After an extensive series of laws, the focus of Parashat Mishpatim switches to a description of the circumstances surrounding Bnei Yisrael’s future entry into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem announces: “Behold, I am sending a Mal’ach before you to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Beware him, listen to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not forgive your sins, for My name is within him. For if you listen to him and do that which I speak, I will be the enemy of your enemies and oppose those who oppose you” (Shemot 23:20-22). Hashem then states that He will destroy the Canaanite nations once the angel brings Bnei Yisrael to them. The angel’s exact purpose and the reason he is sent are both unclear. What is the nature of this “Mal’ach?”
Rashi notes that the Mal’ach in Parashat Mishpatim is the same as the one described in Parashat Ki Tisa. In the aftermath of Cheit Ha’Eigel, God vows to Bnei Yisrael “Ki Lo E’eleh Bi’Kirbecha,” “for I will not ascend in your midst [on your journey to Eretz Yisrael]” (Shemot 33:3). Instead, Hashem informs Moshe Rabbeinu “I will send a Mal’ach before you, and I will destroy” the Canaanite nations. Hashem’s telling Moshe of the Mal’ach in Parashat Mishpatim portended Cheit Ha’Eigel, which spurred God’s detachment from the entry into the land and the sending of the Mal’ach. Bnei Yisrael “heard of this bad news and mourned” (Shemot 33:4), and after a plea from Moshe, God relents. He says to Moshe “Panai Yeileichu” (Shemot 33:14) which Onkeles translates as “Shechinti TeHach,” “My Shechinah will go with you.” Rashi adopts this translation and understands that Hashem is telling Moshe “I shall no longer send an angel; I myself shall go” (Rashi ad loc.). Rashi further identifies the Mal’ach found in both Mishpatim and Ki Tisa with the “Sar Tz’va Hashem” who encounters Yehoshua before the conquest of Yericho. The figure says to Yehoshua, “Atah Bati,” “Now I have come” (Yehoshua 5:14) and Rashi comments that the angel came to help defeat Yericho, and had also come to assist Moshe, but was unwanted then. Rashi most likely believes that when Hashem told Moshe “Panai Yeileichu,” He was promising that the Mal’ach would not be involved with the entry into Eretz Yisrael; only God would “protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared” (Shemot 23:20). However, after entering the land, the Mal’ach would still be able to assist Bnei Yisrael, and although its original intent was not to aid in military campaigns, Hashem wanted the Mal’ach involved to ensure the success of Bnei Yisrael.
Ramban believes that the Mal’ach described in Mishpatim is not identical to the one described in Ki Tisa. He feels, as opposed to Rashi, that if the angel was sent as a result of Cheit Ha’Eigel, Hashem would not be telling Moshe Rabbeinu about it beforehand, since, at the current moment, the Mal’ach was not being sent. Furthermore, Moshe only protests the sending of the angel in Ki Tisa, which must mean that the two Mal’achim are fundamentally different. When Hashem informs Moshe in Parashat Mishpatim that he will send an angel, He is still every bit involved in the entry into Eretz Yisrael. The language of “Mal’ach” is used simply because God operates the world by sending angels to carry out His will. After Cheit Ha’Eigel and the removal of God’s Shechinah, however, the Mal’ach took on an entirely different role: he became a shaliach who, instead of God, would deal with the entry into the land up close. Moshe, recognizing the negative implications of this shift, demanded that only God lead Bnei Yisrael, and He agreed to restore His Shechinah.
Rambam’s interpretation of the Mal’ach differs sharply from Rashi and Ramban. While discussing prophecy in Moreh Nevuchim, Rambam writes (2:34) that the Pesukim in our Parashah concerning the Mal’ach are directly parallel to the Pesukim in Perek 18 of Devarim, in which Hashem describes His future appointment of a Navi. The warning of “Beware him, listen to his voice” provided by Hashem in Mishpatim proves that He is referring not to an angel, but to a Navi; this warning was given to all of Bnei Yisrael, and since the average person never interacts with an angel, it would be unnecessary to caution against disobeying one. Thus, the pesukim in Mishpatim read as follows: “Behold, I am sending an angel before you to protect you on the way, and who will inform the Navi how to bring you to the place I have prepared. Beware him (the Navi), listen to his (the Navi’s) voice…” The Navi (who, although the Rambam never states it explicitly, must be Yehoshua) has God’s name “within him” (Shemot 23:21), and the Navi who God promises to appoint in Parashat Shoftim will “speak in My name” (Devarim 18:19). Similarly, God orders in Shemot “U’Shma B’Kolo,” “and listen to his voice” (23:21), and “Eilav Tishma’un,” “listen to him” in Devarim (18:15). For the Rambam, this parallel proves that the Pesukim in Mishpatim refer to a Navi as well. The Navi, who receives instructions regarding entry into Eretz Yisrael from the Mal’ach mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim, fits the description of the Navi of Parashat Shoftim.
This interpretation supports one of the Rambam’s tenets of prophecy, namely, that all Nevi’im except for Moshe received prophecy through an angel, and helps explains why this Navi is referred to in both Parashat Mishpatim and Parashat Shoftim. Parashat Mishpatim takes place right after Matan Torah. In Mishpatim, Hashem announces that communication between Him and Bnei Yisrael would no longer be direct, like it was just recently at Har Sinai. Instead, an angel carrying a message from Hashem would deliver it to the Navi, who would then share it with the people. This serves to emphasize that the revelation at Har Sinai was a one-time event, and that once in Eretz Yisrael, Bnei Yisrael should look to the Navi (and, in turn, the Mal’ach) as the source of God’s word. In Parashat Shoftim, shortly before Moshe’s death, Hashem prepares Bnei Yisrael for life after Moshe. God will still communicate with Bnei Yisrael, but no longer will he speak to a man “Panim El Panim,” “face to face” (Devarim 34:10), as he did to Moshe. The next-generation Navi will receive Nevu’ah indirectly, and this is likely why Hashem feels the need to stress his legitimacy. While Rambam’s approach is much further removed from the Pshat than the approaches of Rashi and Ramban, I think it is the most comprehensive. Not only does he address why God must provide a warning to listen to the Navi, he also explains why the Hashem informs Moshe of the Mal’ach and the Navi in Parashat Mishpatim, which deals mainly with legal matters.