Love and Sinai – A Derashah for the Wedding of Frankie Ziman and Yael Bar

Love and Sinai

A Derashah in Honor of the Wedding of Frankie Ziman and Yael Bar

The moment of revelation at Har Sinai has long been thought of as a wedding between God and the people of Israel[1]. It is the moment when the intimate bond between Israel and God was sealed. However, the picture becomes a little less rosy when we consider what is likely the most famous midrashic image of the revelation at Har Sinai.

“And they stood under the mount”: R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,’If you accept the Torah, good; if not, there shall be your burial.’ R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]: [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before.[2]

This famous midrash says that the Torah was accepted by Bnei Yisrael under pain of death: not exactly a romantic image. If this is a marriage than it was a forced marriage, which is incredibly problematic. The midrash picks up on that problem, noting that if the Torah was forced on the Israelites than they could hardly have been expected to keep it, and then resolves it by saying that they accepted the Torah again out of free will in the days of Esther and Mordechai. That solution hardly saves the idea of seeing Sinai as a marriage, however, because saying that they grew to love each other doesn’t stop a marriage from being forced. This is even more troubling in light of versions that lack the line about freely re-accepting the Torah, meaning that it was actually entirely forced.[3]

However, with the words of our Sages, we find other midrashim with radically different understandings of the same basic image.

“And they took their places.” They pressed together.  It teaches that they were scared on account of the flashing and trembling and thunder, on account of the approaching lightning. “The foot of the mountain.”  It teaches that the mountain was plucked from its place, and they approached and stood under the mountain, as it is said, “and you approached and stood under the mountain” (Deut 4:11).  Of them it is explicated in the tradition (Song 2:14): “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, show me your appearance, etc.”[4] (Translation from Dr. Tzvi Novick)

In this version, God did not suspend the mountain above the Israelites as an act of coercion and intimidation, but in order to comfort the frightened Children of Israel. The supernatural storm shrouding the revelation at Sinai terrified Bnei Yisrael, and so God raised up the mountain and sheltered them in its shadow.

Working off the same verse from Shir HaShirim (2:14) quoted at the end of the last midrash, Shir HaShirim Rabbah depicts the suspension of the mountain yet a little differently.

Rabbi Akiva interpreted the verse as a reference to Israel: When they stood before Mount Sinai, “My dove is in the clefts of the rock,” for they were hidden in the hiding-place of Sinai, “show me your appearance,” As the verse says, “The entire nation saw the voices,” (Exodus 20:14) “let me hear your voice,” This is the voice from before the [ten] commandments, as the verse says, “Everything that God has said we will do and we will obey,” (Exodus 24:7) “For your voice is sweet,” This is the voice from after the [ten] commandments, as the verse says, “The LORD heard the voice of your words… They have done well in all that they have spoken,” In what have they “done well”? “In all that they have spoken.”[5]

This midrash sees God suspending the mountain over the heads of Bnei Yisrael not as a form of intimidation, but as the setting for a conversation. Hidden beneath the mountain, the people affirm their desire to enter a binding relationship with God, and then God agrees to everything they have said. The vaulted caverns of the mountain are not a forceful threat but the swell of a lover’s embrace, not a threatening grave but the chuppah of a historical wedding.

Now that we can comfortably look at the revelation at Sinai as a wedding between God and Bnei Yisrael, it is a valuable lens through which to discuss a debate in Hazal about the specific nature of that revelation. One midrash suggest that the entirety of not just the written Torah, but of anything that might ever be taught as Torah, was given to Moshe on Har Sinai.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Levi said: It could have written “on them”, so why did it write “and on them”? Why did it write “like all the words” when it could have written “the words”? These are to teach that Mikra, Mishna, Talmud, and Aggadah, even what a diligent student will teach in the future before his master, were already said to Moshe at Sinai.[6]

In this midrash, the revelation at Sinai is depicted as absolute, as complete in every way. How could it not include anything that might ever be considered “Torah”? However, there is another midrash with a very different opinion about what was given to Moshe on Har Sinai.

