Half-Way Through the Book of Exodus

This parsha emphasizes the role of justice and worthy judges, an essential step towards Redemption.

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The Book of Exodus takes us from the Children of Israel at their lowest depth of all time, a nation of slaves, subjugated and persecuted by idolatrous Egypt, to being a free and proud nation, chosen by G-d to carry His message to humanity, possessors and custodians of G-d’s Torah, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) functioning and filled with the Glory of G-d. Along the way, the Book of Exodus relates the most magnificent events in all human history – the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Red Sea, and the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270), in his introduction to this Book, writes that “the Book of Exodus was dedicated to the topic of the first exile, which had been explicitly decreed , and to the redemption from it”.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) similarly begins his commentary to the Book of Exodus: “With this Book, the history of the Jews as a Nation starts. We are led out of the history of the individuals and families into that of a nation”. And he concludes his commentary to this Book: “With this acceptance of the Divine Torah in Israel’s midst as the highest supreme aim of the Jewish mission for all time, and with the visible entry of the Glory of G-d into the House which Israel had prepared for this Torah, the Book of the Redemption from Egypt comes to an end. It was the goal which G-d Himself had declared as the purpose of His work of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7”.

The Book of Exodus spans 1,209 verses, and the half-way verse, the heart of the Book of Exodus, falls in Parashat Mishpatim: “You shall not revile judges, neither shall you curse a chieftain of your nation” (Exodus 22:27). Many printed editions of the Torah include a Masoretic note pointing out that this verse is half-way through the Book of Exodus.

This verse is very ambiguous. The Torah forbids us here to revile “Elohim”, which we have translated as “judges”, following Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, S’forno, Ba’al ha-Turim, and others. According to this understanding, the word “Elohim” here does not refer to G-d; it denotes any figure of authority, real or perceived.

False gods, idols, are called “elohim acherim”; this is usually rendered “other gods”, but it would be more appropriate to translate it as “other powers”. “Elohim” refers not only to G-d, but also to other manifestations of mastery. Thus G-d told Moshe, “See – I have placed you as ‘Elohim’ to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1), which Targum Onkelos and the Tanhuma (Acharei Mot 8) interpret to mean “master”, Targum Yonatan renders “divinity” or “object of reverence”, Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (Bo, Massechta de-Pis’cha 1) understands to mean “judge”, Rashi explains to be “judge and harsh ruler”, and Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 6 and Ibn Ezra explain to be “the image of an angel”.

Similarly when Manoah and his wife (the future parents of Samson) saw and spoke to an angel, Manoah referred to the angel as “Elohim” (Judges 13:22) – a representative of G-d, not God Himself.

So returning to our verse in Parashat Mishpatim, when the Torah enjoins us not to revile “Elohim”, many commentators understand this to refer to judges.

However the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a, 66a) and the Midrash (Sifrei Va’etchanan 26:24) understand “Elohim” here to mean G-d Himself: “You shall not revile G-d…”.

Rashi (commentary to Exodus 22:27) synthesises these two understandings: “This is a warning against cursing Hashem, and a warning against cursing a judge”.

We noted above that the Ibn Ezra understands the word “Elohim” here to mean “judge”. He explains: “‘You shall not revile “Elohim”’ – these are the judges, and these are the Kohanim [Priests], descendants of Levi – and the Torah is with them”. The Ibn Ezra returns to this theme in his commentary to Psalms. “G-d is present in the Assembly of G-d, in the midst of ‘Elohim’ He judges” (Psalms 82:1), on which the Ibn Ezra writes: “‘In the midst of “Elohim” He judges’ – …meaning the same as ‘You shall not revile “Elohim”’; and the reason is that He is in their (the judges’) midst, and they have to guard against judging unfairly”.

The inference of all this is that the judges, who judge fairly in accordance with Torah, are G-d’s deputies here in this world. The vocation of true judges is to reflect G-d’s justice. Hence the Talmud says, “Every judge who judges true justice in its truth, even if for only a single hour – the Torah accounts it to him as though he had become G-d’s partner in Creation” (Shabbat 10a).

As such, reviling a judge is tantamount to reviling G-d Himself.

Justice is one of the pillars without which the world cannot endure. As Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “On three things the world endures: on truth, and on justice, and on peace, as it says, ‘Administer truth and judgement of peace within your gates’ (Zechariah 8:16)” (Pirkei Avot 1:18).

This statement (deliberately?) echoes the earlier statement of an earlier Shimon, Shimon Ha-Tzaddik (the Righteous): “On three things the world stands: on the Torah, and on worship, and on acts of loving-kindness” (Pirkei Avot 1:2).

