Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ki Tisa (Midrash)

Moses’ Smashing of the Tablets

From the hilarity of Purim we turn immediately to one of the deepest, midrashically richest portions of the Torah. The focus of this parasha is the incident of the Golden Calf, and the midrash concentrates particularly upon the dialogue between Moses and God as to what is to be done with the Jewish people in wake of this shocking sin. Three entire chapters of Exodus Rabbah—42, 43, and 44—are devoted to reconstructions of the conversations between God and Moses on this subject; other chapters explore the reason for the breaking of the tablets per se, mostly in the context of the making of the second set of tablets.

These midrashim, taken as a whole, paint a fascinating picture of the personality of Moses, and provide insight into the ambiguity and uniqueness of his position. I find it significant that, in contrast to the ubiquitous use of the phrase “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and its variants in numerous passages in the Bible and in the Prayer Book; or of the phrase “God of David” or “Shield of David”; or even the interesting and sui generis usage, “God of Elijah” (2 Kgs 2:14), we never encounter the phrase “God of Moses.” On the contrary, in several places Moses is referred to as “the man of God” (see HY III: Yitro). The reason for this is in a sense quite simple: unlike the patriarchs, who for all their greatness are somehow rooted in human experience, in family and interaction with their surroundings, and as such participate in ordinary human life—Abraham is called “lover of God” or, a là Kierkegaard, “a knight of faith”—and as such can serve ordinary mortals such as ourselves as paradigms for the possibilities of human relation to God, Moses is somehow unique, standing on a rarefied, transhuman plane.

Avivah Zornberg discusses this problem in the chapter on this portion in her book on Exodus. She describes Moses as “suspended between heaven and earth,” plagued by an “ambiguous identity…. elements of uncertainty that… have always fascinated and troubled the people.” She reads the people's complaint in Exod 32:1 as “this man Moses, we do not know, never have known, what he is.” She continues: “The ease with which he relates to the upper world, and with which he converses with God, has been…. painfully contrasted with his ‘heaviness of mouth,’ in speaking with human beings. On the axis joining the divine and the human, he is posed at a point of maximum strain; some natural proclivity makes him tend toward God.”

Moses stands in the “no-man’s-land” between man and God in at least two different ways. His relationship to the people of Israel is that of a “prophet,” a messenger bringing them God’s Torah and commandments (I elaborated upon this at great length in HY I: Shavuot). According to Maimonides’ conception, God’s position in the Sinaitic revelation is something like that of Hillel who, when approached by a convert who wished to be taught the Torah while standing on one foot, gave him a succinct maxim and told him “go and learn.” God reveals Himself to the people in an epiphany whose practical contents are no more than the first two commandments: the imperative to serve the One True God and to forsake all others; for the rest, He so to speak tells the people: “Listen to Moses; he’ll teach you everything else you need to know”—which was of course quite a considerable amount.

In terms of his relation to God, Moses plays a dual role. On the one hand, he is a kind of colleague or partner in the whole enterprise of the Exodus and the Election and education of Israel. Even on the level of peshat, the straightforward sense of the text, we find some amazing things in this chapter, of the sort that the Rabbis say “were it not written, it would be impossible to say such a thing!” When God first sees the Golden Calf, he turns to Moses and says, “Leave Me be [haniha li], and I shall destroy them in a moment” (Exod 32:10). God as it were addresses Moses to ask permission to destroy the Jewish people—almost like a child asking permission of a parent (!), or like two close friends used to an utterly frank, open relationship, born of constantly working together in tandem. Or, more to the point: what God is really asking of Moses is to restrain Him: it as if He does not really want to destroy the people, but cannot control His own temper without the moral support of His friend (thus again in Zornberg, pp. 414-416). This motif recurs at least twice more: once further on in this narrative, 33:2-3, when He plans to send them up with an angel because He cannot control His own anger; and in the retelling of this incident in Deuteronomy 9:14.

On the other hand, in virtually all of the midrashim in this parsha—throughout, say, most of Exodus Rabbah 42-46—Moses appears as the great defender of the Jewish people, the relatively few words of the text being expanded into a series of arguments presented by Moses to mitigate or even excuse the people’s sin. Already in Psalm 106, a poetic summary of the history of Israel, Moses is represented as the great intercessor on behalf of Israel: “And [God] said He would destroy them, were it not for Moses his chosen one who stood in the breach before Him” [Ps 106:23]. But, as again noted by Zornberg (ibid, p. 417), his prayer at this dramatic juncture is far more than ordinary intercession, but serves to proclaim his humanity, his choice to identify primarily with the human rather than with the Divine.

