SANHEDRIN ADJACENT TO THE ALTAR
Bible commentators, beginning with Chazal, frequently tended to refer to “juxtaposition of parshiot”, seeking significance in the adjacency of Torah parshiyot. Well-known is the question (which has become proverbial) “What is Shmitta doing near Mt. Sinai?” Rashi, commenting on the beginning of our parasha, asks, as per the Mechilta: “And why was the parasha of adjudication (dinim) placed next to the laws pertaining to the alter [found at the end of Parashat Yitro]” Rashi’s answer: “To inform you that you should place the Sanhedrin near the altar [Alternate reading “near the Temple”].”
One can, of course, relate literally to this drasha quoted by Rashi, seeing it as concrete instruction to place the Sanhedrin in the Office of Hewn Stone. But even this topographical explication, which interprets textual juxtaposition into geographical proximity, invites us to investigate the significance of this proximity, in the sense of “Expound, and reap reward.”
The Mechilta - apparently the source for Rashi’s midrashic interpretation - brings additional support for the placement of the Sanhedrin near the altar:
“That your nakedness may not be exposed upon it – These are the rules that you shall set before them”. From this we learn that the Sanhedrin is found alongside the altar. Even though there exists no proof for this, there is an allusion to it, as is written: “And Yoav fled and held on to the corners of the altar” (I Kings, 28).
This midrash ostensibly relates to the geographical proximity of the place where Yoav ben Tsruya was judged (“the Sanhedrin”) to the place to which he fled for safety. If, however, we relate to the Biblical context and to additional Talmudic contexts, we can discern an addition plane connecting the story of Yoav to our parasha.
In one of the opening passages of our parasha (21:14), we read: When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death.”
Chazal and other commentators on the Bible noted the connection between the Biblical law and the story of Yoav; they found in it the Halakhic justification for the slaying of Yoav despite the fact that he held on to the corners of the altar. Similarly they derived from this tie that a priest who murdered and desires to participate in the Temple service, is prevented from approaching the altar; he is put to death. The altar cannot protect one who has intentionally murdered.
This exegetical approach, too, is anchored in Shemot 20:21 (also at the end of Yitro):
“If you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them”.
The Tanchuma expounds: “for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them’ – From this our rabbis derived: The altar was created to prolong man’s life, iron was created to shorten his life; it is not right that that which shortens be raised against that which lengthens.”
The altar, then, cannot tolerate bloodshed and cannot serve as protection against punishment for murder.
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, commenting on the first passage of our parasha, elaborates upon Rashi’s midrashic commentary:
“And these” – Immediately preceding, in the construction of the altar, the symbolic expression of the fundamental basic principle was given, viz., that our whole relationship to God is to be taken as one through which justice and humanness for building up human society and morality and decency for the work of each individual on himself, are to be gained and formed, on a firm unshatterable basis. To that principle, the ‘vav’ (‘and’) adds the Mishpatim, the legal laws by which the building up of Jewish society on the basis of justice and humanness is first of all ordered. “Cherev” – the ‘sword’, force and harshness are thereby to be banned from the Jewish State, only then can they be worthy to erect an altar to God in their midst. That is why these Mishpatim come before the building of the Mishkan.” (Translated from the original by Isaac Levy).
Rabbi Hirsch, then, sees in the establishment of a just and ethical society, sans force and brutality, an essential stage which must precede the erection of the altar.
Additional study of the order in which laws are arranged in Chapter 21, teaches us that this chapter deals with:
1. The laws of the Hebrew servant and maidservant (1-11).
2. Various gradations of violence, intentional and unintentional, and resulting physical damage (11-27).
3. Damage to body and possessions perpetrated by one’s property (28-37).
Ibn Ezra (in his short commentary on Shemot) was mindful of this order:
“The main lesson is that man should not employ violence, coercing one less capable than himself. It [Scripture] begins with coercion affecting the body, i.e., enslaving a servant; following this it mentions the maidservant . . .”
This parasha regarding the Hebrew servant which opens the chapter and the order of “mishpatim” provides the ethical foundation for a just and moral society.
We cannot divorce the concept of the “eved Ivri”, the Hebrew servant, from its historical context, a period in which slavery was accepted; we cannot evaluate the phenomenon with the criteria of modern times. But, even so, Chazal look upon the desire of the servant to remain indentured to his master after six years with a disapproving eye, as is evidenced by different midrashim (“For the Children of Israel are servants unto Me’ – but not servants unto servants.”)
In other words, Chazal already understood that the Torah itself does not approve of the phenomenon of servitude. The wording “should you purchase a Hebrew servant” and other passages similarly worded (“Should you go out to wage war on your enemies . . . and see among the captives a beautiful woman”; “Should a man have a wayward and defiant son” and numerous other examples) does not describe an ideal situation, but rather an existing reality, sometimes even an undesirable reality. If we continue to expound the juxtaposition of passages and parshiot, we can deduce that the Torah wanted to each us that a just society must base itself upon freemen, upon servants of God, not upon “servants of servants.” A situation in which the servant is dependent upon the institution of slavery – or alternatively, in which the master creates a situation of dependency and cannot free himself of the situation in which he enslaves others – this is a debased and corrupt social situation which gives rise to violence, murder, and disrespect for man’s person and property. In such an environment, no wonder we find men having a dispute injuring a pregnant woman (21:20), or people killing their fellows unwittingly or by design (21:12-13)
It may be that the root of the evil is a double one, and transgression drags transgression:
a. Failure to execute faithfully the details of construction of the “altar” without raising a sword (20:22)
b. The illusion that one can erect an altar not in the framework of an enlightened, well-run society, based on the rule of law and on basic rules of morality in interpersonal relations.
It may be that in our times the rules of the eved Ivri have few direct ramifications, but the moral and ideological principles which we are able to deduce from the proximity of the parshiot of the alter and of mishpatim and the parasha of the Hebrew servant are most important.
A society that strives for spirituality is based first and foremost upon the absolute negation of subjugation of man by man, upon absence of violence, upon rule of law, and upon respect for all men created in the image of God.