The Second Revelation

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT MISHPATIM

 

The Second Revelation

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            Last week, we read about the Revelation at Sinai.  Less than two short months after the Exodus, God gathered the people of Israel at the base of the mountain and in a fiery and overwhelming display, proclaimed His Ten Utterances.  How quickly had the fortunes of Israel been transformed!  A short time earlier, they had been Pharaoh's downtrodden slaves, their broken bodies performing ceaseless labor and their numb minds occupied with only a single, crude thought: to complete their daily tally of mud bricks.  Suddenly and unexpectedly liberated, they now stood attentive at the desolate mountain's base as they struggled to internalize the shattering message that human conscience has value and that autonomous human beings must engender the exercise of their moral will.  Henceforth, human life would have meaning, purpose and inestimable worth, while human labor – now freed from the oppressive shackles of unjust slavery – would be invested with dignity.  But little did the people of Israel realize that God's brief proclamation of the Decalogue was only the precursor to grander things: a comprehensive code of laws and rituals that would touch upon every aspect of their existence, namely the Parasha of Mishpatim.

 

            This week's Parasha constitutes one of the Torah's most comprehensive treatments of the laws.  While it cannot be said to be exhaustive, its variegated legislation relates to every facet of human existence.  It delineates the parameters of our relationship with others – their person as well as their property – while not ignoring our relationship with God as well.  It discusses laws of indenture, torts, deposits and loans, sexual misdemeanors, as well as treatment of the convert, widow and orphan, presentation of sacrifices and celebration of the pilgrim festivals.  In short, Parashat Mishpatim presents us with the daunting challenge of building a just and kind society, a society in which the responsibilities of the individual towards his neighbor as well as towards his God are regarded with equal gravity and fulfilled with comparable enthusiasm. 

 

THE RAMBAN'S LINKAGE

 

            Alerting us to the fundamental link between last week's Ten Utterances and this week's Laws, The Ramban introduces his commentary to the Parasha with the following synopsis: 

 

"And these are the laws which you shall place before them" – the Divine intent was to present the people with these laws immediately after the Revelation at Sinai.  Recall that the first of the Ten Utterances concerned recognition of God and the second prohibited idolatry.  After that theophany had taken place, God reiterated these ideas:  'you yourselves saw that I spoke to you from heaven' (Shemot 20:19) parallels the First Utterance of 'I am the Lord.'  'You shall not fashion gods of silver or gold' (Shemot 20:20) recalls the Second Utterance that prohibited idolatry.  These laws about to now be presented continue the theme of 'Thou shall not covet.'  For if a person is ignorant concerning the laws of the house, the field, or other forms of property, he might imagine to himself that they are his, and then covet them and seize them.  Therefore, God commanded Moshe to place these laws before the people, so that they will behave with uprightness and not desire that which does not belong to them.  Similarly in the Midsrash Rabba it is stated: 'The entire Torah is predicated on justice, and therefore God presented these laws after the Revelation of the Ten Utterances.'  Thus, these laws that follow speak of the prohibition of idolatry, of the obligation to honor one's parents, and of the prohibition of murder and adultery, all of which are mentioned in the Ten Utterances.

 

Every thinking human being recognizes the necessity of laws in order to govern and to regulate social intercourse.  Laws ensure that our innate drives for possession and power are held in check, deterring us from otherwise exercising our often unbridled and selfish passions. Laws secure peoples' bodies and things from being seized or stolen by others, providing us with the peace of mind that our labors and our lives are not exercises in futility.  Laws provide a mechanism for restitution when damages, intentional or inadvertent, have been inflicted on one's fellow, ensuring that a person's rights to the well-being of his body and to the safety of his belongings are respected.  Occasionally, laws may even inspire us to greater achievements, by reminding us that justice and concern for others, the hallmarks of altruism, are at the foundations of a model society.  In short, laws are the absolute antithesis of the brick pits, where human lives are worthless, the products of one's labors are cruelly appropriated, and concern for the welfare of others is suicidal. 