Did Moshe really learn all the Torah? It is written regarding the Torah, “Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Iyov 11:9), and Moshe is supposed to have learned all of it in forty days? Rather God taught Moshe [only] the general principles.[7]

Struck by the vastness of the Torah, this midrash finds the idea that Moshe could have learned all of it in forty days simply impossible. Instead, Moshe received the written Torah, to whatever degree, accompanied by the interpretive principles necessary to derive the rest of Torah from it.

A similar debate exists is mentioned in the Gemara regarding the origin of the physical Torah as we know it.

Abaye asked Rabbah: Is it permitted to write out a scroll [containing a single passage] for a child to learn from? This is a problem alike for one who says that the Torah was transmitted scroll by scroll, and for one who says that the Torah was transmitted sealed.[8]

In discussing whether or not it is permitted to write an incomplete Torah scroll for educational purposes, the gemara mentions two diverging opinions: 1. Moshe originally wrote down each prophecy on a separate scroll as it was given to him. 2. Moshe wrote the entire Torah down at once. According to the first opinion, the text of the Torah developed over the course of the forty years in the desert; According to the second, there’s no such thing as an incomplete Torah[9], and so the Torah was written down all at one time.

Both of these debates hinge around a single question: Is revelation something that happens all at once, or does it develop over time? Seeing Sinai as a wedding, this can be reframed as: does love occur in a great surge at the wedding, or does it build over time? Is the love of the wedding greater? Or the love of the marriage? There is nothing like the pomp and celebration of the wedding. All of your friends and family are gathered around, everyone is singing and dancing, and the bride and groom couldn’t be more excited. But the depth and sincerity of a marriage, the true emotional intimacy of it, is something that develops as a husband and wife live out their shared life. Love is something that builds through shared experiences, as everyday life enables you to discover newer and more amazing facets of your spouse to love.

One side of the midrashic debate sees the love expressed at sinai as absolute, as perfect, as unsurpassable, and it’s our job to carry this complete Torah into our lives through every day of history. The other side of the debate sees the Torah expressed at Sinai as the starting point of something made ever richer and deeper as it develops through the shared life of God and the Jewish People. But ultimately, according to all opinions, “The words of the scribes are more loving than the words of the Torah, and more beloved.”[10] Love that develops over time, that is enriched by the communication and commitment of the couple in their everyday lives, is much deeper and more precious that the love and excitement of the wedding day. Frankie and Yael, the love you feel for each other today is so amazing, and so exciting. But it’s just a start. The love you will feel fifty years from now, even the love you will feel on Tuesday, will be so much greater.

קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כַּלָּה[11]; קוֹל גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא יָסָף![12]

[1]צאינה וראינה בנות ציון במלך שלמה בעטרה שעטרה לו אמו ביום חתנתו וביום שמחת לבו, ביום חתנתו – זה מתן תורה.

(תלמוד בבלי, תענית כו:)

[2]

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר, אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב, ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם. אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא. אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש. דכתיב קימו וקבלו היהודים, קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר.

(תלמוד בבלי, מסכת שבת, פח.)

[3]

תחת התפוח עוררתיך – דרש פלטיון איש רומי ואמר: נתלש הר סיני ונצב בשמי מרום, והיו ישראל נתונים תחתיו שנאמר: (דברים ד’) ותקריבון ותעמדון תחת ההראמר הקב”ה: אם אתם מקבלים עליכם תורתי מוטב, ואם לאו, הריני כובש עליכם ההר הזה והורג אתכם.

(שיר השירים רבה ח:ה)

[4]

ויתיצבו – נצפפו. מלמד שהיו ישראל מתיראין מפני הזיקין מפני הזועות מפני הרעמים מפני הברקים הבאים. בתחתית ההר – מלמד שנתלש ההר ממקומו, וקרבו ועמדו תחת ההר, שנאמר (דברים ד, יא) ותקרבון ותעמדון תחת ההר, עליהם מפורש בקבלה: יונתי בחגוי הסלע בסתר המדרגה הראיני את מראיך.

(מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל, מסכתא דבחדש, יתרו פרשה ג)

[5]

רבי עקיבא פתר קרייה בישראל: בשעה שעמדו לפני הר סיני, יונתי בחגוי הסלע, שהיו חבויין בסתרו של סיני, הראיני את מראיך, שנאמר: וכל העם רואים את הקולות, השמיעני את קולך, זה קול שלפני הדברות, שנאמר: (שמות כ”ד) כל אשר דבר ה’ נעשה ונשמע, כי קולך ערב זה קול שלאחר הדברות, שנאמר: (דברים ה’) וישמע ה’ את קול דבריכם וגו’ הטיבו כל אשר דברו,  מהו הטיבו? כל אשר דברו.

(שיר השירים רבה ב:ד)

[6]

רבי יהושע בן לוי אמר עליהם ועליהם כל ככל דברים הדברים מקרא משנה תלמוד ואגדה אפילו מה שתלמיד וותיק עתיד להורות לפני רבו כבר נאמר למשה בסיני.

(ירושלמי, פאה יז.)

[7]

וכי כל התורה למד משה כתיב בתורה (איוב יא) ארוכה מארץ מדה ורחבה מני ים ולארבעים יום למדה משה אלא כללים למדהו הקב”ה למשה.

(שמות רבה מא:ו)

[8]

בעא מיניה אביי מרבה:מהו לכתוב מגילה לתינוק להתלמד בה? תיבעי למאן דאמר תורה מגילה מגילה ניתנה, תיבעי למאן דאמר תורה חתומה ניתנה.

(בבלי גיטין ס.)

[9]

אמר לו ר׳ שמעון אפשר ספר תורה חסר אות אחת?!  ֿ

(בבלי בבא בתרא טו.)

[10]

שמעון בר ווה בשם ר’ יוחנן דודים דברי סופרים לד”ת וחביבים יותר מד”ת (שיר השירים א) כי טובים דודיך מיין.

(ירושלמי ברכות א:ד, וכן סנהדרין יא:ד)

[11]

קוֹל שָׂשׂוֹן וְקוֹל שִׂמְחָה קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כַּלָּה קוֹל אֹמְרִים הוֹדוּ אֶת־יְקֹוָק צְבָאוֹת כִּי־טוֹב יְקֹוָק כִּי־לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ מְבִאִים תּוֹדָה בֵּית יְקֹוָק כִּי־אָשִׁיב אֶת־שְׁבוּת־הָאָרֶץ כְּבָרִאשֹׁנָה אָמַר יְקֹוָק.

(ירמיהו לג:יא)

[12]

אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה דִּבֶּר יְקוָק אֶל-כָּל-קְהַלְכֶם בָּהָר, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הֶעָנָן וְהָעֲרָפֶל–קוֹל גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא יָסָף; וַיִּכְתְּבֵם, עַל-שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים, וַיִּתְּנֵם, אֵלָי.

(דברים ה:יט)

ולא יסף – כי זה היה פעם אחת.

(אבן עזרא שם)

ולא יסף – מתרגמינן ולא פסק כי קולו חזק וקיים לעולם.

(רש״י שם)

A Review of Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land”

Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land by Rabbi Michael Hattin, Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014.

http://korenpub.com/media/catalog/product/cache/7/image/650x/040ec09b1e35df139433887a97daa66f/j/o/joshal_print_final_2d_1.jpg

There are many approaches to writing about a section of tanakh, from the disinterestedly academic to the passionately religious. Even between those two poles, the chosen approach can be as nuanced as an academic approach that participates in religious discourse, or a religious book that makes use of academic tools. Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of the Promised Land” falls squarely in the latter category. Joshua is not an academic book that gleans religious meaning from dispassionate study but a deeply and unapologetically religious book that uses the best tools of the secular world to uncover the meaning behind the biblical text.

