Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

 

Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

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Ki Tisa 5774 – Ritual vs Moral Sin in Het HaEgel, and the Nature of the Covenant with Israel

כָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בְקִרְבּוֹ

Bracketed by the sections on Shabbat and the Mishkan, Chet HaEgel is the crescendo of the second half of Sefer Shemot. The story depicts a fall from a great height as the people, fresh from affirming their covenant with ‘א, create and worship a golden calf. Following this fall, Moshe descends from the mountain and shatters the Luchot HaEdut, the physical terms of the covenant[1]. The rest of Parashat Ki Tisa records the process of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael trying to recreate the covenant with ‘א, culminating in first the revelation to Moshe of what has become know as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy[2] and second the new terms of the Covenant.

The way that the texts regarding the Mishkan surround the story of the Egel makes it quite logical to think of the Mishkan as a command which atones for Chet HaEgel. Moreover, it also meets the problems manifest in Chet HaEgel head on. The need for a physical representation of ‘א’s Presence, which was lost when Moshe failed to come down from the mountain, is replaced by the Mishkan in general and by the Keruvim in specific, which serve the same function that the Egel was meant to serve[3]. More generally, the sin of the people represents a basic inability to follow ‘א’s commands, and thus throughout the building of the Mishkan, and all throughout Vayikra, the text repeatedly emphasizes that the people did as ‘א commanded (for example, Shemot 34:4; 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 43; and others). However, seeing the Mishkan as the fix for Chet HaEgel, rather than perhaps as a response to it, ignores the very important process of the 34th chapter of Sefer Shemot.

Shemot 34 describes the creation of a new covenant with ‘א, starting with the revelation of ‘א’s “attributes of mercy”, which explain the creation of a new covenant, and then going into the terms of the covenant, wherein ‘א goes over much of what was said in Parashat Mishpatim in Shemot 21-23. ‘א will guide Bnei Yisrael and fight their wars for them, Bnei Yisrael have to destroy the altars of Idolatry in Eretz Yisrael, etc. Notably, while much of this section if reminiscent of the statues of Parashat Mishpatim, there is one section that is copied almost exactly from Shemot 23. 34:18-26 reads as follows:

18 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you-at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt. 19 Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a rnale as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. 20 But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed. 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign LoRD, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the LoRD your God three times a year. 25 You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover shall not be left lying until morning. 26 The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.[4]

Shemot 23:10-19 is starkly similar:

10 Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.13 Be on guard concerning all that I have told you. Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.14 Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: 15 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread-eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you-at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; 16 and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. 17 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the LORD.1B You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of My festal offering shall not be left lying until morning. 19The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

The similarities between these two passages, and their respective contexts, tells us quite a bit about Chet HaEgel, but the differences tell us even more. First and foremost is the stark lack of a repetition of Shemot 21:1-23:9 before the passage in Ki Tisa. Those two and a half chapters, the majority of Parashat Mishpatim, form the bulk of the terms of the original covenant. The commandments of verses 23:10-18 are a ritualistic, ‘א-focused capstone to an otherwise essentially moralistic covenant. In Chapter 34 this moral foundation is missing; The focus is entirely on commandments that Man fulfills for ‘א. Analysis of one of these commandments in particular highlights this difference. The commandment of Shabbat appears in both 23:12, as “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed,” and 34:21, as “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time”, and the difference between them is startling. In 23:12 the commandment is accompanied by the explicit stating of its purpose, namely giving rest to slaves and work-animals. This is one of two places in Chumash where the moral aspect of Shabbat is emphasized[5]. In contrast, 34:21 has no explicit rationale. Where one pasuk specifically emphasizes morality, the other pasuk very noticeably does not. These commandments have been copied from the original covenant to the new one, and this tells us something incredible about the new covenant, and the nature of Chet HaEgel.

