A few weeks back (on Parshat Vaera), we found it fascinating that one human could be a prophet (or at least a navi) for another human. This week, we find out something equally surprising.
Towards the end of this week’s parsha, God speaks about a malach that he will send in front of the Jewish people (23:20). Because of the various details mentioned, it is not clear what He is referring to. Hence it engenders at least four major approaches on how to understand it. We will only look at one, not so much because it is the most convincing. Rather, my main interest here is to look at its implications.
God tells the Jews that if they listen to the voice of this malach and do all that God says, He will fight their enemies (23:22). Were this to be speaking about an actual angel, the verse might seem repetitive – how is the voice of the angel any different than the word of God? Angels have no individuality and only reflect the will of God. This seems to be one of the strongest reasons to agree with the commentators (Ralbag, Shadal and Hirsch) that say the malach was actually Moshe. (The idea that a person can be an angel – or at least a malach – of God is on even more solid footing in Bamidbar 20:16, where this is the tradition’s default position. Still, the story here presents us with a much more far-reaching description of the properties that would go along with it.)
But there is something possibly even more important to be understood from the verse just cited. For the verse not to be repetitive, we need to understand that the voice of Moshe here refers to decisions that Moshe made on his own. However, if that is true, God is giving Moshe tremendous leeway. After all, we know that Moshe sometimes made mistakes. So why doesn’t God limit this “voice listening” to when Moshe is right. One might say that this is understood, or that is precisely the reason for its connection to the second clause of doing the word of God. Based on the Sefer haChinuch’s understanding of a very famous section of Bava Metzia, however, I believe that the Torah is telling us something more nuanced. I think it is telling us that God wants the people to listen to Moshe even when he is wrong!
Indeed, the Chinuch (Parshat Shoftim, Negative Commandment 4) tells us that when the rabbis outnumbered Rabbi Eliezer regarding the famous of oven of Achnai, God delighted in their insistence that the halacha follow them even when they are wrong (as long as their own thinking still tells them that they are right). Following the true understanding of the Torah is obviously of tremendous importance, but following a holy leader (or leaders) appears to be even more important. They understood this to be God’s overarching will, and His delight was how He indicated His agreement to this.
For the Chinuch, the idea just presented was the only way to avoid religious anarchy and chaos. Yet the word, malach, tells us that it can be more than this which is at play. When the Torah applies the word malach to a human being, it teaches us that a person can raise themselves to such a lofty level that they became an agent of God. Their strong connection to God and their total desire to follow His will make them representatives of the Divine in the same way as metaphysical angels. And so in the same way that we are aware that the latter type angel is an apparition of God, so too do we feel ourselves to be in the presence of God when we are in front of someone like Moshe. But here is where it gets tricky. Since the latter type of angel remains human nonetheless, any given policy they decide upon may not objectively be the best course of action. Nor will their every understanding of reality be correct. Yet the Torah seems to be telling us that the positive outgrowths of our attachment outweighs the repercussions of their mistakes.
While the rabbis themselves teach us about the tremendous importance of truth, they also teach that there are things even more important. Attaching ourselves to people and ideas that bring us closer to God may well be one of them. It is thankfully the case that someone truly devoted to God will not play fast and loose with the truth. Moreover – and as I have discussed elsewhere – part of the makeup of such authorities is their willingness to hear the opinions and concerns of others and their openness to change their minds based on such feedback. But being human, it is inevitable that they will also make mistakes. And it is precisely at that point that the human malach concept teaches us the need to prioritize our connection to God over absolute truth.