Saturday, February 06, 2010

Yitro (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at February 2006, January 2008 and February 2009.

“Moses Ascended on High”

The account of the epiphany and Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, which forms the center of this week’s parashah, is the subject of much Rabbinic aggadah. Several consecutive pages are devoted to the subject in the ninth chapter of Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud (86a-89b), beginning with a detailed discussion of the chronology of the events, and whether Ma’amad Har Sinai in fact occurred on the 6th of Sivan (as we celebrate it on the Festival of Shavuot) or on the 7th; and goes on to detailed discussion of other aspects of the events. One of my own favorite aggadot from this group deals with Moses’ encounter with the angels when he ascended on high to receive the Torah. Shabbat 88b-89a:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels said before the Holy One blessed be He: What is one born of woman doing among us? He said to them: He has come to receive the Torah. They said to Him: A precious treasure, which has been hidden away with You for nine hundred seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood? “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? The Lord, our Master, how wondrous is Your Name in all the earth, your glory is upon the heavens!” (Psalm 8:4, 2).

The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: Give them an answer. He said to Him: Master of all worlds, I am afraid lest I be burnt up by the breath of their mouths. He said to him: Take hold of the Throne of Glory and give them an answer, as is said, “He takes hold of the face of the throne, He spread upon him His cloud” (Job 26:9). Rabbi Nahum said: This teaches that the Almighty spread the radiance of His Presence and of His cloud over him.

Two striking things about this passage: First: Why did Moses ascend on high? The literal sense of our Biblical text depicts the Revelation as occurring at the top of the mountain: Moses had to ascend to meet God but, equally so, God must “descend” (as stated repeatedly, in Exod 19:11, 18, 20) to meet Moses. Here, as in many other religious and spiritual traditions, the mountain top functions as a kind of a “half-way house,” a natural symbol for the meeting between heaven and earth: the highest possible place that a human being can reach by natural means, to which the Deity in turn descends to meet him. (Note also the use of mountains as sites of worship in other traditions: Mount Olympus, the hill on which the Parthenon is located, the proverbial mountain tops in Tibet where Buddhist monks withdraw from the world, and even Gurdjieff’s imaginary “Mount Analogue” come to mind. Interestingly, in Judaism emphasis is placed on the fact that neither Zion nor Sinai are the highest mountains around, but are lower than their neighbors.)

In any event, our midrash seems to assume that the Torah is located in heaven: to receive it, Moses must not only ascend to the top of a mountain—a place accessible by natural means—but must perform a miraculous ascent to the Heavenly realms, where God resides. (Similar ascents appear in later Apocryphal and Merkavah literature, performed by such figures as Enoch, Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiva and others.)

The second striking thing is that the angels are portrayed in human fashion, filled with jealousy and anger and other intense emotions, over the fact that a human being is violating their space and receiving a gift which rightfully—so they think—belongs to their realm. The picture of the angels portrayed here is thus very different from that in medieval sources, for example in Rambam Yesodei Ha-Torah Ch. 4, where the angels are described as spiritual beings, bereft of wills or emotions of their own, created to serve and to adore the Creator; indeed, the yare sublime creatures made of pure intellect, without any body at all. Here, they are filled with passion and, from what Moses says, all too ready to strike out and consume him with the breath of their mouths.

Interestingly, God appears here in the role of Moses’ friend and protector (against His own creations!), and the remedy he offers him is an interesting one: “hold fast to My throne.” Much like the altar in the Sanctuary, it is a safe place; the angels would dare not attack anyone who holds on to the Divine throne and over whom God has spread His “cloud”—portrayed as a kind of concrete embodiment of His Shekhinah.

He said before Him: Master of the Universe, the Torah which you have given me, what is written therein? “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2). Say to them: Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should you have the Torah?! Again, what is written therein: “You shall have no other gods before me” (ibid., 3). Do you find yourself among the nations who worship stars / pagan deities? Again, what is written therein: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (ibid., 8) Do you engage in labor that you need to rest? Again, what is written therein: “You shall not take [the name of the Lord in vain]” (ibid., 7). Do you do business among yourselves? Again, what is written therein: “Honor your father and mother” (ibid., 12). Do you have father and mother? Again, what is written therein: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal” (ibid., v. 13). Is there jealousy among you? Is there lust [lit., “the Evil Urge”] among you?

