Sunday, November 9, 2008

Giving the Torah - Angels (slightly late)

Sorry, I am late but I was under the weather.

I found section 49 fascinating because it so encapsulizes Rabbinic thinking. Anything can be questioned even G!d's actions. Then it is debated using arguments based on Torah verses and logic. The result is often a new way of seeing things.

Here the debate leads us to the point that Torah is not for those who find leading a moral life easy, like the angels, but those who need its guidance. It also points out the danger of elitism, the good things should only go to those who are or think themselves superior to others.

Section 49

R. Joshua ben Levi taught: When Moses went up on high, the ministering angels dared say to the Holy One: Master of the universe, what business does one born of woman have in our midst? God replied: He came to receive the Torah. They argued: This precious thing, which has been stored with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You are about to give to mere flesh and blood? "O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is Thy Name in all the earth! Let Thy majesty continue to be celebrated above the heavens. . . .

What is man that Thou shouldst be mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou shouldst think of him?" (Ps. 8:2 and 8:5). Then the Holy One said to Moses: Let you be the one to reply to the ministering angels. Moses spoke right up: Master of the universe, I fear that they will consume me with the fiery breath of their mouths. God said: Take hold of the throne of My glory and reply to them. Moses spoke up again: The Torah You are about to give me--what is written in it? "I am the Lord thy God, that brought thee out of the land of Egypt" (Exod. 20:2). Then, turning to the angels, he asked: Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh?

What need have you for the Torah? What else is written in it? "Ye shall have no gods that others worship" (Exod. 20:3)--do you live among nations who worship idols? What else is written in it? "Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exod. 20:7)--are there business dealings among you [that might lead to swearing a false oath]? What else is written in it? "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exod. 20:8)--do you do the kind of work that requires you to rest? What else is written in it? "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Exod. 20:12)--do you have father or mother? What else is written in it? "Thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal" (Exod. 20:13)--is there rivalry among you, is the impulse to evil within you?At that, the angels conceded to the Holy One, for at the psalm's end, they said once more, "O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is Thy Name in all the earth," although they did not add [as before], "Let Thy majesty continue to be celebrated above the heavens."

Then each of the angels came to be favorably disposed toward Moses and gave him a token of his favor, as is implied by what was said to him: "Thou hast ascended on high; thou hast taken the prize [of Torah]; thou hast received gifts [to compensate for the angels' calling thee] a mere man [a groundling]" (Ps. 68:19). Even the angel of death turned over his secret to Moses, for later, after the plague had begun, it is said of Moses that he told Aaron to "put on the incense and make atonement for the people" (Num. 17:12); and Scripture goes on to say, "And he stood between those who were about to die and those who were to remain alive" (Num. 17:13). How would Moses have been able to distinguish between the two, had not the angel of death made him a gift of the secret?

1 comment:

Richard Friedman said...

What has always struck me about this midrash (aside from the message that Torah is for mortal and fallible beings who live in the real/physical world rather than for the denizens of some ideal realm) is the fact that God turns over to Moses the task of answering the angels' complaint -- the multitudes of fire-breathing angels challenge God, and God says to the single flesh-and-blood interloper, "Hey, Mose, why don't you take a crack at this one?"

It's a feature we should know from innumerable places in literature -- David vs. Goliath, Milo vs. the demons in The Phantom Tollbooth, beamish boy vs. Jabberwock, Tom Sawyer vs. Injun Joe are the ones that come to my trivial mind. But I still find it startling.