Chet HaEgel was not a moral sin. The people do not compromise on ethical values. The wronged party was not man but ‘א. This is obvious from the fact that really they are just worshiping an idol[6]. This is also seen from the effect of the sin. This does not mean the breaking of the tablets by Moshe or the slaughter of the transgressors at the hands of the Levi’im, but rather to the pericope of 33:7-11. In these verses, the “Tent of Meeting”[7] is moved outside the camp. Whereas generally ‘א’s presence rests in the midst of the people, it now stays beyond the boundaries of the camp, and that’s where Moshe has to go to speak with ‘א. Chet HaEgel specifically rejected the relationship between the people and ‘א that was forged at Sinai, and ‘א cannot tolerate His presence dwelling in their midst. This is specifically what the new covenant was coming to fix. The people have the ethical part of being ‘א’s nation down, they just need to work on the ‘א part.

Judaism has long been identified with repetitive and ritualistic actions. The Mishkan and all of its accompanying laws are a great example of this. This leads many people to protest, saying things like, “Isn’t it enough to just be a good person?” and “Morality is the important part anyway, right?”. While perhaps the main message of the Literary Prophets (Everything from Yeshayahu through Zekharia) is the importance of Morality, even over ritual, these protests miss the point of the Torah. The Torah was not given to make Man moral. Rather it expects man will be moral. The Torah itself attests to the fact that men can and will be moral in the absence of revelation[8], and that ‘א expects no less of us[9]. The Zohar goes so far as to suggest that if all that the Torah was meant for was to teach ethical lessons, then anyone in the world could have written it, perhaps even better than in its current form[10]. The Torah is more than just a book of moral instruction. The Torah is a book about how to live in the Presence of ‘א. While it’s true that ‘א’s Presence will not tolerate immoral behavior, living a godly life means going beyond simply being moral and moving into the realm of the Holy. Morality is the starting point of the Torah, rather than its end goal. Chet HaEgel demonstrated that Bnei Yisrael, while capable of being moral, had missed the fact that they were expected to be more, that they were , and are, expected to be a nation living in the Presence of ‘א.

 

[1] In Akkadian and Ugaritic texts ‘to break the tablet’ is a legal phrase meaning to cancel or nullify a contract.

[2] BT Rosh Hashanah 17b. For a comprehensive list of the different ways commentators have broken up the thirteen attributes, including some that include “visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” amongst the thirteen, see the Steinzalt edition of BT Rosh Hashanah.

[3] See the Rashbam on the purpose of the Egel, as well as Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, and Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah. It seems likely that the Egel, rather than replacing ‘א was meant to be seen as his resting place, much like the Keruvim. This explains why Aharon so readily agreed to make it, as well as why he says that the next day will be a celebration not for the Egel, but for ‘א. This explanation requires explaining Aharon’s statement of “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4) as referring to ‘א’s presence above the Egel, while the people’s simultaneous statement of the same is referring to the Egel itself. While this is difficult, especially in light of the plural nature of Aharon’s statement, it does seem to fit best with both the situation and the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The other is in Sefer Devarim, verses 5:12-15, during the repetition of the Ten Commandments.

[6] For a differing view, see Rashi to 32:6 s.v. to dance, based on  Bereishit 39:17.

[7] The phrase “אהל מועד” normally refers the Mishkan, but it cannot mean that here due to the Mishkan not being built yet. Thus it is generally understood to mean Moshe’s personal tent, where he met with ‘א before the construction of the Mishkan.

[8] Malkitzedek was clearly considered righteous according to the Pshat, and the Midrash expands on this. Nimrod seems textually to have been considered righteous, though the midrashim say otherwise.

[9] This is implied by any story wherein we find punishment without revelation, such as the Flood narrative or the Tower of Bavel.

