12:1)”.

The Midrash Rabbah adds a further insight into this angel’s mission: “‘Behold! – I send an angel’ – God said to Moshe: He who protected the fathers is the one who will protect the children. Thus you find that when Abraham blessed his son Isaac, he said to him: ‘Hashem, God of Heaven…He will send His angel in front of you’ (Genesis 24:7). And what did Jacob our father say to his children? – ‘The angel who redeemed me from all evil will bless the lads’ (Genesis 48:16)… God said to Moshe: Now, too, he who protected the fathers will protect the children, as He said ‘Behold! – I send an angel ahead of you to protect you’… And so too in the future time yet to come, when he [the angel] will be revealed then the redemption will come upon Israel, as it says ‘Behold! – I send My messenger, who will clear the way in front of Me’ (Malachi 3:1)” (Sh’mot Rabbah 32:9).

So the Midrash ha-Chefetz and Midrash Lekach Tov (cited above) both link the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim – the regular day-to-day running of society according to the principles of justice – with the final redemption, just as the Midrash Lekach Tov and Midrash Rabbah link the angel who appears towards the end of Parashat Mishpatim with the final redemption.

It is deeply significant that both cite the prophet Malachi. The Midrash Lekach Tov quotes the final prophecy ever, “Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant…”, the prophecy which sealed all prophecies for all time; Sh’mot Rabbah quotes God’s promise through Malachi, “Behold! – I send My messenger, who will clear the way in front of Me”.

Malachi was the final prophet ever. When the First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians, the gift of prophecy departed from the world (Bava Batra 12b). Even though, as Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi notes (Kuzari 3:39 and 3:65), prophecy continued for the first forty years of the Second Temple, the only prophets then were “the elders who had been infused with the power of the Shechinah [the Divine Presence] that existed during the First Temple. But the prophecy which was thus acquired departed when the Shechinah departed” (Kuzari 3:65).

Malachi was one of those elders, born while King Solomon’s Temple still stood in its glory, infused with the power of the Shechinah, and who still lived into the Second Temple era.

So when Malachi delivered his last prophecy, he sealed prophecy for all time: the only prophets who arose after Malachi were false prophets. So Malachi’s final prophecy was God’s farewell parting to His nation, the final message He would ever give us. And as we would expect, Malachi’s final prophecy was God’s promise that He would one day, at the time of redemption, restore this most intimate connexion between Israel and God: “Behold! – I send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome Day of Hashem” (Malachi 3:23).

And significantly, Malachi uses the identical words to herald the coming of Elijah that God had used a millennium earlier: “Hinei Anokhi shole’ach – Behold! – I send an angel ahead of you to protect you on the way”, and “Hinei Anokhi shole’ach – Behold! – I send you Elijah the prophet”. It is surely no coincidence that Elijah, the last prophet, echoed the words of God as He set us on our way out of Egypt towards Israel.

The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) reinforces the connexion between the angel who led us through the Sinai Desert and the final redemption: “‘Behold! – I send an angel’ – the meaning is that this angel is the angel who had redeemed the Patriarchs [compare Sh’mot Rabbah cited above], not one of the ministering angels, but rather a great angel…for we know no intermediary angel other than this one, and the power of God’s Shechinah is unified with him, as implied by ‘Hashem is One and His Name is One’ (Zechariah 14:9)” (Ohr ha-Chayim, Commentary to Exodus 23:20).

Like the Midrash Lekach Tov (cited above) in the context of justice with which Parashat Mishpatim begins, the Ohr ha-Chayim, in the context of the angel who was to lead us, also cited Zechariah’s prophecy of the messianic era.

Simple justice; treating everyone – even a slave – fairly; bringing criminals to justice; not taunting or oppressing a convert; not charging interest on a monetary loan to a fellow-Jew; returning a lost animal to its owner – these may not seem very exciting, there is nothing here to set the pulse racing in a frenzy of passion, this is nothing ike the exhilarating experience of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, neither does it have the same exalted inspiration as being led by one of the greatest angels.

But both lead us to the Land of Israel: the one by our human efforts, the other by Divine agency; the one through ordinary everyday justice, the other by startling miracles. And both bring us into the era of mashiach.

~Shabbat shalom

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