Friday, February 9, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim: Relationship

A Message for Parashat Mishpatim 2018
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Following an elaborate list of laws in Parashat Mishpatim, God informed Am Yisrael of His future plans. He told them:
Look, I am about to send a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I made ready. Watch yourself with him and heed his voice, do not defy him, for he will not pardon your trespass, for My name is within Him… (Shemot 23:20-21)
The Hakhamim sensed a negative motivation in this change. They noticed an implied shift from God’s direct leadership of the nation to the guidance of a “messenger,” or “angel,” in his place.[1] What was the cause of this change? Am Yisrael seemed dedicated to missvot ha-Torah with their famous exclamation that, “Everything that God has spoken we shall do” (19:8). And that impressive response was mentioned again at the end of Parashat Mishpatim (24:7). What, then, caused the rift in their relationship with God?

In the days and hours leading up to Matan Torah, God repeatedly commanded Moshe to caution the people from stepping onto Har Sinai. Fearing that the awe-inspiring experience would drive them to trespass the boundaries of the mountain, God time and again warned of its potentially fatal consequences. As the ceremony progressed, the people obediently listened to the Ten Commandments, but their reaction was entirely different than expected:
And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the shofar and the mountain in smoke, and the people saw and they drew back and stood at a distance. And they said to Moshe, “Speak you with us that we may hear, and let not God speak with us lest we die.” (20:18-19)
Contrary to the fear that they might race forward in an attempt to “cling” to God, the people instead turned away from the mountain in fear! They readily accepted God’s laws, but hastily dismissed the potential of a relationship.

I am reminded in this context of an anecdote regarding R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l. At the onset of a summer several decades ago, R. Soloveitchik decided to break from his regular schedule of strict Talmudic instruction, to introduce his students to the world of Hasidic thought and philosophy. He began teaching Likutei Torah, a compilation of Hasidic treatises by the first Habad Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Shortly after beginning, however, R. Soloveitchik unexpectedly cancelled the classes. Asked why he had changed his plans, the rabbi explained that he had sensed his students’ disinterest in the material. He sadly remarked, “They are only interested in the contents of my mind, but not of those in my heart.[2]

On another occasion, R. Soloveitchik bemoaned the delinquent “shomrei Shabbat of America.” He explained:
There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are not “eve-of-the-Shabbat” Jews who go out to greet the Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few, indeed, who truly know the meaning of service of the heart![3]
Reading in between the lines of the Torah, I sense a similar reality regarding Am Yisrael’s spiritual state at Ma’amad Har Sinai. The people excitedly accepted the missvot ha-Torah with a definitive declaration of “We shall do!” And although they were in fact committed with their minds and bodies to the words of God, they lacked the passion and commitment of their heart. Fearing a deeper connection to God, they instead turned to Moshe for guidance and instruction.

God’s decision to send a messenger in His place, then, matched the people’s approach. Instead of seeking out a relationship with Him, Am Yisrael simply wanted a competent messenger to relay His laws. And that was exactly what they got.

The positioning of God’s messenger in relation to the nation is reminiscent of an earlier occurrence, which took place directly prior to crossing Yam Suf:
And the messenger of God that was going before the camp of Yisrael moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. (14:19)
In contrast to the previous accompaniment “from behind” the people, however, the messenger had now shifted to “the front” of their march. I believe that this change was similarly motivated by the deficient spiritual state of Am Yisrael at that time. Consider, for example, the Hakhamim’s well-known contrast of Noah to Avraham:
“Noah walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9). And regarding Avraham it says, “Walk before Me” (Bereshit 17:1). Noah needed support to bear him up, but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness.[4]
By contrasting these two figures to each other, the Hakhamim highlighted Noah’s failure to independently locate and act upon his admirable traits. They realized that his inability to “walk before God” indicated a deficient relationship with Him. Am Yisrael’s spiritual status at the time of Matan Torah resembled that of Noah. Although they were committed to God in thought and action, they lacked the depth of an emotional relationship. Realizing that the people were not yet prepared to “walk in front of Him,” God sent a law-teaching messenger “before them.”

Our own exclamations of “Everything that God has spoken we shall do,” is commendable. It represents our commitment to His word and commands. We must be cautious, however, to understand it as a mere stride on the journey. It begins our walk “behind His messenger,” but must proceed to the march “in front of Him.” Our commitment to God through thought and action are not a means in themselves, but rather the stepping stone into a relationship with Him that is bonded by our hearts.

If a man studies Torah in order to know, to feel, to live – then for him Torah study is not simply an intellectual accomplishment, but a many-faceted undertaking, rich in spiritual and psychological meanings.
(R. Joseph B. Solovetichik)[5]

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 23:20 s.v. hineh.
[2] As related by R. Herschel Schachter, Nefesh HaRav (Brooklyn, NY, 1994), pg. 39 fn. 5.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 32 fn. 1.
[4] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 6:9 s.v. et.
[5] On Repentance, pg. 76.