From Anxiety to Covenant

  • Rav Itiel Gold
Parashat Mishpatim has a completely different energy than the previous parasha, which included the account of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The mood of our parasha is quiet and routine. The lightning and thunder have subsided, and the Torah shifts gears to begin the quiet process of teaching Israel the many laws with all their details. However, at the end of the parasha, we suddenly encounter another sublime event – the covenant of the basins (Shemot 24), which is a direct continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai[1] but very different from it.

The Revelation at Mount Sinai vis-à-vis the Covenant of the Basins

The revelation focused on bringing the Torah to Israel, from up above to down below. God spoke and the people were required only to listen. In contrast, the covenant of the basins was intended to create a connection between Israel and the Torah. Moshe relates to the people the laws that he had received, but this time they too speak: "All the words which the Lord has spoken, we will do" (24:3). This response of the people paves the way for the making of a covenant between God and Israel, in which they undertake to accept the Torah:
And Moshe took half of the blood, and put it in basins; and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. And he took the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people, and they said: All that the Lord has spoken will we do and obey. And Moshe took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said: Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in agreement with all these words. (24:6-8)
The difference between these two Mount Sinai events, the acceptance of the Torah and the covenant of the basins, is also reflected in the emotional experience associated with each of them.
When Israel received the Torah, the experience was one of dread:
And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. (19:16)
At the end of the revelation, the source of Israel's dread becomes clear – a fear of death: "And they said to Moshe: Speak you with us, and we will hear; but let God not speak with us, lest we die" (20:15). Something in God's words made the people think that they would die in a moment. The fire that raged on the mountain apparently added to their fear of death, as Moshe explains in the book of Devarim: "I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire" (Devarim 5:5). Fear naturally inspires an impulse to distance oneself from the source of the fear. This, indeed, was the people's reaction to the revelation at Mount Sinai:
And all the people perceived the thunders, and the lightning, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off. (Shemot 20:15)
Moving to distance themselves from the revelation caused the people to retreat from the original plan, according to which they were to hear the word of God directly:
And when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off. And they said to Moshe: Speak you with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. (20:14-15)
Moshe tries to persuade the people to return to the original plan: "And Moshe said to the people: Fear not; for God is come to test you, that His fear may be before you, that you sin not" (20:16). Moshe is essentially trying to calm the people’s fear that they will die. He makes it clear to them that the intensity of the event is merely a test for them. It appears, however, that the people could not withstand the test, as is immediately described: "And the people stood afar off; but Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was" (20:17). The people remain at a distance, shying away from the revelation of God. The test that was to lead the people to awe, brought them instead to crippling anxiety. What is more, Moshe hints in the book of Devarim that at a certain stage the people were supposed to ascend the mountain and receive the Torah themselves, but they refrained from doing so because of their fear:[2]
I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and went not up to the mount. (Devarim 5:5)
The experience of the covenant of the basins, however, was entirely different. Here, we find closeness, ease, and joy between God and the people of Israel. Instead of moving away, this time the representatives of the people ascend the mountain: "Then went up Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel" (Shemot 24:9). This closeness to God becomes tangible to a degree that is difficult to understand theologically: "And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness" (24:10). This time, closeness does not lead to dread and anxiety but to joy, which expresses itself in eating and drinking before the vision of God: "And they beheld God, and did eat and drink" (24:11).[3]
In contrast to the earlier revelation at Mount Sinai, the people successfully ascend the mountain, see God, and rejoice in their closeness with Him. Their anxiety disappears and Israel approaches God out of a desire to enter into His covenant.