Moses’ answer (once he has overcome his fear of the angels) is a simple one: the Torah is not an esoteric, “heavenly” teaching, but is tailored to the human condition, with all its weaknesses and lacks; hence, the angels’ jealousy is unwarranted. Human beings are subject to economic necessity: they must labor to provide their needs—hence, they need the day of rest on Shabbat; they engage in business, which leads to disputes about money, litigation, and taking oaths—hence, the rule about not taking God’s name in vain; they are biological beings, flesh and blood born of parents—hence the need for a commandment about honoring them; they know sexual desire, which often surfaces in unexpected and inappropriate ways—hence the law about adultery; the passion involved in sexual jealousy and other disputes can in turn lead to violence which, because we are mortal beings, makes murder a real possibility… and so on.

Interestingly, the two most fundamental mitzvot of all—accepting that “I am the Lord your God” and eschewing idolatry—are grounded here in the specifics of the Jewish people’s experience: their deliverance from the Egyptian enslavement is the basis upon which the Sinaitic covenant rests, and their dispersion among pagan nations makes the ban on idolatry more than theoretical.

What, then, is this midrash really about? The issue at stake is ultimately a simple one: what is the nature of the Torah? Does it belong on heaven or on earth? Is its focus spiritual or corporeal? And, one may reasonably conjecture, the answer to this question is addressed, not only to the angels, who may be seen as a kind of literary foil, but to others within the Rabbinic community of discourse.

The angels refer to the Torah as hemdah genuzah, “a hidden precious-treasure.” There are many places in Hazal where the Torah is portrayed as a spiritual entity: if not an apotheosis of God Himself, then at very least the most perfected embodiment of His Wisdom—which is the highest and most sublime of all His qualities. The very first section of Midrash Rabbah speaks of the Torah as the blueprint from which God created the world: “He looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Even if Kabbalah as we know it was created in Spain and Provence in the 12th and 13th centuries and later (the Zohar is conventionally dated about 1290), the notion of “secrets of Torah” or “hidden wisdom” (סתרי תורה, חכמת הנסתר), of esoteric teachings embedded within the Torah, is very ancient, and formed part and parcel of the Sages’ world-view. (Remembering, too, that ‘Torah” means, not only the actual text of the Five Books that are written within the Torah scroll, but refers to the entirety of the Written and Oral Torah in the broadest sense, including “whatever a venerable sage may innovate in the future.” The Torah text is, so to speak, merely the tip of the iceberg, of something “vaster than the land and deeper than the sea.”}

Moses’ answer was clearcut: whatever else it may encompass, the Torah is addressed to human beings, and contains laws and guidelines for the practical running of human society and the harmonious life of individuals and families. In the age-old debate between body and spirit, Moses (and the authors of this midrash) come down solidly on the side of saying that this is a false dichotomy: that religious teaching is concerned, not only with metaphysics and speculations about the secrets of the cosmos and the nature of the Godhead, but with the concrete, everyday world of flesh and blood men and women, with all their needs, limitations, and passions.

We now turn to the denouement:

Immediately, the Holy One blessed be He concurred with him, as is said, “The Lord our God, how glorious is Your Name” (Ps 8:10) but [the words] “that your glory is given in the heavens” is not written there [i.e., unlike the case in verse 2, which is otherwise identical to it]. Immediately, each one of them [the angels] became his friend and gave him a gift, as is said: “You ascended on high, you were taken captive, you took gifts among men” (Psalm 68:19). By virtue of being called “man,” you took gifts.

Even the Angel of Death gave him something, as is said: “And he took the incense and atoned for the people” and it says, “and he stood between the dead and the living” (Numbers 17:12-13). Had he [the Angel of Death] not told it to him, how would he have known?

The concluding section of this story is charming in its very artlessness. The angels are convinced by Moses’ answer, clarifying the earth-bound nature of Torah; immediately, they all make friends with him and give him gifts (it does not state what). And, strikingly, the most frightening angel of them all, the Angel of Death, shows him the secret “antidote” to death: the incense, which he uses to good effect in the Korah incident.


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