Moshe’s ascendance to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah as described in this week’s parsha fires the imagination, causing Chazal to imagine what occurred at the summit of the mountain. One of the famous descriptions of what happened on Mount Sinai is found in the Gemara in Tractate Shabbat 88b-89a:
“And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended on High to receive the Torah, the ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, what is one born of a woman doing here among us? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: He came to receive the Torah. The angels said before Him: The Torah is a hidden treasure that was concealed by you 974 generations before the creation of the world, and you seek to give it to flesh and blood? As it is stated: “The word which He commanded to a thousand generations” (Psalms 105:8). Since the Torah, the word of God, was given to the twenty-sixth generation after Adam, the first man, the remaining 974 generations must have preceded the creation of the world. “What is man that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You think of him?” (Psalms 8:5). Rather, “God our Lord, how glorious is Your name in all the earth that Your majesty is placed above the heavens”(Psalms 8:2). The rightful place of God’s majesty, the Torah, is in the heavens.The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Provide them with an answer as to why the Torah should be given to the people. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, I am afraid lest they burn me with the breath of their mouths. God said to him: Grasp My throne of glory for strength and protection, and provide them with an answer. And from where is this derived? As it is stated: “He causes him to grasp the front of the throne, and spreads His cloud over it” (Job 26:9), and Rabbi Naḥum said: This verse teaches that God spread the radiance of His presence and His cloud over Moses. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, the Torah that You are giving me, what is written in it? God said to him: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt from the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Moses said to the angels: Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? God said to him: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Moses said to the angels: Do you dwell among the nations who worship idols that you require this special warning? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? The Holy One Blessed be He said to him: “Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:8). Moses asked the angels: Do you perform labor that you require rest from it? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7), meaning that it is prohibited to swear falsely. Moses asked the angels: Do you conduct business with one another that may lead you to swear falsely? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). Moses asked the angels: Do you have a father or a mother that would render the commandment to honor them relevant to you? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? God said to him: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal.” Moses asked the angels: Is there jealousy among you, or is there an evil inclination within you that would render these commandments relevant? Immediately they agreed with the Holy One, Blessed be He, that He made the right decision to give the Torah to the people, and as it is stated: “God our Lord, how glorious is Your name in all the earth” (Psalms 8:10), while “that Your majesty is placed above the heavens” is not written because the angels agreed with God that it is appropriate to give the Torah to the people on earth.Immediately they agreed with the Holy One, Blessed be He, that He made the right decision to give the Torah to the people of earth. Immediately, each and every one of the angels became an admirer of Moses and passed something to him, as it is stated: “You ascended on high, you took a captive, you took gifts on account of man, and even among the rebellious also that the Lord God might dwell there” (Psalms 68:19). The meaning of the verse is: In reward for the fact that they called you man, you are not an angel and the Torah is applicable to you, you took gifts from the angels. And even the Angel of Death gave him something, as Moses told Aaron how to stop the plague, as it is stated: “And he placed the incense, and he atoned for the people” (Numbers 17:12). And the verse says: “And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” (Numbers 17:13). If it were not that the Angel of Death told him this remedy, would he have known it?
One can ask many questions about this Gemara, for example:
- Did the ministering angels not know the reason “Moshe came” to Mount Sinai?
- How can one explain that the angels argued with Hashem, since the mission of the angels is to fulfill the will of their Creator?
- Why was Moshe afraid to answer the angels after Hashem asked him to do so?
- What is the significance of the “throne of glory” and why did Moses’s grasping of the throne aid him in his argument with the angels?
- Why did Moshe use examples of Mitzvot which are simple and logical in order to be victorious in his argument?
- Why did Moshe’s claims convince the angels in such a drastic way?
However, I would like to focus specifically on the words of the angels to Moshe after he convinced them that he was correct: “In reward for the fact that they called you man…you took gifts” — what is the meaning of this sentence?
The giving of the Torah to man, full of weaknesses, desires, passions, and weaknesses should be a red light, a danger, according to the angels. The danger in the giving of the Torah, a book containing the will of Hashem, His words and expectations, to flesh and blood, who can by means of his free will use the wisdom of Torah for negative things was and is a danger to the glory of Hashem. Man who has free will is able to not obey the will of Hashem as explained in the Torah and thus, not only not fulfilling what is written in it, but adding insult to injury, intentionally having contempt for Hashem’s will — a reality that will lead to profaning the name of Hashem. The angels cannot accept an existence where it is possible to choose not to do the will of Hashem; in which the danger is so critical and so essential that they come out “against” the intention of hashem to award the Torah to flesh and blood people. Additionally, the angels took a negative position on the ability of Man formed from matter to assimilate spiritual values and to apply them to his life.
Moshe does not argue with the claims of the angels, but just the opposite, he strengthens their claims and uses them. Moshe’s claim is that the purpose of the giving of the Torah and the purpose of the Torah is to change man to be more heavenly, but not just heavenly and spiritual. The grave dangerous reality hidden in the fact that man will not listen to the voice of the commands of the Torah is painful and real, but the chance that he could use the Torah as a spiritual, ethical, and correct values compass more than compensates for the danger. The free choice of a person who chooses correctly creates a reality of fundamental honor before Hashem. A person who chooses to do the will of his Creator which does not always agree with his independent desires displays how essential is his connection to the Master of the World. A person relinquishes his natural personal desires in order to fulfill the desire of his Father in Heaven.
Moshe intentionally uses examples of commandments directly connected to our essence as human beings who have within them jealousy, the desire to chase after honor and glory, feelings and the ability to do physical labor, all of which are the specific reasons that we need Torah and mitzvot. Already from the time of creation, the combining of heaven and earth, of the chosen one of creation and his Creator stands at the center of the world’s existence. The question of balance, the connecting bridging link between man and his Creator, between the potential within us and the Divine expectation that man will continue to discover God in nature is the question of our continued existence on earth. The nature of the world in which we live and the world that we will leave to the coming generations depends on the question of the correct equation between the fulfilment of human, national and universal potential and our relationship with Hashem.
Many times a person feels trapped which causes him to act in an improper manner. The physicality that is in person pushes him downward to earth, but he does feel that he can resemble Hashem in creating and doing, in thought and imagination – “bringing God to earth”. Man runs back and forth between voluntary submission to Hashem’s will and domination, between building the Tower of Bavel and “I am but dust of the earth”. Man lives with a dual challenge — the first challenge is in relation to himself — where does he need to bring himself and how does he establish a balance between the physical and the spiritual powers that affect him. The second challenge is the relationship between him and God which is influenced by the first challenge.
The Torah was given to Moshe in order for it to be given over to the Nation of Israel — “ because you are called Man”. The Jewish message of the Ten Commandments and the receipt of the Torah is not only a Jewish lesson but also a universal message. The message is that a person can change, that humans can and need to change. We have the ability, the strength and now the means to fashion this change by receiving the Torah. The Jewish message is that one does not have to choose between the physical and the spiritual, that one can integrate them. The exact formula is not clear, the balance is sometimes broken, but the goal remains in place, the synthesis of heaven and earth. “Grasping My throne of glory” — Hashem’s throne of glory which symbolizes the connection between the Creator and His world is based upon us — mankind who bears the power of choice, and upon the Divine expectation that we will choose correctly and be the model to imitate for the rest of the nations, to be the link connecting heaven and earth.