[10] Zohar, Parashat Beha’alotkha, 152a

Parashat Tetsaveh 5774 – The Tension Between Keva and Kavanah In The Mishkan

תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

The parshiyot of the Mishkan are peppered with examples of repeated words and phrases. Some of there because lots of parts of the Mishkan are similar, so the instructions are repeated. For example, “According to all that I show thee” (Shemot 25:9, 40; 27:8), or “round about” (Ibid 25:11, 23, 34, 35; 27:17; 28:32, 33, 34; 29:16, 20; 30:3; 37:2, 10, 11, 12, 26; 38:16, 20, 31; 39:23, 25, 26; 40:8, 33). However, there are other words or phrases that are repeated not out of functional necessity, but because they are key concepts that help us hone in on the purpose and nature of the Mishkan. In Parashat Tetsaveh there are three such phrases that stand out in particular, that of “תמיד”, “לדורותיכם”, and “לפני י-הוה ”. The phrase “לדורותיכם” shows up only five times in context of the instructions for and building of the Mishkan (Shemot 29:42; 30:8, 10, 31; 31:13), but the majority of the times it shows up in the Torah, outside of these parshiyot, it is in the context of the Mishkan and its rituals. “תמיד” shows up eight times in context of building of and instructions for the Mishkan (Ibid. 25:30; 27:20; 28:29; 28:38; 29:28, 42; 30:8), but of the eighteen times it shows up in the Torah as a whole, only once (Devarim 11:12) is it not in regards to the Mishkan and the rituals related to it[1]. The phrase “לפני י-הוה” is certainly the most commonly found of the phrases, showing up a grand total of 147 times in the Torah, of which 18 are in the parshiyot of the Mishkan in Sefer Shemot (Ibid. ), and over a hundred of which deal with Mishkan (or the Bet HaMikdash) and its rituals. These ideas are very strong themes of the Mishkan, and their repetition is meant to highlight that. The question that leads to, however, is what are these themes, and what do they mean? One might suggest that perhaps the two more dominant themes, תמיד and לפני י-הוה, are a manifestation of what Heschel called the dichotomy of Keva (קבע) and Kavanah (כוונה), Fixed Practice and Personal Intention, respectively.

Things that are Keva are fixed. They do not change. This means things like the rules of Halakhah, like the words of Tefillah. These things are established. This has a lot of advantages. The idea of Keva creates unity. When everyone is doing or saying the same thing, that creates a community. A minyan can only pray together because they’re all saying the same thing. Keva also creates consistency. When you can change what you do on a daily basis, often you do, and your actions become subject to human whim. Often, they fall away and are forgotten altogether. Thus Keva also ensures continuity. But it also has downsides. Keva tends to quash individuality and spontaneity, it leaves no room for real religious emotion. All the members of a minyan should be saying the same words, but if they’re all thinking the same things then they aren’t really davening[2]. When things are repeated day after day they can become bland and meaningless. If the entirety of a mitzvah is the physical process, then it hasn’t changed or affected the person doing it the way it ought to have. This is where Kavanah comes in.

Kavanah means personal intention. Kavanah is the soul of Halakhah, the true spirit of Tefillah. It is the meaning and emotion with which a person can imbue actions and words. Kavanah allows for a personal element. It allows for the individual to express their self. It creates a sense of freshness and renewal. It is the honest and meaningful religious experience. But it, too, has downsides. When all that matters is personal intention, the result is a sort of religious anarchy, with everyone doing their own thing. When Kavanah is the decisive factor, then you don’t practice or pray on the days when you don’t have Kavanah, which tends to leads to less and less prayer and practice. Taken to an extreme, the ideal of Kavanah totally rejects taking any form of action, which is certainly not a tenable position within Judaism. Neither one can be rejected out of hand; the goal is a balance, a sense of polarity.

For something to be Tamid (תמיד) is for it be consistent, or in other words, established. All of the actions in the Mishkan that are described as Tamid are things that are done according to a regular fixed cycle. And what could be more of a religious experience than something that is Lifnei Hashem (לפני י-הוה)? Thus, based on the dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem, we can see this tension of Keva and Kavanah even in the Mishkan. The problem with this, however, is that Lifnei Hashem does not necessarily denote a religious experience.