Anxiety and Calm
As stated, the covenant of the basins complements the revelation at Mount Sinai. To our great surprise, however, it appears a full parasha away from it – at the end of Parashat Mishpatim. This difficulty led Rashi (24:1) to suggest that the covenant of the basins actually took place before the revelation at Mount Sinai, despite the fact that it is recorded several chapters later. The Ramban (ibid.), on the other hand, maintains that the stories are recorded in their proper chronological order: the covenant of the basins took place after the people received the laws of Parashat Mishpatim. In support of his position, the Ramban points to the verse that appears before the making of the covenant: "And Moshe came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the ordinances [mishpatim]… and they said: All the words which the Lord has spoken, we will do" (24:3). The simplest explanation is that Moshe presented them with the mitzvot appearing in our parasha, which opens with the words: "Now these are the ordinances [mishpatim] that you shall set before them" (21:1). It was, then, in reference to these mitzvot that the people responded with the statement: "we will do," and the path was thus paved towards making the covenant of the basins regarding these ordinances.[4]
According to the Ramban, whose position is closer to the plain meaning of the verses, it seems that the covenant of the basins constitutes a repair of what happened at the revelation at Mount Sinai. Then, the people were afraid and distanced themselves; now, they draw near and accept matters joyfully. However, the question remains, both according to the Ramban and according to Rashi: Why does Parashat Mishpatim stand between these two events? According to the Ramban, the question concerns the order of events: Why did the two events not take place in chronological contiguity? According to Rashi, the question concerns the literary editing of the book: The events took place at the same time, so why did the Torah choose to present them at the two ends of Parashat Mishpatim?
One must conclude that Parashat Mishpatim had to precede the connection represented by the covenant of the basins – according to the Ramban, in reality, and according to Rashi, in a literary manner. But why? Parashat Mishpatim seems somewhat "gray." Most of the parasha deals with legal matters, some self-evident, that are meant to allow civil social life. What does this collection of laws have to do with Israel's entry into the covenant of the basins?
In order to answer these questions, we will survey the various laws recorded in Parashat Mishpatim and examine how they constitute a preface to the making of the covenant.
The Structure of the Ordinances
At first glance, the parasha seems to be a random collection of laws and statutes, with no connection between them. On closer examination, however, we see that these ordinances are arranged in exemplary order:
Part 1: The laws of slaves (10 verses) – "If you buy a Hebrew servant (21:2)… then she shall go out [to freedom] for nothing, without money" (21:11).
Part 2: Cases of severe harm to others, which carry the death penalty (10 verses) – "He who smites a man, so that he dies, shall surely be put to death (21:12)… he shall not be punished, for he is his money" (21:21).[5]
Part 3: Personal injury and financial damage (30 verses) – "And if men struggle together (21:22)… if it be a hireling, he loses his hire" (22:14).
Part 4: Sexual prohibitions and idol worship[6] (5 verses) – "And if a man entice a virgin (22:15)…He that sacrifices to the gods, save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed" (22:19).
Part 5: Lofty moral demands (20 verses) – This unit is marked by its framing bookends – two verses, at the beginning and end, that repeat themselves almost word for word:
Opening: "And a stranger shall you not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (22:20).
Conclusion: "A stranger shall you not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (23:9).
Between these two verses are many commandments, most of which are related to the realm of morality.[7] Unlike the previous sections, however, these are not elementary rules for a civilized society such as the laws governing personal injury and property damage, but loftier demands of morality and purity: the requirement that a newborn animal must be left with its mother for seven days (22:29); the prohibition against eating the flesh of an animal that was torn apart by beasts of the field (22:30); the caution against following a majority to do evil (23:2); the obligation to return lost property (23:3); the obligation to help an enemy's donkey whose burden is too heavy (23:4).
Two mitzvot in the fifth section are given longer treatment and reflect its general spirit: the prohibition of afflicting an orphan or widow (22:21-23), and the duty to show consideration to a poor person who borrowed money (22:24-26). Unlike the preceding units, which presented basic principles that relate to all sectors of society equally, now there is a demand to relate differently to weaker populations. In these two mitzvot, God even warns that He will personally intervene in the event of harm caused to the weak: "Or if they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry" (22:22).[8]
Right in the middle of the section, we find an interesting phrase that perhaps sums up the essence of the entire unit: "And You shall be holy men to Me" (22:30). The ordinances of the previous sections established society, and now this unit comes to raise Israel to a higher rank and turn them into holy men, by way of commandments that require a higher moral and spiritual level.
Part 6: Special times (10 verses) – "And six years you shall sow your land (23:11)… You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk" (23:19).
