Shiur: Tevet 2019 – The Thing About Miracles: From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

The Thing About Miracles:
From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

 

What is a Miracle?

 

1. Melakhim Alef 16:1-8

 

Elijah the Tishbite, an inhabitant of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.” 2 The word of the Lord came to him: 3 “Leave this place; turn eastward and go into hiding by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 He proceeded to do as the Lord had bidden: he went, and he stayed by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat every morning and every evening, and he drank from the wadi. 7 After some time the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. 8 And the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

 

What Does It Matter?

 

2. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 8:1-3

 

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders…

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following…”

 

3. Rav Shagar, Leha’ir Et Hapetahim, 114

 

Rambam thought that faith that is based on miracles is faith that has flaws. A miracle that is presented as a proof for faith is forced on a believer artificially, from the outside, such that there will always remain a gap between the believer and their faith through which doubt can slip.

Seeing miracles as a proof for faith is a manifestation of a desire to hold onto the absolute. But the absolute cannot be seized, it only reveals itself as an intangible and unmediated presence. The very logic of proofs defeat them, for they introduce a duality into faith that blocks the path to the absolute. When miracles function as proofs, they become a hard fact that externally indicate the existence of God, and in doing so they dissolve the realness of this existence and sustain the persistence of doubt.

 

The King of India

 

4. The Kuzari I:19-22, 25

 

  1. The Rabbi: If thou wert told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind thee to revere him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: How could this bind me, whilst I am not sure if the justice of the Indian people is natural, and not dependent on their king, or due to the king or both?

 

  1. The Rabbi: But if his messenger came to thee bringing presents which thou knowest to be only procurable in India, and in the royal palace, accompanied by a letter in which it is distinctly stated from whom it comes, and to which are added drugs to cure thy diseases, to preserve thy health, poisons for thy enemies, and other means to fight and kill them without battle, would this make thee beholden to him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me…

 

  1. The Rabbi: … In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: ‘The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.’ Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Herut, “This is For You, A Sign,” 78–79

 

The Haver of The Kuzari also gives miracles a central role in the context of faith. However, rather than framing miracles as proof for faith, he says that they create a connection to faith. The Haver chooses to present himself to the Khazar king as “believ[ing] in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles… who sent Moses with His law.”  The king is confused by this confession and asks, “Now shouldst thou, O Jew, not have said that thou believest in the Creator of the world, its Governor and Guide, and in Him who created and keeps thee?” In response to the king’s shock, the Haver emphasizes the miracle of the exodus from Egypt as the basis of faith. The Exodus from Egypt demonstrates God’s direct, personal relation to the Jew that transcends nature. This personal relation creates the Jew’s connection to his God and his Torah.  This great, revealed miracle demonstrates real, divine closeness, and this closeness is itself the primary revelation of faith. As far as The Kuzari is concerned, miracles are not some momentary “hocus pocus,” they are events that carry within them the sensation of direct encounter with the wondrous, the mystical. This is the religious significance of miracles, without which they have no meaning.

 

What is Faith?

 

6. Rav Shagar, “My Faith,” Faith Shattered and Restored, 22-24

 

Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “event” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you.

 

You Did Miracles For Our Forefathers

 

7. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 57

 

“With those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Devarim 29:14).” These words correctly present the deep meaning of the biblical idea of a covenant (berit), which means being a sign-representation of the past encounter, of the moment of responsibility and obligation towards the other who confronts me. Similarly for the father of the nation, Avraham: “I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring who come after you, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring who come after you. […] As for you, you and your offspring who come after you throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. […] every male among you shall be circumcised. […] and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. […] Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact” (Bereshit 17:7-13). If so, maintaining the covenant means being a body that expresses the past, as a past that was, in a present that has nothing of its own. Maintaining the covenant means living without revelation or redemption that happen to me. Instead, I see myself as “offspring who come after,” as a symbol of the event and encounter that was.