The phrase “Lifnei Hashem” is often applied to the same actions or rituals as the term “Tamid.” This could means that the two ideas exist in tension within the same act, but it could also imply that Lifnei Hashem simply does not contradict Tamid, and that’s how they can both be applied to the same act. This would mean that while Tamid is still Keva, Lifnei Hashem cannot be Kavanah.

Taking a step back, this seems almost obvious. The Torah does not often communicate the content of religious experiences. This makes sense as the Torah, generally speaking, is a manifestation of Keva. The Torah speaks to the entirety of the nation, creating principles and actions for the entire community of Israel. The Torah has a heavy emphasis on Law. This is where Rashi is coming from when he asks why the Torah doesn’t simply start with the first time Bnei Yisrael receive a mitzvah. When the Torah does communicate ideas related to the religious experience, it does so obliquely, through terse statements[3] or woven into narrative form[4]. It does not speak straight out or clearly about Kavanah. So what then is the meaning of Lifnei Hashem?

Lifnei Hashem is a quality of these actions performed in the Mishkan. This is because, in a sense, all actions performed in the Mishkan are Lifnei Hashem. The purpose of the Mishkan is that is is where Bnei Yisrael go to stand before and in relation to ‘א. That is where His presence dwells (Shemot 25:8, 29:45). However, this is not an inherent quality of the Mishkan. ‘א does not dwell there by necessity. Rather ‘א is present in the Mishkan in order to meet with us (Ibid. 25:22, 29:43). This is essentially arbitrary. ‘א is in the Mishkan because ‘א said so, and thus these Tamid actions are Lifnei Hashem, because ‘א said so.

What this means for our dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem is that it is not a dichotomy at all. Both terms are descriptions of the action, one describing it’s physical performance and the other referring to its nature. Tamid refers to their form and Lifnei Hashem speaks about their meaning. While still seeming somewhat simple, this is actually a revolutionary idea. People tend to assume that any action done consistently has no religious value. That automated, instructed, actions can be religious is the modern mind at the very least unlikely. In a certain sense, Kavanah has won out over and completely dominated Kavanah. People understand the importance of the religious experience, to the point of dismissing and denigrating consistent actions. In the vessels and rituals of the Mishkan, ‘א tells us, quite radically, that a regularly performed ritual can by itself exist before ‘א.

“Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, ‘א has no place in this world outside the 4 Amot of Halakha.”[5] The Halakha, the most archetypical example of Keva, is the replacement for the Mikdash in terms of the presence of ‘א. If you want to be Lifnei ‘א, you used to be able to just go to the Mikdash, or the Mishkan, and there you would stand before ‘א. Since the destruction of the Mikdash, ‘א is present in the acts and deeds of Halakha. Thus, even in the absence of Kavanah, Keva remains not just important, but as central to the life of Israel as the Mikdash once was. In the instructions for the Mishkan and it’s vessels, ‘א declares that it is through the specific actions that ‘א has lain before us that we relate to him. Despite the ultimate importance of personal intention and the religious experience, it is through Keva that we put ourselves in a relationship with ‘א.
[1] This example can also be read as being about the Mishkan, as it discusses the Land of Israel. Throughout the Torah, particularly in the second half of Sefer Vayikra, the terminology of the Mishkan is used in reference to Eretz Yisrael in order to create an equivalency there, an important underlying premise of Exile. For more on this, see the introductions to the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary: Leviticus, by Jacob Milgrom.

[2] This a general statement, but not an absolute one. Adding a personal prayer, said aloud, to the end of Shemoneh Esrei is not just allowed, it’s where Elohai Nitsor comes from.

[3] Classic examples include, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם”, “Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy,” (Vayikra 19:2) and “וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים”, “therefore choose life,” (Devarim 30:19).