This section includes commandments concerning the sabbatical year and Shabbat in their social context, but the main portion of the unit relates to the three pilgrimage festivals, which are intended to bring about an encounter between Israel and God: "Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God" (23:17).[9]
At the end of the sections of ordinances, we find an additional unit (23:20-32) that at first glance seems detached from the others. This unit does not deal with ordinances, but instead contains various divine promises to the people of Israel, in anticipation of their entering the land.[10] It is first noted that the people will be closely accompanied by an angel of God on their way to the land and while they are occupied in its conquest; the angel will also see to Israel’s observance of the Torah (23:20-23). Israel is then promised abundance and blessing in their land, with the climax appearing in the middle of the unit: "None shall miscarry, nor be barren, in your land; the number of your days I will fulfill" (23:26). The picture painted here is one of a people sitting with ease in their land, while the Shekhina protects them and provides them with all that is good.
In light of the review that we conducted, the general structure of Parashat Mishpatim can be outlined as follows:
The resting of the Shekhina
6. Encounter with God – "Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God"
5. Lofty moral demands
4. Sexual prohibitions and idolatry
3. Personal injury and property damage
2. Serious injury to another person (carrying the death penalty)
1. The laws governing a slave
When one looks at this structure, the grand purpose of the ordinances becomes clear: creating a direct connection between God and the people of Israel. To achieve that connection, one must first build an organized and civilized society that preserves the values of justice and law. The parasha is based on the gradual building of a society on which moral demands are made. Each stage in the process allows for a transition to a higher stage. This organization, according to justice and morality, is necessary in order to create the encounter with God.
In this context, it is interesting that the Torah chose the laws of slavery as the primary basis for society. These laws confer extreme rights on the slave and maidservant, which essentially turn them into temporary workers, unless they choose otherwise (21:2, 5-6). For the people of Israel, the most fundamental matter is to refrain from turning a human being into an absolute slave: "For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves" (Vayikra 25:42). Afterwards, the Torah organizes society at progressively higher levels, so that it should turn into a society that is based on justice and morality. Only from within such a society is it possible to create an encounter with God.
Now, we can understand how Parashat Mishpatim makes possible the covenant with the basins.
From Anxiety to Covenant
            Anxiety stirs up when a person feels he lacks the resources to deal with the challenge facing him. Thus, one effective approach to anxiety is to strengthen one's personal resources.
The people were overcome with anxiety at Mount Sinai because the encounter with God was too much for them. They did not have the tools to contain the sublime event and engage in a direct encounter with God. Instead of wanting to draw closer and hear, they panicked and distanced themselves. They experienced their encounter with God as chaos, as a dissolution of the reality with which they were familiar.
In light of this, it was necessary to build the encounter and connection differently: not suddenly and dramatically, but gradually. This is the purpose of the first sections of the parasha, which create the legal foundation for society (units 1-4). These sections are designed to build the tools and resources to create a society that can contain an encounter with God. When a society is founded and organized according to the rules of justice and law, this has a calming effect and the chaos lessens. Then one can begin to build the mental and spiritual resources to meet God.
Another way to deal with something that induces anxiety is to develop a structured and clear plan of action. When a person feels that he has a practical and clear path towards coping with the great challenge before him, anxiety decreases. This is another objective of the parasha, in its nobler sections. Encountering God is a tremendous challenge that provokes anxiety. However, one can connect with God by walking in His ways. The loftier demands of the pyramid (sections 5-6) make this possible. They provide a structured way to connect with God. This is not the same dramatic and stunning experience as at Mount Sinai, but builds the relationship in a quieter manner, that can be contained by humans. This idea is beautifully presented in the Midrash:
Rabbi Levi said… When they came to Sinai and [God] revealed Himself to them, their souls flew off from them, because He had spoken to them. As it is stated: "My soul failed me when He spoke" (Shir ha-Shirim 5:6). But the Torah asked for mercy for them… Immediately, their soul returned, as it is stated: "The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul" (Tehilim 19:8). (Midrash Shemot Rabba 29, 6)
The mitzvot of the Torah may seem less sublime and exciting than the revelation at Mount Sinai, but it is precisely those commandments that allowed for a calm encounter. A direct mystical encounter with God causes panic to the point of death. The Torah makes the connection possible, allowing the soul to cope with the experience.
