Mishpatim: Are you free to receive the Torah - without compromise?

The meaning of freedom.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Israel (illustratvie)
Israel (illustratvie)

From the beginning of the Torah until Parashat Yitro last Shabbat, the Torah has been almost exclusively narrative.

The Book of Genesis contains just three commandments: to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), to circumcise our sons at eight days old (17:9-14), and not to eat the גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, the sinew of the hip above the thigh of any animal’s hind-quarters (32:33). And these three are presented in the context of narrative, not in legislative form.

And then no more commandments until the commandment to calibrate our own calendar (Exodus 12:1-2) three weeks ago, in Parashat Bo, and Parashat Bo continues to give a further 19 commandments; then Parashat Beshallach contains just one commandment – not to walk beyond the Shabbat-boundary (Exodus 16:29).

Then last Shabbat, Parashat Yitro weighed in with 17 commandments, and this Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim delivers a hefty dose of 53 commandments.

Now consider the significance of this: the first 1,818 verses of the Torah contain just 3 commandments, and the next 373 verses contain 91 commandments. The Torah begins almost entirely as a historical narrative – and then, on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, it radically changes its tone and begins legislating laws.

Why this sudden change?

I suggest: –

Our exile in Egypt was our collective formative experience. Our slavery was the culmination of that experience. It was during this time that we transformed from being slaves to being a nation. It was our joint suffering that created our eternal national bond with each other.

Now a nation of slaves can hardly be expected to keep any mitzvot. A slave, by very definition, is subject solely to his master’s commands. He sleeps when his master tells him to, he gets up when his master decrees, he eats what his master gives him when his master gives him, he wears whatever his master decides.

A slave, like a prisoner, has minimal free-will and minimal responsibility.

But G-d’s mitzvot are the very antithesis of slavery. The eleventh of the Thirteen Principles of Faith is that G-d rewards those who keep His mitzvot and punishes those who violate them. This implies free-will: only someone who can freely decide whether or not to keep the mitzvot can be rewarded or punished.

A robot, or a computer, or any machine, cannot be good or evil, cannot be rewarded or punished for what it does or doesn’t do, precisely because it has no free-will. And neither can an angel be punished or rewarded, because angels don’t have free-will either.

Only a human endowed with free-will can be rewarded or punished for his choices. Just as only a free nation, constituted of people free to choose between good and evil, could be given mitzvot.

So as the tenth and final plague was about to strike the Egyptians, as the Jewish nation was poised on the very threshold of physical and spiritual freedom, G-d began to inundate us with His commandments.

And then as we left Egypt and became physically free, G-d could give us yet more mitzvot. The Ten Commandments (last week, in Parashat Yitro) were but the start. Now that we were free, both physically and spiritually, G-d could give us ever-more mitzvot.

As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: “It says, ‘The Tablets [of Stone] were the Work of G-d, and the letters were the Letters of G-d, engraved into the stone’ (Exodus 32:16); do not read חָרוּת [engraved], but חֵרוּת [freedom], because the only one who is free is the one who labours in Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:2).

The Midrash offers further insights:

“What is the inference of ‘engraved [חָרוּת] into the stone’? – Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yirmeyahu, and the Rabbis [each offer an explanation]. Rabbi Yehudah says, do not read חָרוּת [engraved], but חֵרוּת [freedom] from exile; Rabbi Nehemiah says, free [חֵרוּת] from the Angel of Death; and our Rabbis say, free [חֵרוּת] from suffering” (Shemot Rabbah 41:7).

And the Midrash Tanna de-Vey Eliyahu gives a powerful insight into Rabbi Nehemiah’s explanation by saying: “do not read חָרוּת [engraved] but חֵרוּת [freedom], because the only one who is free is the one over whom the Angel of Death does not rule” (Eliyahu Zuta 4).

And Rabbi Nehemiah adds “free [חֵרוּת] from [subjugation to] foreign kingdoms” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 8:1 [6]).