[4] This obviously includes everything before the first mitzvah is given, as per Rashi, but also such stories as the Blasphemer (Bamidbar 15), the Daughters of Tselophehad(Ibid. 27), and the Spies (Ibid. 13).

[5] Talmud Bavli Masekhet Berakhot 8a.

Parashat Yitro 5775 – When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in Relation to the Law

When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in relation to the Law

Leading up to the Revelation at Har Sinai, the people are commanded not to approach the mountain (Shemot 19:12-13). Bizarrely, right before the ten commandments, perhaps the most pivotal moment of  Sefer Shemot, Moshe is commanded to once again tell the people to stay away from the mountain (19:21-24). While superficially redundant, this second command differs from the first in that it refers not only to “the people” but also to “the priests that approach God” (19:22). This immediately presents a problem as the priests (כהנים) that the Torah normally speaks of, Aharon and his sons, have not been appointed yet, nor has the Mishkan, their place of work, been built yet, nor have the relevant laws even been given yet. Though there are multiple approaches within the traditional commentators when it comes to understanding this phrase, we will focus on the rather unique approach of R’ Hezekiah ben Manoah (more commonly known as the Hizkuni). In order to fully understanding why he chose the approach that he did, we will first look at some of the more common understandings, enabling us to appreciate the unique and powerful message of the Hizkuni’s approach.

The most common understanding of the “priests that approach God” is that they are the firstborns of the Israelite nation. This approach originates in the gemara (Bavli, Zevahim, 115b), and is taken by R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, and Rabbeinu Behaye, as well as being mentioned as a possibility in the Ohr HaHayyim and the more modern Daat Mikra commentary. This interpretation is based on a few factors. First is the dedication of the firstborns to ‘א in Shemot 13, as a consequence of ‘א saving them from the death of the firstborns in Egypt. Perhaps more crucial though is the replacement of the firstborns with the Leviim in Bamidbar 3 (mentioned again in Bamidbar 8). The Leviim are dedicated to the work of ‘א’s Sanctuary, the Mishkan (Bamidbar 18:6). This implies that, before they were replaced by the Leviim, the firstborns were in charge of the work of the mishkan. However, this approach suffers from several problems. First is the understanding of the phrase “that approach God.” Ibn Ezra mentions two understandings of this phrase. The first is that this “approach” is their position during the Revelation at Sinai, that the firstborns will be standing closer to the mountain than the rest of the Israelites, though still beyond the border mentioned in Shemot 19:12-13. The problem with this is that the context of the phrase “that approach God” is the command for the priests to stay beyond the fence, implying that for some reason the firstborn would think they do not need to stay beyond the border. Thus the command has to be in response to something that happened in the past that would give the priests this impression. This is presumably what motivates Ibn Ezra’s second understanding, that the “approach to God” described in this verse is a reference to the priests bringing sacrifices on the altar that Moshe built after the war with Amalek. While this is certainly possible, and the altar was built just two chapters previous to our verse making it somewhat contextual, it suffers from not being explicit in the text. Without any explicit textual mention of sacrifices being brought on the altar, it is more likely that the altar was built as a memorial and as an act of gratitude to ‘א, in the manner of the Avot (cf. Bereishit 12:7-8, 13:18, 33:20, 35:7). However the larger issue with understanding the “priests” as the firstborn is that when the sanctified firstborn are replaced, it is not by the priests, but by the Leviim, so to say that they are priests here in Shemot 19 would be a little strange.

Though mentioned by fewer commentators, there is an approach that avoids this issue. Both Rabbeinu Behaye and the Ohr HaHayyim mention the possibility that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19 are the sons of Aharon, who will in the future be appointed as priests. This however suffers from the same lack of precedent as the previous interpretation. Simply put, before Aharon’s sons are explicitly appointed as priests in Sefer Vayikra, they have no reason to think they should stand closer to the mountain than anyone else, and so it is unlikely that they would have to be told not to do so.

