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:)


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.)


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)


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)


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)


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.)


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)


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.)


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

(בבלי בבא בתרא טו.)


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)


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)


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

[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.

Shavuot 5774 – Reason and Revelation: Why does it matter that the Torah is Divine?

Why Does it Matter That the Torah is Divine?

“The streams of reason and revelation either run parallel or in different directions. If they run in different directions, then only one of them leads toward truth, while the other one leads toward error. If they run parallel, why do they need river and sea at the same moment.”[1]

This dilemma, known as the problem of Reason and Revelation, is something that goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato suggested that if Revelation is reasonable, as it generally seems to be, then it would contain nothing Reason could not produce on its own. Revelation would therefore serve no real purpose, being simply a repetition of Reason. Religious scholars since then have proposed multiple solutions to explain what purpose Revelation would have, what advantage it would possess over Reason. Some of the proposed motives were quantitative, stating that there was no essential difference between Reason and Revelation, but that functionally Revelation added something. Others made qualitative differentiations, stating that Reason and Revelation actually lead to the different conclusions and produce different content. However, all were trying to answer the same basic question: Why is it important that ‘א wrote the Torah?

Eliezer Berkovits book, “God, Man and History”, was devoted to founding a whole theology on his resolution to the Reason/Revelation problem. He resolved it by saying that  while Reason and Revelation do lead to the same content, only Revelation creates Obligation. In order for there to be Law, there must also be a Law-Giver, one who enforces the law. Therefore Revelation, which involves the relationship between the Law-Giver and those who must keep the law, also gives the law binding force. If someone thinks up the law on their own, there’s really no motivation for them to necessarily follow it, as opposed to when you have an external force, in this case ‘א, to enforce the Law, in this case the law of the Torah. Reason can generate laws, but only Revelation can obligate you to keep them.

Rav Saadia Gaon, leader of the Babylonian academies in the 9th-10th centuries, took a slightly different approach. He said that the idea that Reason and Revelation could generate the same information was only mostly true. For the most part Reason can keep up with Revelation, but not quite. For Rav Saadia Gaon, Reason falls short on two levels. Firstly, it doesn’t always get the details. Reason can tell you that stealing is wrong, but it won’t necessarily tell you that borrowing something without asking is tantamount to stealing (for example). More importantly, Reason as an abstract concept is one thing, but on a practical level Reason is something that varies from person to person, and not every person will reason out the same laws. You can’t make a law system in which each person is required to obey different laws. This problem is avoided by having one law-giver who reveals the laws to the society.

Of all the Kabbalists, Ramban is perhaps the most well known and certainly the most well read. This is due to the popularity of his commentary on the Torah. In addition to its sharp, text-oriented comments, Ramban’s commentary also features very mystically oriented comments. Some of these are famously clipped and cryptic,[2] but many go on to explain at length the mystical secrets hidden behind the surface layer of the text. These mystical understandings of the text could never be derived by Reason. As divine secrets, they have to be revealed by the Divine. Thus a revealed law is only partially reasonable; it’s also a godly mystery.

Heschel took a fairly unique approach to this issue. Taking the principle of Divine Authorship very seriously, he proposed a model of the Torah that could not possibly be written by man.

The Bible is primarily not man’s vision of God but God’s vision of man. The Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology, dealing with man and what He asks of him rather than with the nature of God.[3]

Heschel suggested that the Torah contains information that Reason could not possibly conceive, because it requires the Divine perspective. This mean that even if all the information in the Torah were completely reasonable, Reason and Revelation would still not be comparable. The divine perspective means that everything in the Torah is considered to be important by ‘א. While Reason is powerful, perhaps even theoretically unlimited,[4] ‘א’s perspective is something it could never compete with.

These are just a few many resolutions that have been suggested to this problem throughout history, from within the Jewish Tradition and from without. However, the most important part of the discussion is something seen most obviously in the arguments of Heschel and Berkovits. Berkovits emphasizes the part of the “revealer” in Revelation. Heschel focuses on ‘א and His Perspective as the basis of the Torah. The basic idea behind both of these ideas is that what makes Revelation important is that it is the Revelation of ‘א. The Torah is not just a book of laws created by a divine being. It is a book created by the Creator of the World. In the Torah, the Redeemer of Israel reveals His Will. Our God, and the God of our Fathers, placed His Wisdom in a text for us to study, to immerse ourselves in, not just because of the Torah itself, but because it is a way to connect to Him. It matters that the Torah is divine because learning a Divine Torah puts us in relation to the God of Israel. We used to hear His word from the mouth of his prophets; now we hear it from the text of His Torah.

[1] A.J. Heschel, The Quest For Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy, “Reason and Revelation”, Pg. 50

[2] Ramban’s student, Rabbeinu Bachye, also wrote a commentary on the Torah, and many of his comments explicate the secretive statements of his teacher.

[3] A.J. Heschel, Man is not Alone, 129

[4] Rav Re’em HaKohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Otniel, in a shiur given at Yeshivat Har Etzion.