“When we were young we were treated as men, whereas now that we have grown old we are looked upon as babies.” This apparently popular maxim is one of many raised during a conversation between Rava and Rabbah bar Mari. Rabbah explains that the saying is derived from the Torah’s order of Pesukim: Scripture first states that Hashem led the nation through the desert by day with a pillar of cloud and gave them light at night with a pillar of fire (Shemot 13:21); later, the Torah states (23:20), “Hineih Anochi Sholei’ach Mal’ach Lefanecha LiShmorcha BaDarech,” “Behold, I send an angel before you to protect you on the way” (Bava Kama 92b-93a). An analysis of the referenced Pesukim, I hope, can shed light on the deeper meaning of the above axiom.
Our Gemara is the sole location in Talmud that references the unusual “Mal’ach” Parashah (unit of Pesukim) that appears near the end of Parashat Mishpatim. Unique in context and esoteric in nature, these Pesukim (Shemot 23:20-25) describe how Hashem will send an angel to help Bnei Yisrael swiftly conquer the land. The nation is told to listen to the angel’s voice and to not rebel against him. Only after the Bnei Yisrael listen to the angel will Hashem allow the angel to aid the Jews, and be their enemies’ enemy.
Rashi (23:20 s.v. Hineih Anochi Sholei’ach Mal’ach Lefanecha) explains that the angel of assistance represents help from a power that is beneath Hashem. Why will Bnei Yisrael merit a lower level of support? For they are destined for Cheit HaEigel. After this sin, Hashem will replace His own guiding force (perhaps the pillars of cloud and fire) with that of an angel. Ramban (ad loc.) notes that the focal angel begins to lead the nation only in Sefer Yehoshua (5:13-15). These Pesukim describe a strange incident where a man appears to Yehoshua, declares himself a commander of Hashem’s legion, and simply commands Yehoshua to remove his shoes; then, the man is referenced no more in Sefer Yehoshua. Ramban explains that this is the Mal’ach promised in Mishpatim, telling Yehoshua that from this point forward he will lead Bnei Yisrael to their wars. Ramban thus qualifies Rashi, explaining that although Bnei Yisrael receive the angel as replacement regarding Cheit HaEigel, he begins to assist them only after Moshe’s death.
One may alternatively interpret Ramban as a fundamentally different reading of our Pesukim from Rashi’s. Rashi believes that when Bnei Yisrael are at Har Sinai they still merit Hashem’s direct assistance with the conquest. Ramban understands that from the start of the Exodus the nation merits only indirect assistance from Hashem. Many generations have passed since Hashem revealed Himself to the Avot. Bnei Yisrael have nearly forgotten about Him. They may not sin directly, but their failure to cry out to Hashem for help sooner has consequences. Even after 40 years in the desert to grow close to Hashem (see Seforno on Shemot 24:18) the nation is too far removed and merits only an angel for guidance.
The aforementioned aphorism in the Gemara esoterically refers to a troubling situation where some group is regarded as men in its youth and as babies in its older age. Having explained the Gemara’s quoted Pesukim, Rashi and Ramban effectively illustrate two different understandings of the adage. Rashi reasons that there is a problem within the current generation of Bnei Yisrael. They do not respect Moshe, and proceed to commit Cheit HaEigel. Hashem punishes them and replaces His guidance with that of an angel (and, recognizing their lack of respect for the leader, gives Bnei Yisrael a younger leader – Yehoshua – with whom the nation will more closely relate). Ramban reasons that the problem lies not with this specific generation but with the development of Bnei Yisrael since their descent to Egypt. The subject who possesses and then loses respect is not the leader but the nation itself. When Ya’akov and his sons move to Mitzrayim, Hashem is still in direct contact with Ya’akov. As the nation grows older, though, many Meforashim explain that they grow accustomed to the Egyptian way of life and its culture. Hashem, regarding them lower now, deems that the nation is no longer close enough with Him to merit His personal and direct leadership in the eventual conquest. He has less respect for Bnei Yisrael and the method of conquest is set.
The penultimate Pasuk of Nevi’im states, “Hineih Anochi Sholei’ach Lachem Et Eiliyah HaNavi Lifnei Bo Yom Hashem HaGadol VeHaNora,” “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of Hashem” (Mal’achi 3:24). Describing the future redemption, this last Nevu’ah any human being has ever received is a clear parallel to our Pasuk in Mishpatim. One can understand the connection to mean that the loss implied in Mishpatim will be remedied before the impending Ge’ulah. We have seen that the Gemara explains that the problem has something to do with respect accorded to the young and the old. We have seen how Rashi and Ramban may interpret the Gemara. We now see from the connection to the final Nevu’ah that there is a fix to the problem. For Rashi, who blames the desert generation for its rejection of Moshe and Hashem, the ultimate repair will be the nation’s respect of their leaders, both old and young. For Ramban, who blames the historical Bnei Yisrael for their gradual loss of connection to Hashem, the ultimate repair will be a resounding and rising affirmation of God in our lives.
Our redemption from the current exile, like Ge’ulat Mitzrayim, is promised by a Nevu’ah from Hashem. If we follow in the mistakes of our forefathers – either blatantly rejecting God or gradually losing touch with Him throughout the years – the best case scenario will be another second-rate Ge’ulah. We must always actively demonstrate our acceptance of God and strengthen our connection with Him constantly. Only then will the communication given to Mal’achi not be the last.