A similar idea is presented by the author of the Tanya:
At the time of the giving of the Torah… all the people saw the thunder… and therefore they were made void in reality, just as Chazal said that at every statement their souls flew off, but the Holy One, blessed be He, restored it to them with dew… this is the dew of the Torah… As Chazal said: Whoever occupies himself with the Torah, the dew of the Torah gives him life.[11] (Tanya 36)
His words correspond precisely with the simple meaning of the verses and with the psychological process that Israel experienced through Parashat Mishpatim. Parashat Mishpatim must appear immediately after the revelation at Mount Sinai, in order to revive Israel – not from a physical death but from a mental death, brought about by the intensity of their anxiety. The transition to a practical and structured path that would enable the encounter was calming and reviving. Therefore, the covenant of the basins appears only at the end of Parashat Mishpatim. When God spells out to the people the details of their connection to Him, the people respond with joy and closeness. The encounter becomes possible.
(Translated by David Strauss)

* Rav Gold is a psychologist and teacher of Jewish philosophy.
[1] The covenant of the basins opens in a way that is inappropriate for the beginning of a new story: "And to Moshe He said" (24:1). The style of this opening verse indicates that this is not an independent story, but rather a direct continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai.
[2] We follow here the interpretive path of Rabbi Prof. Yonatan Grossman in his article: "Bimshokh ha-Yovel Heima Ya'alu Bahar." According to him, the original plan was that the people would ascend the mountain immediately after the end of the revelation and enter into a covenant directly with God. This is how he explains the verse that serves as the title of his article, which appears immediately before the revelation: at the moment you hear the blowing of the ram's horn, there is a call to ascend the mountain. However, owing to the people's anxiety, they preferred to distance themselves and avoid making a direct covenant.
[3] Rashi interprets this eating in a negative light, as making light of the appearance of God. But most commentators saw it as an expression of the people's closeness to God. See Onkelos, Ramban, and Rashbam (24:11).
[4] Rashi is aware of this difficulty and is therefore forced to explain that the "ordinances" that Moshe brought to the people before the covenant were the seven Noachide laws and the mitzvot that they had received at Mara (24:3).
[5] This section includes murder, beating and cursing one's father and mother, kidnapping a person and selling him, and the murder of a slave. In this context, the Torah presents the exceptions from the usual rules, such as accidental killing (21:13), or beating in a case where the victim recovers (21:18, 21). These exceptions are part of the details of the laws of this unit.
[6] The prohibitions in this section alternate between sexual prohibitions and idolatry: seducing a young girl (sexual), sorcery (idolatry – see Devarim 18:10-14), bestiality (sexual), offering to an idol (idolatry). It seems that this section combines both types of prohibitions, for idol worship and sexual promiscuity were intertwined. See, for example, Vayikra 18:1-3.
[7] Admittedly, some of the mitzvot here are between man and God (e.g., the mitzva to dedicate a firstborn to God – 22:28). It seems that the Torah does not separate between issues of morality and mitzvot relating to God. Man's relationship with God is among the highest moral demands made of him.
[8] This is said in relation to the widow and orphan. Similarly, it is said of the cry of a poor man: "And it shall come to pass, when he cries to Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious" (22:26).
[9] The unit ends with two verses that contain various laws connected to the festivals: "You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the fat of My feast remain all night until the morning. The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk" (23:18:19). The first three laws are clearly connected to the festivals, and therefore it stands to reason that the same is true of the prohibition to cook a kid in its mother's milk. Several explanations have been offered regarding the connection – see Rashbam (23:19) and Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed III, 48.
[10] This unit also includes several mitzvot connected to distancing oneself from idolaters in the land of Israel (24:32-33), but it seems that they appear here as an appendix to the great promises about the conquest of the land.
[11] The author of the Tanya relates two different statements in the Gemara – one about how the souls of Israel flew off from them at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai (Shabbat 88b), and a second about how the dew of the Torah revives a person (Ketubot 111a).