 

8. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 63

 

A covenantal life is when two people willingly exist as representations of a moment of revelation, the engagement, that happened in the past. In their past there was a “face to face” moment of revelation-responsibility, and now the couple are a symbol of that time. A life of covenant is not about the Other who reveals himself to me, but the Other who revealed himself to me, and the I, the face, who was the address of that revelation.
Here too, as with prayer and the commandments, secularized Western culture boldly tries to fill a couple with tension and expectations of revelation. This is why couples are always told about workshops, classes, magical getaways with youthful atmospheres, bungalows, taking time away from parenting, analyzing their tension, and so on and so on, ideas without end, all just so that the couple will resume discovering each other and revealing themselves to one another. However, “this is all Christian,” as Rosenzweig would say. Someone who wants to hold onto an Other who is currently revealing himself, without any disruption, is asking to live without a covenant. In a covenant, there is no revelation, only a faithful representation thereof. This forces or coerces a person to carry the covenant onward, toward the children who bear its sign.

Shiur: Tammuz 2019 – Do You Lie About God? The Meaning of Faith and Torah in a Time of Destruction

 

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, i.e., the minions of Nebuchadnezzar, are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).

The members of the Great Assembly came and said: On the contrary, this is the might of His might, i.e., this is the fullest expression of it, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, i.e., the Jewish people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations?

The Gemara asks: And the Rabbis, i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel, how could they do this and uproot an ordinance instituted by Moses, the greatest teacher, who instituted the mention of these attributes in prayer? Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He is truthful. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about Him.

 

Additional sources:

Devarim 8:7-10

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.

 

Franz Rosenzweig, “The New Thinking,” 131 – What makes The Star Jewish?

I have received the new thinking in these old words so, in them, have I given it back and passed it on. For a Christian, as I know, words of the New Testament would have come to his lips in­stead of my words, [while] for a pagan, I think, not words from his sa­cred books [would have come to his lips]—for their ascent leads away from the original language of mankind, not to it, like the earthly path of revelation—but perhaps [words] wholly his own. But to me, these [came]. And yet this is, to be sure, a Jewish book: not one that deals with “Jewish things,” for then the books of the Protestant Old Testament scholar would be Jewish books; but rather one for which, to say what it has to say, especially the new thing it has to say, the old Jewish words come. Like things in general, Jewish things have always passed away; yet Jewish words, even when old, share the eternal youth of the word, and if the world is opened up to them, they will renew the world.

 

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metsia 59b

And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

 

Exodus 23:2

You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the majority.

לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת.

 

Avot 4:1

Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:3).

 

 

What’s the Divine Part of Revelation? How Do We Find God in the Torah? Rav Shagar’s “Face to Face”

What’s the Divine Part of Revelation? How Do We Find God in the Torah?
Rav Shagar’s “Face to Face”

In a derashah for Shavuot from the year he died, Rav Shagar explores the complex relationship between the human and divine aspects of the Revelation at Sinai, as well as of the Torah. He points out the contradiction between verse that describes the giving of the Torah as speaking to God “face to face” and God’s own statement that, “no person may see my face and live.” Seemingly, revelation means encountering the divine, while encountering the divine is impossible for a human. Rav Shagar also quotes the Baal HaTanya, who points out that the Ten Commandments are a particularly human set of commandments. They’re all “banal matters that are necessitated by human intellect itself.” If the Revelation at Sinai was some sort of transcendent experience of the divine, then why are the commandments so very human? Simply on a practical level, what did revelation add? If these are intuitively obvious rules, then we didn’t even need revelation to know them. Why did God have to reveal simple, human rules?

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Moreover, what about this revelation is divine? Where do the human words and ideas end and the divine suddenly begin? In Rav Shagar’s own striking formulation, “What significance can revelation have if it must always be processed through human concepts and ideas? What connection could revelation create, when the very idea of a connection is a human idea?” If any way we try and formulate or conceptualize revelation will be unavoidably human, how can it be an encounter with, or revelation of, the divine? And what does that mean for the Torah, written entirely using human words?