Joshua is essentially a collection of essays on the biblical book of Joshua, arranged according to the order of the biblical text. Each chapter opens with a quick introduction to a section of biblical text, and in short order, an apparent problem within the text or the story is presented. By the end of the chapter not only is the problem resolved, but it is resolved in such a way that what had at first seemed to be a problem is now an expression of a religious theme or ideal. While each chapter focuses on a different concept, there are several recurring concepts that Hattin highlights as the dominant themes of the biblical book of Joshua. Hattin discusses the way the biblical text explores the character of Joshua as he takes over the leadership role of his late mentor, Moses, through parallels between events in the Torah and events in the book of Joshua. He also looks at the tension between divine providence and human initiative as the Israelites transition from the Wilderness, where they were entirely dependent upon God, to the land of Canaan, where they will have to run their own society.

The common thread that runs throughout Joshua is the idea that the biblical text is inherently meaningful. There is no such thing as a passage that doesn’t have relevance to our lives, including the long lists of geo-topographical data in the second half of the book. All of it is meant to guide us in our religious and moral development, and thus the act of studying the biblical text is religious, not literary. This orientation towards meaning drives much of the content of Joshua. The book’s hermeneutic, it’s guiding principles of interpretation, flow directly from this orientation. The discussions of both morality and archaeology throughout the book are not abstract, but driven by their relevance to the modern Jew. The same goes for Hattin’s discussions of rabbinic literature related to the book of Joshua.

The basic religious hermeneutic of Joshua is laid out in the introduction, in a section discussing the pros and cons of secular scholarship. While many fields of academia are trumpeted as greatly valuable, one field is rejected quite forcefully. According to Hattin, source criticism “hinges upon charging the text with literary superficiality that… relegated the underlying message to the proverbial dustbin” (pg. xx). However, it is not that he rejects source criticism, but how he does so, that makes his book so firmly religious. Source criticism can be rejected from a secular perspective; the rise of Literary Criticism in the last half a century more than demonstrates that. That Hattin chooses to reject source criticism from a strictly religious perspective is therefore incredibly significant.

The Tanakh is, at its core, a sacred document that describes the ongoing interaction between God and humanity, between God and the people of Israel. It is a document that continuously challenges us to ask penetrating questions that relate to the essence of human nature and the purpose and meaning of existence. Its ancient but timeless words kindle the spiritual yearning that glows in every human heart, the longing for God, for goodness and a better world. No assault on the text can ever rob it of this transcendent quality. (pg. xx)

With this, Hattin not only rejects source criticism, but also sets up a strictly religious hermeneutic that will guide the reader throughout the rest of the book. It is not simply that source criticism is incorrect, it’s that it fails to appreciate the inherently meaningful nature of the text.

Hattin makes a phenomenal attempt to integrate the narrative of Joshua with modern archaeological discoveries. He rightly trumpets the scorched ruins of H̱atzor as fitting the biblical narrative perfectly. He is willing to remain agnostic on some issues, leaving the challenge to the biblical narrative unanswered, but he is impressively willing to reinterpret the biblical text when the popular interpretation does not fit the archaeology. For example, the ruins of Jericho bear no indication that the entirety of the walls came down in the period of history under discussion. Hattin begins by suggesting why the ruins might indicate this when in fact the entirety of the walls had come down, enabling the reader to affirm the traditional understanding of the text. He then switches gears and discusses traditional approaches that don’t contradict the archaeological record. Applying this method to the issue of the speed of the conquest of the land, which the bible indicates is miraculously fast while archaeology suggests that it was very slow, Hattin differentiates between the conquering of the land, which was fast, and the settling of the land, which was slow. Hattin also points out that not only does this fit with the biblical data from other books of Tanakh, but also with the text of Joshua itself.

Hattin also tackles the moral difficulties of the book of Joshua. It is difficult to read the book of Joshua in the 21st century without being bothered, at least a bit, by the morality of a holy war to conquer the land of Canaan. Hattin’s main argument is that the narrative of Joshua cannot be taken in a vacuum; Joshua assumes the reader is familiar with many of the narratives and polemics of the Torah. Hattin quotes numerous biblical texts which suggest that the war against the Canaanites is not racial but moral; the Israelites are not wiping out a different race, but an incompatible moral system. In this light, the entire discussion of the morality of the conquest is flipped. In place of a morally dubious land grab, Hattin depicts the victory of a divine moral system over pagan moral relativism, of human dignity over oppression.

