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For the week ending 15 November 2008 / 17 Heshvan 5769

High on Sinai

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jill in Brookline, MA

Dear Rabbi,

If Moses was on such a tremendously high spiritual level while on Sinai in order to receive the Torah but didn’t actually write it down until after coming down from Sinai, thereby lowering his spiritual level, how did he understand while writing as he did on Sinai? Or in other words, how can we rely on Moses’ comprehension of the Torah at the time he wrote it as compared to his comprehension at the time it was given to him by G-d while on the mountain?

Dear Jill,

This is a very interesting question. It’s based on the teaching of our Sages (Gittin 60a) that since the historical accounts recorded in the Torah took place after the Torah was given to Moses, he must not have written the entire Torah at Sinai. Rather, these events were either recorded piecemeal as they happened, according to one opinion, or at the end of the Israelites’ 40-year sojourn in the desert.

Similarly, even regarding the non-historical, legal or spiritual subjects in the Torah, the idea that Moses received the entire Torah at Sinai doesn’t mean that he wrote down everything that he received while on Sinai. On the contrary, there’s no indication that he alighted the mount with the necessary materials to write the entire Torah. Nor does there seem to be any indication that Moses brought down the Torah in written form other than the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

In fact, Ramban writes that the events of Genesis and Exodus that certainly occurred before Sinai were only written by Moses after coming down, implying that even what could have been written on the mount was not written until afterward.

Now, since Moses was on an extremely high spiritual level atop Sinai, such that he required no food, water or sleep, but rather communed with G-d in an angel-like state for 40 full days and nights, and all this in order to be able to comprehend the Torah in all it’s breadth and depth, and communicate this to the Jewish people, your question is quite apropos: how was he able to do so after having come down from such a spiritual high?

First, remember that when Moses returned his face radiated such intense spirituality that the people could not gaze at him, but rather he had to cover his face to hide the rays of light beaming from his forehead [parenthetically, the Hebrew word used for these rays of light – ‘keren’ – can also refer to horns, which might be the source for certain misrepresentations of Moses in particular, and the Jewish people in general, as having horns.] This indicates that even after descending from Sinai he still maintained a great degree of the spiritual Sinai high.

Also, before Moses ascended Sinai, and before his receiving the teachings of the Torah, the holiness of the Torah literally was in heaven and not on earth. This means that pre-Sinai such a level could only be obtained and maintained on Sinai in a heavenly, angelic state. But once G-d brought the wisdom of the Torah into the world by giving it to Moses, and Moses brought it down to the people, it became possible to attain that state even after the Sinai experience.

This is what the Torah describes regarding the Tent of Meeting, which was the dwelling place for G-d Himself within the midst of the people. There, clouds of glory surrounded the tent, and Moses alone entered the tent to commune with G-d and gain instruction from Him for guiding and teaching the people. This was a miniature Sinai, then, where Moses was able to attain and maintain the Sinai high even after coming down. Accordingly, it is not coincidental that Moses uncovered the veil when entering the Tent to continue his solo, Sinai-like commune with G-d, and then covered the energy emanating from his face when departing the Tent.

Last, it is instructive to consider the Talmud’s description of how Moses recorded the historical descriptions written in the Torah. Namely, even though Moses himself lived through these events, according to both opinions above, he did not record them in his own words but rather it was G-d who literally dictated to Moses word for word how to record the events. Similarly, regarding the laws and beliefs recorded in the Torah, it was not Moses who summarized in his own words his Sinai experience, but rather G-d who dictated to Moses word for word exactly what and how to write the Torah after having come down.

So to summarize, Moses was able to write and teach the Torah with Sinai-like comprehension even after descending from the mount because in large measure he maintained the spiritual Sinai high even after coming down. He was able to spiritually recharge through the Sinai-like Tent of Meeting and, ultimately, it was G-d who was communicating through Moses.

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