As I will briefly explain below, Rav Shagar tackles each of these topics, revelation and the Torah, in turn (I’m not going to touch on every idea in the derashah, just trace out the main ideas regarding to these two issues). He explains revelation through the ideas of dialogic philosophy, which asks about how we encounter other people as unique individuals. Given that any words we could use to describe another person, or even speak to them, could just as easily describe or be spoken to a different person, how do we encounter that unique individual. Rav Shagar will conclude that the words of revelation provide a platform for the actual, wordless encounter with the divine. This will in turn lead to his understanding of the divinity of the Torah. He will argue that what makes Torah divine is not its words or ideas, themselves unavoidably human, but the way they provide a sort of linguistic space wherein we can encounter God. Moreover, this encounter “ensouls” us (Rosenzweig’s term), bringing our normally stagnant and unnoticed inner selves to the fore, as we study and create Torah from a most intimate space within us.

shagar4

Wordless Encounter in the Words of Revelation

Rav Shagar distinguishes between “indirect, theoretical knowledge” and “unmediated knowledge derived from direct recognition.” The former refers to any knowledge you could learn from a book, or hear about from another person. The latter refers to the sort of knowledge you can only get through personal experience. Revelation thus “lets you distinguish between the layer of what is common to others and the revelation of what cannot be conceptualized.”

To borrow an example from R. Jason Rubinstein, there are two ways to learn about a rainbow. You can read about the technical details of its appearance and the scientific and atmospheric phenomena that give rise to it. However, none of that can tell you what it is like to actually look at a rainbow. In order to learn that, you have to experience it yourself. Experiential knowledge, like colors and flavors, can never be learned from another person, whether in writing or in person.

It is in this category of wordless, inexplicable, deeply personal experience that Rav Shagar locates the divine within revelation, in the “divine intimacy that is bared before the believer.” This bared intimacy evokes, demands, a parallel response from the individual (or nation, as it were) who receives revelation. For Rosenzweig, whom Shagar invokes, it is responding to divine revelation that the individual is “ensouled.” We only really become ourselves in responding to someone else, and to God above all. This is the intimate relationship of love, of עשיית מצווה לשמה as described by Rambam.

When we speak with someone we love (romantically or otherwise), the words we speak are often not what matters. Sometimes what we are talking about is much less important than the simple fact that we are talking. Spending time together with someone can be more important that what you do with that time together. Those topics you speak about or actions you do together are things anyone could do with anyone else. What makes the encounter a unique encounter between two unique individuals is the presence of those two individuals. What makes revelation divine is not it’s words, but their source in God.

Torah as a Linguistic Space for Encountering God

So if that’s revelation, where does that leave Torah? If the words and ideas of revelation are not what makes it divine, then what about the words and ideas of the Torah? And what does that mean for learning Torah?

“This idea requires us to change how we think about the truth of revelation. As the creation of a space wherein reality is revealed, the revelation of the Torah, like the creation of the world, cannot be evaluated based on external facts. The Torah is speech that creates, rather than depicting or representing. The words construct their meaning, which is not evaluated based on how close they adhere to reality, but rather based on internal coherence, on being substantive and not artificial.”

If revelation involves the manifestation of the divine within the human, then the divine can be encountered just as well within the human words and ideas of the Torah. What the Torah provides is not divine ideas or texts but a linguistic “space” within which to encounter the divine. It gives us a language and a set of topics to make our own, to obsess over the way a love-struck lover obsesses over a note from their significant other. The Torah becomes God’s love note, as it were, and we explore every jot and tittle for the sake of find God in it all the more.

Like the love borne within a note, the divinity of the Torah is not a function of the way the words depict some external reality. The words of the note create a sense of love independent of external reality, and the words of the Torah do something similar for divinity. The revelation of the Torah should therefore not be seen as God informing the Jewish people about reality, about objective right and wrong, but as the creation of a covenantal relationship within with God and the people encounter each other.

This has an important implication for how we study Torah. Studying Torah is not a search for objective, external truth. It requires “substance” and “internal coherence,” but beyond that it’s about the students deep, personal engagement with the text and the attempt to fing God within it. Moreover, these students can and should learn creatively, excitedly innovating new Torah ideas. The ideas have to make sense within the broader picture of Torah, but beyond that they should be very creative. The student should enjoy the process of innovation within Torah study. In revelation created this linguistic space, talmud torah helps expand and maintain it.

