Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thoughts on Mishpatim

Recently I have almost stopped writing posts on parshat hashavua. This is largely a result of my decision (which I don't regret) to learn the Ramban's commentary on the parsha each week this year. This has impacted my posting in three ways:

1) It takes a really long time and I have no time left to just think about things in the parsha.
2) The mikraot gedolot I use has maybe two lines of Torah per page - the rest is commentaries - so it's hard to compare verses or see the overall progression of a passage.
3) I find that many of my ideas were already said by the Ramban, and in some cases, he says things that prove my ideas wrong. I don't plan on deleting my posts from past years that are superseded by the Ramban, but there is no reason to write new posts like that.

With that introduction, I bring you two thoughts on Mishpatim, each of which is mostly based on the Ramban's comments.

Now these are the laws which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew slave..." (21:1)

Are the many, diverse laws in this parsha in any sort of order? One possible order would be to start with the most important and serious laws, then continue with successively less important laws until the least important law is reached. Excluding the initial laws of slavery, the parsha does seem to follow exactly that pattern: murder first, then several other crimes that incur the death penalty, then injuries to a person, then injuries to property. (This pattern exists all the way through verse 22:14 or maybe 22:16 - after that, we have a new section of "religious" rather than "interpersonal" laws which must be examined separately.)

Why then do the laws of slavery precede this highly ordered section of "interpersonal" laws? Two years ago I gave one possible explanation. Now I want to take a different, complementary approach.

In Vayikra 25:42 God once again prohibits lifetime slavery, saying: "For [the Jews] are My slaves, whom I took out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as [perpetual] slaves."

The implication is that slavery to God and to a person are mutually exclusive. One slave cannot have two masters. A person must choose where to place his loyalty: with God, or with a human being. Thus slavery for Jews cannot have the full implications of normal slavery: it must be limited in time and intensity, so that the slave continues to see himself as truly serving God. Thus, in parshat Mishpatim we find limits on the time and conditions for Jewish slaves.

(Note that this is completely distinct from humanitarian concerns one might have about slavery - which are the main purpose of certain other slavery laws, but are certainly not the only purpose here.

Why must these conditions be at the very beginning of the parsha? As just mentioned, a main purpose of these conditions is to ensure that one remains perpetually loyal to God rather than to a person. The entire parsha consists of commands which are binding because they come from God. Without the laws limiting slavery, one would not have the degree of permanent loyalty to God needed in order to accept the Torah as God's word.

Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. ... For My angel will go before you, and bring you to the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; and I will cut them off. (23:20-23)

According to God, this angel is supposed to guide the journey to Canaan and the conquest thereof. However, such an angel is never again mentioned in the Torah. In parshat Mishpatim it seems pretty significant, so why does it just disappear later on?

To answer this question, some note that "angel" also means "messenger" and say that the verse is speaking of Moshe, God's messenger to guide the people. There is some degree of difficulty in this explanation: 1) Moshe became leader long beforehand so why should God introduce him now, and 2) Yehoshua rather than Moshe actually guided the final entry into the land and the conquest.

Ramban has a much more elegant explanation. He says that the angel is indeed an real angel. Here, God promised that it would accompany the people. But later on in Shemot 33:16-17, Moshe successfully prayed that God Himself, rather than the angelic representative, would accompany the people. Apparently this request was granted for the duration of Moshe's lifetime. Thus throughout the 40-year journey, the angel did not appear.

But after Moshe's death the angel does appear. In Yehoshua 5:13-15, just as Yehoshua is preparing for the first conquest of Jericho, an angel introduces himself to Yehoshua as "Hashem's minister of war", and then departs. It is perplexing why the angel "says hello" and then leaves without doing or saying anything of consequence. But according to the Ramban, this is the same angel God initially promised to guide the entry to Canaan. Once God personally has distanced Himself from the people (in verse 5:12 the manna stopped falling), Yehoshua must be reminded that the angel from parshat Mishpatim is taking over, right where God left off.

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