Parshat Mishpatim (5779)
Larry Herman Davar Torah, February 2, 2019
God is in the Details
|And he who kidnaps a man and sells him, or he is found in his hands, is doomed to die.||
וְגֹנֵ֨ב אִ֧ישׁ וּמְכָר֛וֹ וְנִמְצָ֥א בְיָד֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:
Mishpatim, Chapter 21, verse 16.
Once again I dedicate this davar Torah to the humanitarian, Dr. Ken Elliot, who was abducted by al-Qaida linked jihadists in northern Burkina Faso in January 2016 and remains captive, now for more than 3 years. Ken is in his eighties and one wonders how much longer he can survive. A deeply religious man and a physician, he dedicated his entire adult life to providing health care to one of the poorest regions in the world. Ken and his wife Jocelyn regularly hosted Diane and me in 1970s during our travels to northern Upper Volta as it was then called. He deserves to be freed and united with his family. May the day come soon.
Sometimes things take a turn in a direction you just don’t expect. Like opening up your Facebook and finding that your Rabbi has stolen your thunder. Well, it’s not all bad. If you’ve already read Rabbi Kligfeld’s parsha drash in the bulletin, go ahead and take your nap. On the other hand, maybe I have a slightly different take on the question of Rashi’s explanation of the vav in וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ at the beginning of this week’s parsha.
Rashi along with many other commentators wanted to link the lengthy list of laws and ordinances that occupies the majority of this week’s parsha to the dramatic revelation at Sinai that concludes last week’s parsha, Yitro. In brief, and perhaps not entirely fairly, the problem is to ensure that we recognize that these mishpatim were also given at Sinai and have the same status as the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments
As Rabbi Kligfeld explains, Rashi manages this by explaining that the vav in וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ connects the following verses with what came before, or as Rabbi Kligfeld writes “and these things, as well!”
Not to quibble with either Rashi or Rabbi Kligfeld, but I think that this explanation is somewhat problematic, because of what came directly before the וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ that begins this week’s parsha. In the text it was not the Aseret Hadibrot, as I’ll explain. But I do agree with their conclusion about the status of the 99 verses of Mishpatim in this week’s parsha, just not with how they both got there. Allow me to explain it my way.
Here we are, in the middle of a great long-arcing story. Five weeks of serial narrative that makes us thirst for more each week. Tons of drama and suspense. Fabulous description and grand themes. When suddenly, without the slightest hint or warning, we encounter a parsha that switches from narrative to code, from engrossing thriller to mostly detailed legislation.
But does it really?
It reminds me of two literary experiences. I remember reading Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s American classic about the sailor Ishmael’s description of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the great white whale, where the captivating narrative is interrupted by extended passages describing the minutia of cetacean taxonomy and whale boat construction.
Or Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, where Jack Ryan is chasing terrorists who are about to detonate a nuclear bomb when on page 615 Clancy launches into a very lengthy detailed description of exactly what happens in a nuclear warhead in the several nanoseconds that it takes for the warhead to actually explode.
Both Melville and Clancy go on for pages, thousands or tens of thousands of words interrupting their narrative. The reading can be a tough slog instead of an enjoyable long-distance sprint. One is tempted to skim or skip. But the intrusions are important parts of the story and if you read them as such, they are as thrilling as the narrative. Melville and Clancy resume their tales and your appreciation for what comes next is enhanced by their detour into the science and technology that are an intrinsic part of the story.
I think that the same can be said for the three full chapters and 99 verses of our parsha which appear to interrupt the text and suddenly and without warning thrust us into a rather dry and seemingly disorganized hodgepodge of rules and laws that Moses is instructed to set before the people. But to understand it as such, I think that we have to slightly rearrange the narrative.
In the handout that I’ve prepared, I’ve summarized the story of revelation in 15 scenes, beginning with Chapter 19 in parshat Yitro through to the end of our parsha. I’ve tried to pay special attention to Moses’ comings and goings, since I think that that’s one of the give-aways that the story is written out of order. One side of the page shows the order as it appears in the Torah and the other the order that makes logical sense to me, and in the process, solves the וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ problem.
To explain, let me review succinctly, in my own way, the narrative to this point starting from just after Moses’ father-in-law has helped him establish an administrative structure for governance. Note that at this point there is administration without established law.
In Scene 1 the Israelites come to the wilderness of Sinai and camp against the famous mountain, where all the subsequent action will take place. In Scene 2 Moses goes up the mountain for the first time. God instructs Moses to offer the people a deal: heed my voice and keep my covenant … [and] you will become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (19:5-6). Who could refuse such a good offer?
In Scene 3 Moses descends, calls the elders and puts the offer before them (וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם) at which point “all the people answered together, כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה נַֽעֲשֶׂ֑ה, everything that Adonai has spoken we shall do (19:8). Both of these formulations are repeated in parshat Mishpatim.
In Scene 4 Moses brings the people’s words to God (2nd going up), but before he can tell Him, God speaks first saying, Look, I am about to come to you in the utmost cloud, so that the people may hear as I speak to you, and you as well as they will trust for all time.
Only then does Moses give the Lord that the people have already agreed. The deal is done so God gives Moses the instructions of how everyone is to prepare, including the warning against the people going up or touching the mountain.