Shimon Ha-Tzaddik was the last of the Men of the Great Assembly. He served as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) for 40 years (Yoma 9a), and during his time Alexander the Great conquered Israel. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel lived at the end of the Second Temple period, about 400 years later.

When Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel declaimed his aphorism, he must have had his earlier namesake’s aphorism in mind. And if so, then truth (in Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s saying) parallels Torah (in Shimon Ha-Tzaddik’s saying); justice parallels worship; and peace parallels acts of loving-kindness.

Rabbeinu Bechayye ben Asher (Spain, mid-13th century to 1340) in his encyclopaedic work Kad ha-Kemach (a collection of homilies on some 60 different topics), writes: “The entire Torah depends upon justice, which is why Parashat Mishpatim was declared to Moshe immediately after the Ten Commandments. The Sages said in the Midrash, ‘The [Giving of the] Torah has laws before it and laws after it – before it, as it says ‘There He set for them statute and judgement’ (Exodus 15:25), and after it as it says ‘And these are the judgements’ (Exodus 21:1)’ (Shemot Rabbah 30:3)” (Chapter 12, Laws).

Just as injustice caused our exile, so justice is essential for our redemption.

In a long discourse, the Talmud (Megillah 17b-18a) explains the logic of the sequence of the Blessings of the Amidah. The ninth Blessing, Birkat ha-Shanim (“Blessing for a Year of Prosperity”), requests abundant crops, followed by the tenth Blessing, Kibbutz Galuyot (“Ingathering of the Exiles”). The Talmud analyses: “Why did they mention the Ingathering of the Exiles after the Blessing for a Year of Prosperity? – Because it is written, ‘You, O mountains of Israel – you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My nation Israel, when they approach to come’ (Ezekiel 36:8)”.

This refers to the statement by Rabbi Abba: “There is no clearer sign of Redemption than this, as it is said ‘You, O mountains of Israel – you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My nation Israel, when they approach to come’” (Sanhedrin 98a).

The Talmud (Megillah ibid.) continues with its analysis of the Amidah. After the Blessing for Ingathering of the Exiles comes the eleventh Blessing, Din (“Restoration of Justice”): “When the exiles will have been ingathered, justice will be executed on the wicked”.

Then comes the twelfth Blessing, Birkat ha-Minim (“the Heretics’ Blessing”): “When justice will have been executed on the wicked, then the heretics and the wilful sinners among them will become extinct”.

Then comes the thirteenth Blessing, Tzaddikim (“the Righteous Ones”): “After the heretics will have become extinct, the tzaddikim will be exalted…and the righteous converts together with them”.

Then comes the fourteenth Blessing, Binyan Yerushalayim (“the Rebuilding of Jerusalem”): “Where will they [the tzaddikim] be exalted? – In Jerusalem, as it says ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem – may those who love you be at peace’ (Psalms 122:6)”.

Then comes the fifteenth Blessing, Malchut Beit David (“the Reign of the House of David”), “because after Jerusalem will have been rebuilt, David [i.e. Mashiach] will come, as it says ‘After that the Children of Israel will return and will seek out Hashem their God and David their king’ (Hosea 3:5)”.

Then comes the sixteenth Blessing, Kabbalat Tefillah (“Acceptance of Prayer”) – “because after David will have come, prayer will come, as it says ‘And I will bring them to My holy Mountain, and I will cause them to rejoice in My House of Prayer’ (Isaiah 56:7)”.

Then comes the seventeenth Blessing, Avodah (“Temple Service”) – “because after prayer will have come, Temple Service will come”.

The Talmud here gives a clear progression of the final Redemption. The first stage is that the Land of Israel becomes fruitful once again, followed by the Ingathering of the Exiles, followed by the restoration of justice. Just as justice was essential to the first redemption, the redemption from Egypt, so too is it essential to the final redemption, the redemption of our current generation.

Rabbeinu Bechayye concludes the chapter on Laws: “May G-d, blessed be He, restore our judges and counsellors to their former status, as he has promised us: ‘I will restore your judges as they were at the start, and your counsellors as they were at the beginning’ (Isaiah 1:26), and it is also written ‘Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those who return to her [will be redeemed] in righteousness’ (ibid. 27)”.

Since the topic of the entire Book of Exodus is the redemption from Egypt, it is therefore supremely relevant that the very centre of this Book, the heart of the Exodus so to speak, is the exhortation to justice.

“You shall not revile judges”, “You shall not revile G-d”. The two are inseparable from each other, and are inseparable from redemption.