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Parashat 01/26/2011

Parashat Mishpatim

by Robert Rabinoff

In loving memory of Irma Hollander, Chaia Shaindel bat Moshe.  May her memory be for a blessing. Na’aseh v’Nishma

The verse (24:7) Everything that H” has said, we will do and we will obey has a very beautiful Midrash associated with it.  When Gd heard the people exclaim this phrase, He said “Who revealed this secret to My children, the secret that the ministering angels use for themselves?”  The special nature of the phrase “We will do and we will obey” is that the commitment to do comes before the understanding of what it is that we are doing.  Now in the case of the ministering angels we can understand this (somewhat) – they are created specifically to minister, that is, to do exactly what they are instructed to do, neither more nor less.  In fact, that is why elsewhere in our Parashah (23:20), Gd tells Moshe to tell the people that Gd’s angel would accompany them to Eretz Yisrael, and they had better watch their step, because the angel would not forgive their sins.  Rashi comments that since the angel is merely Gd’s agent, he has no authority to deviate from his stipulated duties – in other words Gd can decide to forgive, but the angel cannot make that decision.  The fact that angels have no latitude in their actions, that is, no free will to choose what they will and will not do, means that they can neither progress nor regress spiritually.  Angels are called omdim, “standers.”

Human beings are a very different sort of creature.  Human beings do have free will.  We all experience that we can choose what actions to take.  Even more important, we can make moral choices.  We can hoard our resources or we can be generous with them.  We can uplift our fellow human beings or we can do the opposite.  We can think positive thoughts about others, even giving them the benefit of the doubt where there is ambiguity, or we can do the opposite.  Based on these choices, made in reaction to the various tests and challenges which are presented to us, we do, in fact, progress in our spiritual stature, or, Gd forbid, the opposite.  Thus human beings are called holchim, “goers.”

Now, however, the Israelites are praised for using a “secret” that is appropriate for the ministering angels.  If the ministering angels are so fundamentally different from human beings, does it even make sense for us to be horning in on their “secrets”?

I think if we understand the nature of spiritual progress as our tradition describes it, we can understand what an incredible height the Generation of the Exodus had reached at the time of the Revelation.  The basis of our spiritual progress is the doing of the mitzvot of the Torah.  This doing refines and purifies us, and strengthens our attachment to the spiritual world, and at the same time loosens our attachment to the material world.  This doesn’t mean that we die, nor do we cease to enjoy the material world – in fact, without attachment there is no fear of loss, and we are free to enjoy the material world much more than when we are at a lower spiritual level.  What it does mean is that the material world ceases to be able to tempt us to do anything which draws us away from our spiritual essence.  The yetzer hara (inclination to do that which is wrong) loses its hold on us.  We naturally do only what is right – what is Gd’s Will.

Does this mean that we lose our free will?  I heard a wonderful explanation of the phenomenon: we all have the freedom to choose to put our hand into a fire, but nobody does it because we know the painful consequences.  (We are not considering those who make a moral choice to run into a burning building to save someone else or the like.)  In the same way, someone with sufficiently refined perception sees and feels the painful spiritual consequences of incorrect moral choices, and avoids them the way we ordinarily avoid getting too close to a fire.  We don’t lose our free will, but we do transcend it.  We have used our free will to pass our tests, and it is as if now we no longer need it.  We have reached a level where we experience the spiritual as bliss, and the material as nothing more than a vehicle to allow our inner bliss to be expressed – certainly it holds no temptation for us any more.

Perhaps we can read our Midrash this way.  Gd is marveling at the fact that an entire nation, that a scant few weeks ago was sunk in the depths of slavery to both the Egyptians and to their own material nature, could now exclaim “we no longer feel any temptation from the material world that would cause us to do anything against Your Will.  Whatever You tell us to do is what we want to do.  We want to serve you the same way that the ministering angels do!”  By tradition, our people said this on the day before the Revelation.  They had made themselves a fertile field for Torah to grow and flourish for all generations.

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