Now these Rabbis obviously did not mean that any individual Jew who subjugates himself to the Torah will never experience exile, death, suffering, or subjugation to foreign kingdoms: 2,000 years and more of Jewish history thoroughly disprove that claim.

What, then, did they mean?

To answer this, we have to see just who these Rabbis were and the milieu in which they lived.

Rabbi Yehudah [1] and Rabbi Nehemiah were among the seven closest students of Rabbi Akiva (Yevamot 62b); living in the 2nd century, they saw their master and mentor arrested and tortured to death by the Romans, and Israel finally subjugated to the Roman Empire after a desperate struggle.

Rabbi Yirmeyahu [2] lived a century-and-a-half later. Born in Babylon, he made Aliyah to Israel when he was yet a youth (Ketuvot 75a). He was an exceptionally close disciple of Rabbi Zeira, who had defied and disobeyed his own teacher, Rav Yehudah, by making Aliyah (Ketuvot 110b-111a); so closed were they that Rabbi Zeira called Rabbi Yirmeyahu “my son” (Mo’ed Katan 4a). Rabbi Yirmeyahu fully understood the preciousness of the Land of Israel and knew only too well our suffering under Roman occupation in it: he experienced it daily.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was a first-generation Amora (late 2nd-early 3rd century). He, too, was all-too-well acquainted with the Roman occupation and its evils: he was the representative of the Jews to the Roman kingdom (Yerushalmi Berachot 5:1).

When he was close to death, the Angel of Death was instructed to go to him, while he was yet alive, and grant him whatever he requested. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi demanded of the Angel of Death that he show him his place in the World to Come. The Angel of Death complied and brought him alive to Paradise, whereupon Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi broke free of the Angel of Death’s grasp and entered Paradise alive (Ketuvot 77b).

Nevertheless, it was not Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who said that “the only one who is free is the one over whom the Angel of Death does not rule”, as we might have expected from the man who actually overpowered the Angel of Death. It was, rather, Rabbi Nehemiah, who died a natural death – that is to say, the Angel of Death eventually took him.

So clearly, “free from the Angel of Death”, meaning “one over whom the Angel of Death does not rule”, does not mean one who will never die.

And we can extrapolate from here that “free from exile”, “free from the Angel of Death”, and “free from suffering” similarly do not mean that any Jew who subjugates himself to the Torah will never encounter exile, the Angel of Death, or suffering.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yirmeyahu, and Rabbi Nehemiah were all living in Israel in times when the Land and the people therein were subjugated to a foreign nation, when the majority of Jews were already in exile, when the Angel of Death visited the Land of Israel all too frequently, and when suffering was a constant concomitant of daily life.

They fully understood that as long as Israel – both the nation and the Land – was subjugated to foreign occupation, the Torah itself was incomplete.

Only when the Jewish nation as a whole is free from exile, free from foreign occupation, free from suffering, and free from the Angel of Death – meaning free from the fear of death at the hands of oppressors – can they be truly and fully free to labour in Torah, and only thus can they be truly and fully “servants of Hashem”, subjugated solely to His will and His Torah.

Only free from human tyranny, both individually and nationally, can Israel really receive the Torah.

And so only at the very end of Egyptian slavery could the mitzvot begin to operate.

And the only way for the Jewish nation to keep the Torah properly, in its entirety, without compromise, is as a free nation living in its own Land.


[1] Whenever the Talmud and Midrash cite Rabbi Yehudah without defining which Rabbi Yehudah (there were some 140 rabbis called Yehudah), they refer to Rabbi Yehudah bar Ila’iy. He had studied both from his own father Ila’iy as well as from Rabbi Akiva.

[2] Whenever the Talmud and Midrash cite Rabbi Yirmeyahu without defining which Rabbi Yirmeyahu (there were 21 rabbis called Yirmeyahu), they refer to the 4th-generation Amora who was born in Babylon and made Aliyah when he was still young (Ketuvot 75a).