It is within this context that we may read the midrashic interpretation of Moses’ act of breaking the tablets. In a simple reading of Exodus 32:19, Moses fumes with anger, hurls the tablets from his hands, and shatters them at the foot of the mountain. Now we may turn to Exodus Rabbah 46.1 and see how the midrash reads this incident:

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Cut for yourself [two tablets]…’” [Exod 34:1]. It is written there: “and He shall tell you the secrets of wisdom” [Job 11:6]. We find that when the Holy One blessed be He said to him, “Go down, for your people have acted basely” [Exod 32:7], he held fast to the tablets and did not believe that Israel had sinned. He said to himself: If I do not see, I do not believe, as is said, “and when he drew near to the camp” [ibid., 18]—he did not smash them until he saw [the calf] with his own eyes. Woe to those people who testify to that which they have not seen! [Yet] is it possible that Moses did not believe the Holy One blessed be He, who told him ” your people have acted basely”? Rather, Moses taught Israel decent behavior (derekh eretz): Even if a person heard something from a trustworthy individual, he is forbidden to accept his testimony to do anything on its basis if he has not seen it himself.

An interesting side light is derived from this incident: the importance of strict adherence to rules of testimony (which are the basis of the entire legal system), and the impropriety of accepting things by hearsay. The principle of fairness in judgment brings us to this outrageous theological consequence—that Moses did not even accept the words of God Almighty Himself!

Another thing: The words flew off the tablets; therefore he broke them, as is said: “And I saw that you had sinned to the Lord your God” [Deut 9:16]. Moses saw that they had sinned, and broke the tablets. This may be compared to a prince who married a woman and wrote her a marriage contract and gave it [to deliver to her?] to his best man. Some time later rumors were heard about her licentious behavior. What did the best man do? He tore up the marriage contract, saying: It is better that she be judged as a single woman, and not as a married woman. So did Moses do; he said to himself, If I do not smash the tablets Israel cannot stand. As is said “Whoever sacrifices to [another] god shall be utterly destroyed” [Exod 22:19]. What did he do? He broke them, and told God: They did not know what was written in them.

First, a technical comment: the marriage contract (ketubah) here seems to be an instrument used to formalize the marriage itself, rather than a writ creating a lien against the husband’s assets in event of widowhood or divorce, as it is today; otherwise, how would tearing it up mitigate the woman’s faithlessness? Secondly: the image of the words flying off the tablets is interesting, as if the tablets’ holiness was miraculously neutralized from the outset. The image is reminiscent of the Divine Presence withdrawing by stages from the Temple prior to its destruction, leaving Nebuchadnezzar or Titus to destroy mere “wood and stone.”

Compare the parallel midrash in Exodus Rabbah 43.1, which again invokes the metaphor of the faithless woman and the ketuba, and in which Moses is also like a royal viceroy grabbing the quill from God’s hand. The incredible daring involved in a human being openly defying God’s act is reminiscent of Abraham beseeching God on behalf of the people of Sodom in Genesis 18, but even more so; whereas Abraham merely argued with God, Moses so to speak physically prevents God from carrying out His sentence. This motif is a constant one in Jewish thought: human beings do not hesitate to interfere with God’s plans when it seems patently wrong—or when it threatens the integrity of the people of Israel, whether the punishment is deserved or not.

There is something naive in the concrete image of Moses grabbing the quill from Gods hand, or breaking the tablets. Is God unable to act because a mortal man has taken away some physical object, whose like He can easily duplicate? But what we have here is the projection of human legal procedures upon the Divine realm: He too is evidently bound by the proper procedures laid down in His Torah.

Another thing: “And I saw, that you had sinned against the Lord your God.” He saw that Israel has no standing [i.e., no defense], and he joined himself with them and smashed the tablets, and said to the Holy One blessed be He: They have sinned, and I have sinned by breaking the tablets. If you forgive them, then forgive me as well, as is said “Now, if you excuse their sin…” [Exod 32:32], so do you forgive my sin. But if you do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather, “erase me from the book that have written” [ibid.].

We see here Moses as identifying completely with the people, acting in daring and courageous ways. In this way, the Midrash turns the smashing of the tablets on its head: from an act of anger and rage, into one of love, of caring, of wanting the people to be judged as innocents rather than guilty.

R. Ahha said: He did not move from there until he caused their sin to be forgiven, as is said, “And Moses turned and he descended” [ibid., 15]. Once their sin had been forgiven, Moses said: Israel had someone to intercede on their behalf, but as for me, whom have I to intercede on my behalf? So he began to regret that he had broken the tablets. But the Holy One blessed be He said to him: Do not be pained on account of the first tablets, upon which there was naught but the Ten Commandments. But on the second tablets that I gave you, there shall be [written] laws, midrash and aggadot. Concerning this it is said: “And He shall tell you the secrets of wisdom, for He is manifold in understanding” [Job ibid]. And not only that, but you are told that your sin is forgiven you, as is said, “and know that God exacts of you less than your sin deserves” [ibid.].