In Scene 5 Moses comes down the mountain and prepares the people.
In Scene 6 the show begins, starting with verse 16: thunder, lightning, clouds, smoke and shofar blasts as the people advance to the base of the mountain as instructed. At that point there’s a peculiar statement:
|Moses would speak and God would answer him with voice.||
משֶׁ֣ה יְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים יַֽעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל:
Is this what God meant by so that the people may hear as I speak to you? Remember, Moses had not yet gone back up the mountain, he was with the people where they could hear him and God in the midst of all the tumult.
Up to now, I haven’t rearranged a thing. But in Scene 7 in the text Moses goes up for the third time, at which point God tells him to go back down and warn the people not to come too close. Moses tells God to chill, he’s already warned them as instructed. But God finds another reason for Moses to hike down the mountain, this time to bring Aaron, and to remind the people and priests anyway. So in Scene 8 Moses heads down the mountain and speaks to the people.
But why did Moses have to go up the Mountain a third time in the midst of the dazzling display?
Scene 9 in the text is the beginning of Chapter 20. Remember, Moses is down with the people. God speaks the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments in verses 1 through 14. But to whom is God speaking? Didn’t he just tell Moses to come back up with Aaron? There’s no specific record of exactly who heard what God was saying.
Scene 10 in verses, 15-18 is usually understood to be the people’s response to having heard the Aseret Hadibrot and witnessing all the pyrotechnics. They beg Moses to intercede for them and he agrees, calming them. Then Moses goes up for the fourth time.
In Scene 11 God tells Moses to tell the Israelites
|You yourselves saw that from the heavens I spoke with all of you||
אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם כִּ֚י מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי עִמָּכֶֽם
This is the only hint that the people may actually heard the Aseret Hadibrot even though the text clearly says that the people saw that God spoke to them, not that they heard him speak to them. Couldn’t He be referring to the previous unspecified conversation with Moses when he was with the people?
Continuing Scene 11 in the very last bit of Yitro, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites regarding not making gods of silver or gold, to make earthen alters on which to sacrifice, that if they do make alters from stone that they should not be hewn by sword, and that they should not expose themselves when they go up upon the alter. This placement is very peculiar. Especially since it is immediately followed by Rashi’s famous וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ introducing this week’s parsha. In other words, Rashi is connecting the 99 verses of laws and ordinances in Mishpatim to a prohibition against exposing oneself when mounting the alter, or more generously, to the specific requirements for construction of an altar.
But this is not what Rashi or Rabbi Kligfeld or the other commentators really want to do. They want to connect the Mishpatim to the Aseret Hadibrot.
And that’s exactly what I want to do by switching the chronology of what happened.
Say that upon experiencing all of the thunder, lightning, smoke and shofar blasts in Scene 6, the people ask Moses to intercede for them prior to hearing the Ten Commandments. In other words, Scene 10 follows Scene 6. Then Moses goes up and approaches the cloud and is instructed to warn the people not to get too close and for Moses to bring Aaron back up with him (the original Scene 7).
At this point, Moses descends and tells the people, i.e., Scene 8.
But now we have to jump to a scene at the end of our parsha in Chapter 24, Scene 13 in the original which reminds us that God had instructed Moses to ascend with Aaron, this time adding also Nadav, Avihu and the 70 elders. They all go up but only Moses approaches the Lord.
Only now in the rearranged order do we get to Scene 9, the first part of Chapter 20, with God speaking directly to Moses, starting with
|God spoke all these d’varim||
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה:
Followed by the Aseret Hadibrot.
What comes next, without interruption is Scene 12, the beginning and major part of our parsha, with God still speaking to Moses, starting with,
|And these are the mishpatim that you shall set before them.||
וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם:
It makes perfect sense, God first transmits the main principles of faith and over-arching moral precepts contained in the Ten Commandments and follows this up with the details. Both are given at the same moment. The narrative is not interrupted by our parsha. Rather all of the law, devarim and mishpatim are transmitted without interruption to Moses who in turn, and as agreed by the people themselves, will transmit them to the people.
And what of Scene 11 in the original, this somewhat strange and strangely placed passage which in the original interrupts the Aseret Hadibrot and mishpatim? It now makes perfect sense, having given Moses the entire law in two parts, he instructs Moses to tell the people that they have seen that he spoke (which they did, it just wasn’t the Aseret Hadibrot) so they can rely on Moses’ report.
And now the instructions regarding the alter makes sense because it is required for the ceremony where the full covenant is ratified by the people.
In the penultimate Scene 14, Moses finally comes down. And what does he tell the people?
|And Moses came and recounted to the people all the “divrei Adonai” and all the “mishpatim ”||
וַיָּבֹ֣א משֶׁ֗ה וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר לָעָם֙ אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים
Moses transmits to the people both the Ten Commandments and the Mishpatim, one following the other, just as he heard it directly from God. Rashi’s vav in וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ makes perfect sense. First the Aseret Hadibrot and these Mishpatim as well.
Both the main principles of faith and the detailed laws originated from Sinai and have equal importance.
They are as an intrinsic part of our narrative as Melville’s whale taxonomy and Clancy’s nuclear fission description.
Except in our case, it’s God that’s in the details.