Shavuot Edition: A Unified Nation

Levels of Torah

Why did Moses have to inform God what happened?

Table for Five: Shavuot Edition

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!” and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord.

Ex. 19:7-8 Torah reading for Shavuot

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

Amazingly, Torah is accessible, and we are meant to become very familiar with it, to learn it relentlessly in pursuit of Ultimate Truth. Torah is all we should really need, as the Talmud says, “Had the Jewish nation not sinned, they would have only received the five books of the Torah, and the Book of Joshua which deals with the division of Eretz Yisroel.”

The Talmud is saying that had the Jewish people not sinned with the golden calf, we would only have needed the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua. This is because there is more than one level of Torah, something called Toras Atzilus, the level of Torah for the Messianic Era. It was the level we were about to receive after saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!” That was the level of the first tablets that Moses broke. Toras Beriyah is the level of Torah we presently live by, which contains 613 mitzvos and which has spawned countless other works to explain how to properly fulfill them.

Toras Atzilus emanates from a higher spiritual realm where only two mitzvos are necessary: I am God your God, and There can be no other gods besides Me, the first two Ten Commandments. What happened to the other 611? They’re still there, just incorporated in these two primary mitzvos. On this level of consciousness, they do not need to be itemized since a person will automatically do them by fulfilling these two mitzvos.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud Yeshiva University

Of all the meetings between Moses and God this may be the most remarkable – as well as the most incomprehensible.

The Israelites had just made a commitment. They agreed to fully accept the Torah. “And Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord.” I can just picture in my mind the joy with which Moses shared the good news with the Almighty. But it simply doesn’t make sense. Did Moses actually have to inform God what happened? Did God have to hear the news secondhand? Our comprehension of the Almighty assumes His total knowledge of everything that happens here on earth. He sees all, He hears all, He knows all.

Why did Moses have to make sure that the Almighty finally found out that the Jews unanimously voted “yes”?

Obviously, we have misread the text. Moses did not come to inform the Lord; he came to rejoice with Him. Prior to this moment there had been many miracles – miracles performed by God. The splitting of the sea as well as the previous ten plagues were acts that defied laws of nature. But godly miracles are only called miracles because they are beyond human capabilities. A much greater miracle, one that deserves true awe and respect, is a superhuman act achieved by human beings – people with freedom of will whose commitment, vision and dedication permit them to demonstrate personal greatness. THAT was the greatest miracle of Sinai – and the one we hope someday to replicate: a wholly unified nation choosing to live by the values of Torah.

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua

In unison they sang! Not uniformly. A dilemma in our time is moral absolutism; more people are becoming fundamentalists. Some believe their moral outlooks are the only ones that matter. However, revelation and religion, from a human point of view, are best perceived, deciphered, and understood as having multiple facets of divinity, godliness and pathways “back to the mountaintop.”

But, wait, did not God’s voice go out and kill the idolaters?! Rabbi Tanhuma said of the voice that Exodus reports – “The Lord has spoken” – that it went out with two frequencies. One shook, vibrated and destroyed the idolaters and their nations. The other was compassionate, covenantal and instructive.

And what about Tractate Shabbat that describes God holding Mt. Sinai over our heads? “If you will not accept Torah, here will be your grave!” One could learn from such texts to be a moral bully. But it’s an exhortation about a good and righteous way forward; there’s no license to start missionary work at airports and in the subways. For sure there’s no license to kill. The midrash in Shemot Rabbah goes on to say that each and every soul receives Torah according to his or her own koach, strength. What a Jew does to bring the holiness of Torah into action and to create a world of holiness is their business. While the how and why might differ, we are unified in those endeavors.

Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays in the Torah, along with Passover and Sukkot. Like Passover and Sukkot, it is an agricultural holiday. Unlike the other two, the Torah does not connect it to any historical event. The Torah has no knowledge of Shavuot being associated with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This significance was added centuries later by the rabbis.

In fact, the Torah provides no holidays or mitzvot requiring us to commemorate Torah revelation. We have daily and weekly rituals, not to mention Passover, to remember the exodus from Egypt. Shouldn’t the Torah make sure we give the same attention, if not more, to the gift of Torah? Rav Menachem Leibtag posits that the Torah may implicitly be sending a message that the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai shouldn’t be a historical event to be remembered, but rather something to be experienced continuously. Every generation should feel as though God speaks directly to them. And not just once, but every single day. This is what the rabbis achieved when they connected Shavuot to Mt. Sinai. We are asked to go beyond remembering history. On Shavuot, we try to experience the giving of Torah firsthand. To feel as though we, ourselves, are standing at Sinai and are part of the ongoing process of revelation. Torah is given to us again, anew. When we study and interpret text, we become active participants in the dialogue of our tradition, adding our voices to the chain.

Kylie Ora Lobell, Community Editor, Jewish Journal

The more I follow the Torah, the happier I am. It’s just a fact. As much as I try to resist it (I’m looking at you, yetzer hara), I’ve learned that following the commandments as closely as I can has resulted in me having a much more joyful and fulfilling life. I grew up without any religion and became an atheist when I was 12. I didn’t believe in God and thought that I was in control of everything and that there was no bigger plan for me. But when my boyfriend (now husband) Daniel took me to a Chabad for Friday night dinner, everything changed, and it led me down the path to conversion. But even after I dipped in the mikvah and officially became a Jew, my Jewish journey didn’t stop there. Every year, I make goals to take on more and more – learn how to pray in Hebrew, study the Torah every week, focus on shalom bayit – and the more I do, the better I feel. The better my life gets. The Jewish people were resistant to the Torah at first. They didn’t recognize that the Torah was the ultimate guidebook for life, the ultimate truth. Their yetzer haras took over. But once they did realize the holy power of the Torah, their attitudes changed. They accepted the Torah. They accepted God in their lives. This Shavuot, I encourage you to accept the Torah all over again and rededicate yourself to living Jewishly. You’ll see the monumentally positive effect it has on your life.

With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, and Kylie Ora Lobell

Image: Moses Addressing Children of Israel by John James Chalon c. 1835

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