The picture of the second tablets as containing all of the Oral Torah is interesting. We would expect the second tablets to be a copy of the first set (as we are indeed told in 34:27-28), of all of the commandments (the “Torah and mitzvah” of Exod 24:4, 7, 12; or something akin to the stones to be set up at the Jordan crossing, in Deut 27:2-8), or at most to include the full text of the Five Books (notwithstanding the anachronism). Instead, they contain “halakhot, midrash, and aggadot”—something so expansive, open-ended, virtually infinite (like the waters of the “sea of Talmud”) as to defy any sharp, clearcut definition. Clearly, these phrases are not intended in any literal sense (Did the “midrash” contained on the tablets include both versions of the Mekhilta? The Rabbot? Pesiktot? Tanhuma? To formulate the question thus is to show its absurdity.)

Rather, the image is of something so fluid as to blur all lines between past, present and future. The understanding of the Torah presented here is as something organic, free-flowing, living—and yet, in some metaphysical, half-metaphorical sense, also rooted in the great moment at Sinai. And, as Sefat Emet points out on almost every page of his great work, the Torah itself in some mysterious way mixes and mingles together elements of the divine and the human, of the revealed word and its infinite interpretations (hiddushei Torah)—much as Moses and God commune and freely interact with one another in the events of this parasha.

Gershom Scholem describes well the paradox underlying the traditional understanding of Torah:

Each and every word and letter, and not merely something general and amorphous… is an aspect of the revelation of the Divine Presence… It is only for this reason that they were able to find infinite illuminating lights in every word and letter, in the sense of seventy faces to the Torah—of the infinite interpretation and endless understandings of each sentence.… once a person has accepted the strictures of this faith and this quality of faith… he enjoys an extraordinary measure of freedom… and is able to uncover level upon level, layer upon layer, in the understanding that the gates of exegesis are never closed… The awesome faith in the power hidden within the divine word, a faith than which there is none higher, served in the past as the basis for the mystical decision based upon the exegesis of this word… [that] allows wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah…

There is much emphasis in contemporary Orthodoxy on the doctrinal aspects of belief in Torah min ha-Shamayim as a litmus test dividing the “orthodox” from the “heterodox,” the “authentic” Jews from the “innovators.” I suspect that such a dividing line is very late historically; one would be hard put to find in Hazal one single doctrinal account of what happened at Sinai and exactly what is and is not Torah. True, Rambam attempts to divine this belief as one of the principles of the faith (Haqdama le-Pereq Heleq, Ikkarim §§7-9; Teshuva 3.8); but I suspect that it is only in the more recent past—the articulation of a self-conscious, polemically-minded Orthodoxy in the 19th century by such thinkers as Samson Raphael Hirsch, or perhaps slightly earlier (someone has suggested 18th century Italy)—that this has come to be described as the sina qui non of “authentic” or “Torah true” Judaism. Perhaps those of us in the Orthodox camp would do well to open ourselves to the more open-ended spirit that moves in these and similar midrashim.

More on Hur

The more one reflects upon him, the more interesting a figure Hur becomes (see HY III: Vayakhel). Two facts: his intense passion. He must have had an unreflective, almost instinctive, total commitment to the truth of the One God, that enabled him to rush in and chastise them the angry mob without giving a second thought. Second, combined with this, he must have quite elderly: he was at least a contemporary of Aaron and Moses, if not older, having a grown, mature grandson (Bezalel), who was himself already noted for his proficiency and wisdom in many manual skills and, as suggested in many places, spiritual secrets as well. How do these two aspects fit together?

In contemporary culture, old age is seen more often than not as a problem: there is a tendency to see old age as burdensome, to think of the feebleness of some of the elderly, the need for care, the stereotype of regression to “second childhood,“ problems of senility and Altzheimer’s. The rhetoric of “Golden Age” can be a kind of whistling in the dark, as much a prettifying and denial of what people feel to be ugly, as a genuine admiration. Western culture today, put simply, worships youth. But there are other options. In traditional Jewish culture, old age is seen as a source of great moral power and wisdom. “Ask your elders and they shall tell you.” There are images of God Himself as an elder: at Sinai as an elder seated on the Throne of Judgment, or “wrapped in mercy”; or in the book of Daniel, where He is called Atik Yomin, “the Ancient of Days,” whose “beard is white a snow.” Old age is viewed as a time whne all of the experiences and knowledge of a lifetime are focused into a peak of spiritual power, leading at least in potentia to Divine insight. Hence, certain areas of esoteric knowledge, such as Kabbalah study, are traditionally reserved for a person’s later years.

Actually, the Rabbis were also well aware of the ambivalence involved in old age: “The elders of the ignorant (am haaretz), the more they age, the more confused their minds become; but the elders of Torah, the older they get, the finer and clearer their minds become” (m. Kinim 3.6). Or, in plain English, whatever tendencies may have existed earlier become more pronounced.

Images of elders are important in the Torah world; in the more traditional yeshiva and Hasidic society, elderly rabbis have an extremely important and revered role. This is so particularly in times of transition, such as our own, in which they serve as preservers and transmitters of tradition from another world. Sometimes I wonder how youngsters, like my own children, educated by American or Israeli born and trained teachers (who tend to be more fanatical than the older generation) will grow up, never having seem with their own eyes, or felt the radiance, of a European Jew.


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