It is at this point that Hattin perhaps becomes a little overzealous in his depiction of the conquest as a moral war. Hattin sees this moral understanding of the war not just in the voice of the biblical text, but also in the minds of its characters. In discussing the textual depiction of Raẖab, Hattin discusses the way that Tanakh generally takes a rather dismal view of prostitutes, something that surprisingly fails to manifest here. Hattin argues that the reason for the generally dismal view of prostitutes is that they are seen as disloyal. In contrast, he argues that Raẖab should be seen as motivated by the vision of a moral society heralded by the arrival of the Israelite nation. This explains the Tanakh’s positive depiction of Raẖab, as her betrayal of Jericho is not a function of disloyalty but of a strong sense of morality. While this moral depiction of the entire conquest may be the way the Tanakh depicts the war, it seems incredibly forced to read this into Raẖab’s motivation. Hattin ignores the possibility that it is at least as likely that she was motivated by the survival of herself and her family, and that the reason the Tanakh does not depict her badly, despite being a prostitute, is that she was instrumental in the success and survival of the Israelite spies.

A similar instance is found in Joshua’s discussion of the battle with the Southern Kings. He describes the Southern Kings gathering together to fight the Israelites not just because they’re afraid for their survival, but because they see the Israelite invasion as the end of their immoral pagan societies. This moral awareness seems like a stretch in a situation where it is so much simpler and more likely to say that the kings were afraid of physical destruction.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Joshua is the total mastery Hattin displays over not just the biblical text of Joshua itself, but over any and all related rabbinic literature. Throughout the various essays that comprise the book, textual problems are resolved not just from the text, but also from the traditional rabbinic commentaries. But Hattin doesn’t just bring the commentary that he feels best resolves the problem; instead, he brings a variety of opinions, and then shows what in the text led each commentator to their opinion. When those opinions are actually based on midrashim from Hazal, he not only points this out, but goes in depth to show the various exegetical understandings underlying the midrashim.

However, Hattin’s approach to midrashim is frustratingly vague. He continuously refers to midrashim as “traditions,” but this phrase could mean prophetic revelations passed down from Sinai or rabbinic exegeses passed down through the generations. He is also unclear about whether he considers midrashim to be taken literally, figuratively, or some blend of the two. He reads them thematically, showing how the midrash plays off and expands themes of the text, but he doesn’t seem to take them to be entirely metaphorical in nature. Perhaps, however, it is for the best. Hattin’s studies in midrashim and their relationship to the text allow for appreciation of hazal not just as legalists and story-tellers, but as careful readers of texts in a way the “metaphorical” approach does not do. Midrashim are a complex and disparate body of work, and appreciating that complexity by default leads to some vagueness and ambivalence. Hattin does a good job of demonstrating that this in no way detracts from their significance; in fact, it makes them all the more meaningful.

Rabbi Michael Hattin’s Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land is a deeply religious book that is simultaneously engaged with modernity, a description that is equally apt when applied to Joshua’s audience. As part of Maggid Books’ new line of English books on Tanakh, Joshua serves as an introduction, not only to the book of Joshua, but to the field of Tanakh study in general. Many Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Jews, presumably the book’s target audience, who might once have delayed their forays into Tanakh indefinitely will now find its pages open before them. Rabbi Hattin has succeeded in making Joshua not only accessible, but incredibly meaningful as well. While Hattin does not mention the immediate, everyday, relevance of each chapter, he demonstrates the basic meaningfulness inherent in the text and leaves the reader to apply it to their daily life. Simultaneously, he introduces the reader to a range of modern literary techniques for understanding tanakh, from literary parallels to keywords. Thus armed with both newfound skills and an orientation toward meaning, the reader can begin to approach Tanakh on his or her own.