 

            But while The Ten Utterances are universally regarded as fundamental principles, the Ramban pointedly informs us that they are insufficient, in and of themselves, to create a moral and law-abiding society.  "Thou shall not covet" is an upright and virtuous injunction, a majestic vision expressed with a remarkable economy of words, but in the absence of practical and detailed guidelines that spell out its parameters, it remains an exalted slogan with little hope of realization.  Accordingly, fast on the heels of the Ten Guiding Principles presented in last week's Parasha, the Torah presents the Law Code of Parashat Mishpatim, a series of statutes that forms its natural continuation.

 

ANOTHER REVELATION

 

            In another conscious evocation of last week's theophany, Parashat Mishpatim also concludes with God's revelation to the people.  After Moshe has spelled out the laws he solemnly concludes a covenant with Israel to observe them.  The people proclaim their fealty by declaring "all that God has spoken we shall do!" (Shemot 24:3) much as they had done on the eve of the revelation (Shemot 19:8), and Moshe then duly records God's words in writing.  On the morrow, Moshe builds an altar at the feet of the mountain and erects twelve pillars of stone on behalf of the tribes.  The lads of Israel offer sacrifices and Moshe then sprinkles half of the sacrificial blood upon the altar.  Once again, Moshe relates God's laws – this time reading them from "the Book of the Covenant" – and the people unanimously accept.  Moshe now takes the other half of the sacrificial blood and sprinkles it upon Israel to signify their approval of the covenant's provisions.  Finally, Moshe and the elders – Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and seventy leaders of the people – ascend the mountain, much as Moshe had initially gone up on the eve of the Revelation:

 

They saw the Lord of Israel.  Under His feet was the likeness of the whiteness (literally "livnat") of sapphire, as pure as the essence of the clear skies.  He did not unleash His power against the elders of Israel, and they ate and they drank (Shemot 24:9-10).

 

            The above passage is quite obviously figurative and the commentaries justifiably set out to lessen its anthropomorphic character.  The Aramaic Targum of Onkelos (1st century CE Israel) adopts a reading that is followed by most of the later commentators, understanding the experience of the elders to have been a spiritual vision of the glory ("They saw the Lord of Israel") that is associated with God's presence, here signified by the symbol of His throne ("Under His feet was the likeness of the whiteness (?) of sapphire, as pure as the essence of the clear skies").  As the Ibn Ezra amplifies:

 

The meaning of "under His feet was the likeness of solid sapphire" is that it is just like "the appearance of sapphire stone" (Yechezkel 1:26) that Yechezkel saw in his prophetic visions, namely the likeness of a throne.  As for "pure as the essence of the clear skies," that means underneath the likeness of the solid sapphire and it refers to the firmament that was like the color of ice outspread over the heads of the angelic beings that Yechezkel saw (1:22).  Here it is written that "they saw the Lord of Israel" and there it is written that "it was the angelic being that I saw beneath the Lord of Israel" (10:20), for the prophet spoke tersely.  Really he meant the angelic being beneath the firmament that is below the throne, with all of it beneath the Glorious God (commentary to Shemot 24:10).

 

Clearly, Ibn Ezra seeks to lessen the anthropomorphic tone of the passage by relating it to the ecstatic visions of the prophet Yechezkel.  Yechezkel, who lived at the end of the First Temple period (6th century, BCE), recorded a number of his mystical visions, in which he saw the God of Israel, His awesome throne and His overwhelming heavenly retinue.  These visions were of course not at all literal but only spiritual perceptions in the prophet's mind communicated to him through the vehicle of God's inspiration.  Ibn Ezra detects similar elements of those visions in the concluding sections of our Parasha, and thus relates the experience of the elders to those of Yechezkel.  In other words, the elders achieved a degree of prophecy that is described in our text as a "seeing the Lord of Israel and His sapphire throne." 