This brings us to the comment of the Hizkuni. The Hizkuni actually presents two possibilities. His first suggestion makes use of the initial understanding, that the priests are the firstborns, but changes it in a way that avoids the problematic lack of precedent. Hizkuni says that it was the 70 Elders that were firstborns.[1] This has the advantage of the firstborns approach in that they are sanctified to ‘א, but it also has an explicit textual precedent. In Shemot 18, the chapter immediately prior to the one we’re dealing with, the Elders eat a meal with Yitro and Moshe “before ‘א” (18:12). While the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, it would seem to indicate a degree of closeness or familiarity with ‘א that would require them to be specifically told that they need to stay back. However, this approach can be understood in one of two ways. The first is that the “Elders” is essentially a subcategory of the “Firstborns.” While this is possible it is also somewhat strange, and not only because it is unlikely that every single one of the Elders was also a firstborn. More importantly, in this understanding the seventy Elders are firstborns, but there were plenty of other firstborns who aren’t in this category. Thus the fact that the Elders are firstborns would be merely coincidental, and it is strange that the Hizkuni would mention it. More likely is the second reading, that the Elders and the Firstborns are two separate but identical categories, both of which contributed to them being called “priests.” Thus both the sanctification to ‘א and the eating before Him are significant. This too however suffers from a strangeness, namely that not only would all of the Elders be firstborns, but that there would only be 70 firstborns in a group with 600,000 men. This is likely what prompted Hizkuni to offer his second, more original, understanding.

Hizkuni’s second suggestion is that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19:22 are the Judges and Officers appointed in Shemot 18. While his assigning of the term “priests” to the judges is quite original, this understanding has a certain logic to it, as Hizkuni explains. As support for this approach, Hizkuni quotes Devarim 1:17, “for the judgment is God’s.” Thus their very nature as judges has a certain logic to it. Meanwhile, Sefer Devarim also conflates the priests with the teachers of the Law (31:11, 33:10), a job specifically referenced in context of the appointment of the Judges in Shemot 18 (vss.16, 20). So while the priest would be the teachers once they get into the land, Hizkuni sees the teachers as the priests before the giving of the Torah. Their special positions as teachers and Judges makes them automatically closer to ‘א , not to mention it separates them from the rest of the people who they would have seen as students. This alone might have been reason enough for them to think that they should stand closer to the Revelation at Sinai, but, as Hizkuni points out, there is another reason for them to think that. The Revelation at Sinai is the revelation of the Law, and as those responsible for teaching and adjudicating that law, it is quite natural that they would have thought they should be closer. This would not have been a privilege, but a responsibility, to be as intimately involved in the giving of the law as possible. In this, however, they are rebuffed, as Moshe is specifically sent down to tell them that they are not separate, that the entire people is equal before the law. The only exception is Moshe (Aharon is included only in his capacity as Moshe’s spokesperson), who throughout Bnei Yisrael’s journey in the Wilderness receives the law via prophecy, while the judges in the desert and after Moshe’s death do not (I have written about this here). Thus, while the judges and teachers of the Law are close to ‘א, there is an important distance between them and the revelation of the Law.

The Hizkuni’s comment has an important lesson to teach us about the relationship between the people of Israel, rabbinic authority, and the Torah. We know from Devarim that, “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (33:4). The law was not given to its teachers, to the judges, but to the entirety of the people of Israel. Rabbinic authority is not inherent in the rabbis, but comes from their familiarity with the law; not from creating the law but from understanding it. Thus it is incumbent upon all of Israel, each and every one of us, to approach the Torah personally, not to depend upon rabbinic intermediaries. The Torah belongs to all of us, and we each have our own portion in it. It’s not enough to trust that someone knows the law, we have to understand and appreciate it ourselves.

[1] In this he combines Zevahim 115b with מכילתא בחדש פ״ד.