Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 19 May 2018 / 5 Sivan 5778

Shavuot: Moshe and the Angels

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: When Moshe Rabbeinu went up High (to receive the Torah), the ministering angels said before G-d… The hidden precious gem that was hidden before You, 974 generations before the creation of the world, You wish to give to flesh and blood?... G-d told Moshe… Hold on to My throne of glory and give them an answer… Moshe said: What is written in the Torah that You want to give to me? ‘I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt.’ Moshe told the angels: Did you go down to Mitzrayim? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? It also says ‘You shall have no other gods.’ Do you, the angels, live among the nations that serve idols? ‘Remember the Shabbat to sanctify it.’ Do you perform melacha, so that you need to desist from it? ‘Don’t take G-d’s name in vain.’ Do you do business that you would swear in G-d’s name? ‘Respect your father and mother.’ Do you have a father and mother? ‘Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal.’ Do you have jealousy that you would come to do any of those things? Do you have a yetzer hara?” Right away they accepted Moshe’s argument. (Shabbat 88b)

While this Gemara involves many details that deserve much attention, we will focus on one, somewhat obvious, question. What were the angels thinking? Didn’t they realize that the Torah didn’t apply to them?

To answer this question, we will first explain some very fundamental ideas in Torah thought. When spiritual things descend to this world, they are clothed in physicality. A perfect example of this is a person’s soul, which needs to be put inside a body to come to the physical world. Each part of the body corresponds to a spiritual “part” of the soul, making the body a physical manifestation of the soul. This idea also applies to the Torah. By its very nature the Torah is completely spiritual. Therefore, like the soul, the Torah needs to be clothed by physicality before coming into the world. This means that every physical phenomenon mentioned in the Torah is, in a deeper sense, referring to spiritual ideas (see Nefesh Hachaim 4:28).

Chazal tell us in many places that the Torah preceded the world, and that G-d used it as a blueprint for the world (see Pesachim 54a; Zohar, Terumah 161a). The commentaries explain that the Torah which preceded the world was entirely spiritual, and didn’t include spaces to separate the letters into words, like the Torah we have now. As Chazal tell us, the Torah is filled with names of G-d. He took these ideas and translated them into physical manifestations, such as stories and tangible mitzvot, after He decided to give it to physical beings who occupy a physical world (Introduction of Ramban on the Torah, Shut Radbaz 1068, Gra on Bava Batra 15a, Chatam Sofer on Shabbat 88b, Ben Ish Chai, drush 4 on Shabbat Kallah).

The Radbaz says this is why a Torah scroll is neither punctuated nor vowelized — so that it should not be limited to one reading. The only reason we have it punctuated in Chumashim is due to the concern that we may come to forget the physical form of the Torah. This is similar to the Oral Torah, which was meant to remain strictly oral, but was eventually written because of the same concern (Shut Radbaz 1068). The Ramban uses this idea to explain why a missing letter invalidates the entire Torah. Regardless of the fact that it is just one simple letter and the meaning is still intact, the Torah scroll is invalid because its depth changes (Ramban, Introduction on the Torah).

This idea also explains that certain segments of the Torah that may seem insignificant in fact come to teach hidden and deeper things. An example is the listing of the kings of Edom at the end of Parshat Vayishlach. At first glance it seems like the Torah is giving us a history lesson by listing the names of the kings of Edom. However, the Ramchalexplains that this section includes some of the deepest secrets about how G-d runs the world. In the words of the Ramchal: And see how Hakadosh Baruch Hu arranged the words of the holy Torah, that something that is the root of all fundamentals He included in one small section that no one pays attention to… Hakadosh Baruch Hu hid all the secrets in a way that only someone who merits will see them.

Based on this, the commentaries explain that just like the Torah we have is a physical version of the Torah, according to the physical nature of our world, the malachim (angels), too, saw a version of the Torah that was spiritual, according to the nature of their world. When they saw that G-d wanted to give it to man, they didn’t understand how, as they only saw its spiritual manifestation, which to them seemed irrelevant to the physical man. That’s why they mentioned the Torah that was hidden before the world’s creation for many years, meaning that it is above the physical nature of this world. This is the same reason why they referred to Moshe as “flesh and blood,” meaning that man is physical while the Torah is diametrically spiritual.

Therefore, G-d told Moshe to hold onto His Throne of Glory and answer them, meaning to show them how Moshe understands both the deepest parts of the Torah, which reach the Throne of Glory, and also understands the physical parts of the Torah. This was meant to demonstrate to them that Moshe can understand and fulfill the Torah on all its levels (Chatam Sofer on Shabbat 88b). Moshe then responded by asking, “What’s in the Torah that You are giving me?” The Duvna Maggid suggests that the phrase “giving me” means “according to the nature of my world,” as opposed to the Torah according to the world of the malachim (commentary on Parshat Yitro). With every halacha that Moshe mentioned, the malachim understood how it is a physical manifestation of a spiritual idea that they were familiar with. They therefore finally relented and agreed for the Torah to be given to man, who, unlike them, can fulfill it even in its physical sense (Shut Radbaz 1068, Chatam Sofer on Shabbat 88b, Shem M’Shmuel, Ki Tisa 5677).

With this we can appreciate this precious gift, the Torah. It is not just a book of stories and rules, but rather a blueprint of both the physical and spiritual realms. Through it we can learn everything. When involved in intellectual pursuits, one begins with a less intricate read, and slowly moves to more complex and difficult books. This is not so with the Torah. From the beginner who has just started learning Chumash to the scholar who is deriving esoteric ideas according to different readings of the same verses, it is truly a wonder how the same Chumash can offer something to everyone (Rav Yerucham Halevi, Da’at Chochma U’mussar, 24). May we merit appreciating the depth of the Torah and thereby come to learn and fulfill it.

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