In conclusion, appreciating the Torah, and revelation more broadly, is not about being able to point to specific aspects of the Torah and claim they’re divine. It’s about seeing God behind those aspects, and seeing those aspects as a pathway to encountering God. When we learn Torah on Shavuot, it’s not a scientific study about the nature of reality; it’s a deep yet playful engagement with God within the platform of Torah, a platform we can help build.

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)

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rambam begins the eighth chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah with a discussion of why the Israelites believed in Moshe. He rejects the position that they believed on the basis of the miracles they witnessed in Egypt and instead says that they believed Moshe because they witnessed Moshe being spoken to by ‘א at Har Sinai (notably, they first part of this statement clearly contradicts Shemot 14:31, but the second part works well with Shemot 19:9). In this he stands directly agains the position of Rav Saadiah Gaon in his work Emunot VeDeot, where he states that the reason Moshe was believed, the reason any prophet was believed, was because of the miracles they performed.

Rambam objected to this approach because he saw it as a manifestation of a larger trend where religion is seen as a tool for the betterment of life in this world (See also Hilkhot Tefillin 5:4). For RaSaG this issue is a non-starter, because while the emphasis was not on this world, RaSaG did see the mitsvot as being essentially for the sake of mankind. He begins the third essay of Emunot VeDeot by stating that ‘א created the world as an act of kindness, and that the giving of the mitsvot was a similar act of kindness, intended to enable the earning of reward, a motivation Rambam was very against. RaSaG therefore had no problem affirming the idea that a miracle might be the basis for Bnei Yisrael trusting a prophet.

Throughout the third section of Emunot VeDeot RaSaG develops this concept of the prophet as someone who proves the divinity of his message by performing miracles. He says that a prophet must predict the miracle beforehand, in order that it be clear that he performed the miracle. He also says that a prophet cannot be an angel, only a person, because people don’t know the capabilities of angels, and so the angel might be doing the miracle of his own power and authority, not ‘א’s. RaSaG develops a complete theory of prophetic confirmation by miracle.

He also, therefore, discusses the limits of this model. He asserts that a prophet cannot lie, because even if a prophet demonstrated that he had a divine message, who could then trust that he would transmit the message faithfully, and creatively interprets Tanakh to fit this model. He also discusses the possibility, in his discussion of the opinions that say the Torah of Moshe was already nullified, that a prophet might arise and perform miracles but say that the Torah of Moshe should not be followed. He rejects this, giving a more formal description of the process of a prophet giving instructions to the nation(3:8).

RaSaG says that, counter-intuitively, the prophet does not perform the miracle, thus establishing his authority, and then proceed to deliver his now-authoritative message. Instead, step one is that the prophet delivers his message. Then, the message is evaluated based on whether it contradicts both the intellect and the received tradition(2 of RaSaG’s 4 sources of knowledge from his introduction). If the message of the prophet contradicts either of these, it is rejected immediately. The people do not ask the prophet for a miraculous proof, nor do they care if he provides one of his own volition.

Importantly, by “the intellect” RaSaG does not mean logic, but the plainly obvious, the truths that are inherent in the human mind, including moral truths. The reason for putting so much faith in the power of the intellect, to the point of letting it reject potential revelation, is that for RaSaG both revelation and intellect has the same source. Both are given to man by ‘א. The received tradition is comprised of the written and oral traditions of the people, which of course themselves were revealed to Moshe via this process, and so were also subject to rejection if they contradicted the intellect. Thus perhaps the most important arbiter in accepting prophecy as divine is the human intellect.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily believe that there are certain divine truths inherent in the intellect of man. In the age of globalization and the internet we are more than aware that not everyone automatically agrees with us, that the ideas we think of as plainly obvious are in fact culturally conditioned. However, our intellect remains without a doubt a gift from ‘א. He created man with the mental complexity to create societies and improve the world, with the intellectual tools to realize the Image of God and the blessings He gave to man (Bereishit 1:26-30). Thus while we cannot necessarily make the clear statement that our intellect is the final arbiters of the truth of revelation, we absolutely should be using our intellect to grasp revelation critically. Rav Saadiah Gaon doesn’t just invite us to analyze the torah with our minds, he enjoins us to do so, saying that the explication and realization of the Torah is only possible through the use of the intellect (3:10). We have an obligation to approach the Torah with our minds alert, ready to grasp and explore the will and wisdom of ‘א.