 

RASHI'S READING AND CHIZKUNI'S AMPLIFICATION

 

Rashi, however, provides us with a more provocative reading, based upon a much earlier Midrash of the Rabbis:

 

The matter of the "livnat" of sapphire is that it was a brick that was before Him at the time of the oppression in order to recall the suffering of Israel, for they oppressed them in the matter of making bricks.  As for the "the essence of the clear skies" this refers to when the people were redeemed from bondage, for then there was light and joy before Him…(commentary to 24:10.  See also Midrash Vayikra Rabba 23:8).

 

Unlike Ibn Ezra who reads "livnat" as some sort of solid construction (from the verb "liVNot" or to build), or some of the other commentaries who associate it with a color (from "LaVaN" or white), Rashi connects the word with "leVeNaH" or brick.  He sees in the reference an echo of the servitude from which God had so recently freed His people, and he includes it in the visionary experience of the elders in order to emphasize to them (and to us) a fundamental tenet of the new post-Exodus order: God cares!  When the people suffered in Egypt, God was not deaf to their cries, and when they were in pain, He was with them.  In short, Rashi's reading emphasizes that even while enthroned in His glory, transcendent and immutable, God is not remote.  He is aware of our plight and close by.

 

It is, however, the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, 13th century, France) who completes Rashi's reading by offering us a more disturbing and no longer extant version of the Midrash:

 

Said Rabbi Akiva: the servants of Pharaoh would pressure and strike the Israelites so that they would make more than their quota of bricks…but the Egyptians would not provide them with straw so that they would have to gather the stubble in the wilderness.  That stubble, though, was full of thorns and thistles so that their heels would be wounded when gathering it.  Their blood would flow and mix with the mud.  Rachel, who was the granddaughter of Metushelach, was pregnant and due to give birth but had to continue with her husband treading out the clay to make bricks.  The child was born while she was treading and became encased in the brick mold.  She cried out for her newborn and her cries ascended to the throne of glory.  The archangel Michael then descended and took the clay, bringing it to the throne of glory and fashioning it into a brick.  This brick was placed by the feet of the Holy One Blessed be He, as the verse states "and by His feet was the likeness of a brick of sapphire."  Read not "sapphire" ("SaPiR") but rather "afterbirth" ("SHaFiR"), that is to say a brick that was fashioned from the afterbirth of that mother…

 

In the version of Chizkuni, the brick placed before the throne of God was not only a reminder of the oppression but the final resting place of a newborn child, pathetically born by his exhausted mother, with his father present but unable to stop the brutality, and then summarily condemned to perish in the brick pits without mercy!  The horror of the imagery is palpable, but we know from our collective experience as a people that such outrages were actual and real, whether in Egypt or else during our other exiles.  Most remarkably, this Midrash seeks to link together a most exalted moment of spiritual ecstasy with a most pathetic and abysmal moment of powerlessness and misery, thus highlighting the uniqueness of the God encounter.  Evil while the Pharaoh reveled in such brutal excesses, the God of Israel grieve, even while the Egyptians looked on with studied indifference, the God of Israel was aware and concerned, even while the taskmasters pressed on with undisguised malice and unbridled cruelty, the God of Israel resolved to punish the perpetrators and to rescue his people from bondage. 

 

In other words, one might say that this Midrashic conclusion to Parashat Mishpatim, the vision of the God of Israel, His awesome throne, and the pathetic brick that is placed opposite it as a memorial, constitutes a profound insight on the nature of God's laws and His love.  At the Exodus, God proclaimed that slavery is wrong and that those who practice oppression will be held accountable.  At Sinai, He declared His Decalogue, enunciating principles that are cited as the foundation of all functioning societies.  But in Parashat Mishpatim, God transformed those principles into a system of law that alone could ennoble human existence by reminding us at every possible moment that human life is inviolate and that respect for others and for their possessions is a sacred duty.

 

Shabbat Shalom