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Shemot 5768

Parshat Shemot
(Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22.23)
20 Tevet 5768
December 29, 2007

Both the Torah and the prophets understood exile (galut) not simply as diaspora, but as punishment for Israel\’s misdeeds. Nothing brought fear to Jewish hearts more than the idea of not returning home. Almost every prophet who broached the subject of exile as penalty for sin also included the idea of redemption at the hand of God. Isaiah\’s message is no different: \”And in that day, a great ram\’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount in Jerusalem.\” (27:13)

In the following midrash, a sage points out four stern decrees which had been made by Moses as punishment to mark the future sins of the people. These decrees were later abrogated by the prophets who come after him. Isaiah is one of those prophets who steped in to save Israel from Moses\’ stern decrees using the verse cited above from this week\’s haftarah: \”Said R. Jose b. Hanina: Moses our teacher decreed four [adverse] decrees on Israel, but four prophets came along and revoked them. Moses said, \’And Israel shall dwell in safety, alone, at the fountain of Jacob\’ (Deut. 33:28) [It seems to infer here that Israel will only have security when it has among its ranks a righteous person like Jacob, a rare commodity indeed – See Rivan]; Amos came and revoked that, as it is said, \’Then said I, Oh Lord God, refrain, how will Jacob survive? He is so small\’ (Amos 7:5), and it goes on saying, \’The Lord relented concerning this; ‘This also shall not come to pass,’ said the Lord God. (Ibid. 6) Moses had said, \’Yet even among those nations you shall have no peace\’ (Deut. 28:65); Jeremiah came and said, \’Thus said the Lord, The people that escaped from the sword found favor in the wilderness, even Israel, when I go to afford him rest.\’ (Jeremiah 31:7) Moses had said, \’The Lord is . . . visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and upon the children\’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation\’ (Ex. 34:7); Ezekiel came and declared, \’the person who sins, he shall die.\’ (Ezekiel 18:20) Moses had said, \’And you shall perish among the nations\’ (Lev. 26:38); Isaiah came and said, \’And in that day, a great ram\’s horn shall be sounded; [and they shall come that were lost in the land of Assyria, etc.]\’ (Isaiah 27:13) Rav observed: I have misgivings about the verse: \’And ye shall perish among the nations.\’ (Lev. 26:38) R. Papa demurred at this [apprehension of Rav] saying: \’Could it not perhaps be understood to mean something lost and searched for, as it is written, I have strayed like a lost sheep; search for Your servant!\’ (Psalm 119:176) — But it was the latter part of the verse [from Leviticus that perturbed Rav]: \’And the land of your enemies shall eat you up.\’ Mar Zutra then demurred, saying: \’Might it not be [understood] in the way that cucumbers and pumpkins are eaten [eating parts and leaving other parts over]?\’\” (Makkot 24a)

This midrash prompted later rabbis to ask how it was possible for prophets to abrogate Moses\’ words since the words of Moses, the prophet par-excellence, were supposed to be unchangeable. This question was taken up by the famous 16th century sage, the Maharal from Prague. He explained that Moses as \’the man of God (Elokim)\’ represented the aspect of God know as \’Middat Hadin – the quality of absolute justice.\’ This aspect of God was meant to be tempered by God\’s quality of mercy – \’Middat Harahamim.\’ It was God\’s intention that the prophets who followed Moses would temper this absolute justice with mercy and in so doing rescue both Israel and humanity. (See Hiddushei Aggadot Makkot p. 9)

It was God\’s intention to balance these two qualities in his dealings with the world. We should also take care that these same qualities of justice and mercy be balanced in our dealings with each other as well.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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