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.

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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.