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.

Parashat Yitro 5774 – What Happened At Sinai

אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם

Shemot 19 and 20 frame the picture of the Revelation at Sinai. ‘א descends on the mountain. Moshe goes up. The nation stands and shakes from afar. The scene in set and the air is full of tension. The Ten Commandments form the crescendo to the narrative. The people then express that they would rather have Moshe speak to them than ‘א, at which point ‘א gives Moshe a message for the nation. These chapters are convoluted and confusing in their entirety, causing the commentators to jump through serious hoops to find compelling explanations. The strangest part, however might be the blatant contradiction between ‘א’s actions in chapter 19 and his words in chapter 20. The Torah goes out of its way to describe ‘א descending on the mountain, presumably an important piece of the narrative, and yet in 20:19 He says, “You have seen that I spoke to you from Heaven.” So from where did ‘א speak to them? From the Mountain or from Heaven? This question, and its attending philosophical difficulties, is interesting enough on its own. However, the midrashic explanations of these events, including some very creative attempts to resolve this and other problems of the text, have some very powerful messages to teach us not just about the Revelation at Sinai but about our relationship with ‘א on the whole.

Perhaps the simplest resolution in provided by a midrash in the first few pages of Mesekhet Sukkah (TB Sukkah 5a). Based on the verse, “The Heavens are the Heavens of the LORD; but the Earth hath He given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16)[1], the gemara explains that ‘א’s presence never comes all the way down to Earth and Man can never go up to Heaven. Instead, when it says that ‘א descended on the mountain, His presence stopped a short distance above the mountain, close enough to be considered as having “descended on the mountain,” but still far enough away that ‘א could be considered to have spoken to the people “from Heaven.” This, however, stands in direct opposition to a large number of midrashim.

The Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael[2] resolves this problem by expanding the idea of ‘א descending on the mountain. Not only does ‘א descend, he brings Heaven with him. Thus ‘א descends on the mountain and is able to speak from Heaven simultaneously. This is very problematic in  regards to the midrash in Mesekhet Sukkah. If Moshe goes up on the mountain, and Heaven comes down to it, then has he gone up to Heaven? Perhaps, but regardless of that, ‘א and Heaven coming down to Earth would certainly clashes with the previous midrash.

This issue is further complicated Shemot 19:3 which reads, “And Moses went up to ‘א.” If Moshe went up to ‘א then presumably he left what is typically thought of as Earth and ascended to the divine realm. This can be explained as Moshe simply going to the location on the mountain from which ‘א had called to him, but many midrashim take it more literally. Not only do they describe Moshe ascending to Heaven, they give detailed accounts of what ensued there. Famously, the gemara depicts Moshe arguing with the Angels over who ought to receive the Torah (Shabbat 88b). Midrashic exegeses of the verses,“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O mighty one, thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty prosper, ride on.”(Tehillim 45:4-5)[3] and, “A wise man scaleth the city of the mighty, and bringeth down the stronghold wherein it trusteth.” (Mishlei 21:22)[4] depict Moshe not just as receiving the Torah, but as actively going up into the depths of Heaven and taking it himself.

A subtle prerequisite for the midrashim describing moshe going to heaven and taking the torah is the idea that the torah was already existing in heaven for moshe to go and take. One midrash not only says that the torah existed in heaven for 974 generations before the creation of the world,[5] but also that when moshe broke the Luchot the angels rejoiced, saying that the torah was now returned to them.[6] It’s also the basic assumption of the famous midrash stating that ‘א “looked into the torah and created the world,” much the way an architect has tablets and notebooks.[7] The Sifre says that ‘א agree to the suggestion of the daughters of Zelophechad because that’s how it was written before him in Heaven.[8] A Gaonic responsa uses the idea of ‘א having the torah written before him in heaven to explain why a person should not recite verses from the Torah without the text in front of him.[9]

These midrashim are not simply cute stories attempting to fill in the details of perhaps the most important moment in the history of Bnei Yisrael. These midrashim discuss the very natures of ‘א, Man, and Prophecy, the connection between us. The gemara in Sukkah takes a view that is highly transcendent. Man and ‘א are very separate, and but for the fact that there is revelation one would assume they were totally unconnected in any way. A contrast is found in the doctrine of Heaven’s Descent, wherein ‘א is manifest within this world. The lines are blurred. Similarly blurring is the conception of Moshe’s ascent to Heaven. In  a world where the Finite and Infinite can manifest in each other’s realms, it becomes difficulties to absolutely distinguish between them. This of course, is the upshot of the view of total separation.

Is prophecy something that happens to Man or something that happens to ‘א? Who is the active partner and who is the passive? When Moshe goes to Heaven and takes the Torah, then ‘א is not an active partner. This is mirrored in the later view of the Rambam where Moshe, via perfecting his intellect, unites with ‘א and learns the torah. Moshe is the active one. This is even clearer if the Torah is already a whole item in Heaven, just waiting for Moshe to come take it. The idea of Heaven’s descent makes ‘א the active one. He descends on the mountain to bring the Torah. Moshe need not even ascend, and in fact, may not have been up on the mountain at the time of the revelation. This view doesn’t see revelation as a function of man’s perfection, but rather as a matter of ‘א’s purpose. When ‘א wants revelation to happen then it does not matter whether or not man is worthy.[10]

So which is it? Does ‘א reveal himself or does man discover the divine truth? Is the Torah a document from beyond time, born of Heaven, or is it a crystallization of ‘א’s relationship with His people at the moment[11] of Revelation? The answer, as usual, is more complicated than the either/or. ‘א descends on the mountain, but Moshe also goes up. The people aren’t allowed to touch the mountain, but they do need to spend three days purifying themselves. ‘א and Man are searching for each other. The truth of revelation is that it happens between man and ‘א, sometimes one side is more active, sometimes the other, but the consistent factor is that of the relationship between them. Revelation requires relation. And this is the greatest message of the Revelation at Sinai, the clearest truth from amidst an otherwise obfuscated pericope: that ‘א and His people desire to be involved each with the other.

[1] Biblical translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Bahodesh 4

[3] Midrash on Tehillim, ad loc.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati 20:4. Strikingly, some of these descriptions are actually quite violent.

[5] This is an idea found throughout midrashic literature, based on the idea that the Torah existed for 2000 generations before the Revelation at Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai occurs in the 26th generation recorded in the Torah, which mean the remaining 974 generations have to have been before Creation. Explanations of this idea have ranged from the midrash about ‘א creating and destroying worlds before creating this one (the Arizal) to this universe actually being nearly 15 billion years old (R’ Isaac of Acre and R’ Aryeh Kaplan). It may be more likely that the Revelation at Sinai happens in the 26th generation because that’s the numerical value of YHVH, the Ineffable Name of God, also revealed in the 26th generation.

[6] Midrash on Tehillim 28:6

[7] Bereishit Rabbah 1:4

[8] Sifre Pinhas 134

[9] Teshuvot HaGeonim, Shaarei Teshuva 352

[10] The Kabbalistic idea that Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the whole Torah, rather just what was fitting for them, is an interesting combination of these views, and opens the door to discussion of the fullness of the Torah being revealed at a later date, a titillating and dangerous concept.

[11] This might be rephrased as the question, “is the Torah Timeless or Timely?” and it has serious ramifications for the way we interpret the Torah, including the relevance of using Critical Literary  techniques and parallels to other Ancient Near Eastern texts.