The Case for Receiving the Torah: Moshe’s Debate with the Angels

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Reprinted with permission from Rabbi Bernstein’s new book, The Call of Sinai

Following the event of the nation hearing the Aseres HaDibros, the Torah relates that Moshe ascended the mountain to receive the rest of the Torah on their behalf. As we will see, he was met in this matter with considerable resistance. The Gemara relates the following:

When Moshe ascended on high (to receive the Torah), the ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, “Master of the world, what is someone born of a woman doing among us?”

Hashem said to them: “He has come to receive the Torah.”

They said before Him: “The coveted treasure that was stored away by You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You intend to give it to flesh and blood?! What is a mortal that You should remember him, or the son of man that You should recall him?[1] Hashem our Master, how mighty is Your Name throughout the world, so that You should bestow Your glory upon the heavens!”[2]

Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, to Moshe: “Give them an answer.”

Moshe said before Him: “Master of the world, I am fearful lest they burn me with the breath in their mouths!”

Hashem said to him: “Grasp hold of My Throne of Glory and give them an answer.”

Moshe said before Him: “Master of the world, the Torah that You are giving me, what is written in it? ‘I am Hashem your God Who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt.’”

Moshe said to the angels: “Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours?

“What else is written there? ‘There shall not be unto you the gods of others.’ Do you live among nations who worship idols?

“What else is written there? ‘Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.’ Do you engage in labor from which you need to rest?…

“‘Honor your father and mother.’ Do you have a father or mother?

“‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal.’ Is there envy among you? Is there an evil inclination among you?”

Immediately, [the angels] conceded to the Holy One, Blessed be He.[3]

Although there are many questions which could (and should) be raised regarding the particulars of the above episode, the most important question undoubtedly concerns the exchange itself, for the entire conversation is simply baffling. On the one hand, the angels vehemently protest the Torah being given to man, while at the same time it appears that they had not even taken the trouble to open it and find out what it says! All it took was for Moshe to read out the Ten Commandments for the angels to concede that not even one of them applied to them!

How are we to understand this debate?

What Did the Angels Want?

In order to appreciate the position of the angels, we refer to an idea discussed in numeorus sources,[4] namely, that the Torah that predated the world existed in the form of an unbroken chain of letters consisting of Names of Hashem. These Names represent the sum total of Divine wisdom — relating to every sphere and every level of Creation — that it is possible for created beings to understand. The commentators explain that it was to the Torah in this form that the angels were referring, for its esoteric wisdom is something to which they are entirely suited — and perhaps even more so than man.[5]

However, now that we understand the form in which the angels sought to keep the Torah with them, we encounter a different problem, for Moshe was seeking to receive the Torah in the form of practical mitzvos. At this point, Moshe and the angels seem to be talking at cross-purposes. For their part, the angels are seeking to hold on to the prior form of Torah, while Moshe is seeking to receive it as the Divine program of physical mitzvos which applies only to human beings. Seeing as the Torah contains both, how are these two goals in conflict with each other? Can they not keep the Torah as it applies to them, while we receive it as it applies to us?

The question thus remains: What was the basis of the angels’ objection to Moshe receiving the Torah in the form of mitzvos?

The answer is that the angels were not claiming that the Torah in the form of practical mitzvos should exist among them; they were claiming that it should not exist in this form at all.

Defining Glory

Angels are spiritual beings. As such, they are naturally closer to Hashem, Who is Absolute Spirituality, than man is. From the vantage point of their own existence, the entire physical realm represents one that is distant from Hashem, and hence it is an affront to His Torah that it should exist in that realm. In the verse from Tehillim quoted by the Gemara, the angels recognize that the Might of Hashem’s Name (אדיר שמך) exists throughout the physical world; however, they argue that His Glory (הודך) should remain in the spiritual realms!

What is the answer to this claim?

What the angels, as spiritual beings, do not appreciate about physical existence is that if the Torah is implanted within it and is able to elevate it above the mundane and the temporal —that is a greater Glory for Hashem! Therefore, although the physical element of man’s makeup is indeed naturally distant from Godliness, it is specifically because of that element that he can give glory to Hashem in a way which exceeds even that of the angels.

This is what the Gemara means by Moshe’s statement that he was fearful that the angels would “burn him with their breath,” i.e., that their spiritual essence would completely negate the worth of his physical existence. In response to this, Hashem told Moshe to “grasp on to the Throne of Glory and reply to them.” In so doing, Moshe was expressing that, as a human being, he has a special form of attachment to Hashem’s Glory and indeed, can make a unique contribution to that Glory.

Parting Gifts

The effect of the debate between Moshe and the angels was nothing short of revolutionary. Not only did it serve to establish the unique value of physical existence, it also caused the angels to reappraise their own existence. The Gemara proceeds to relate that, upon the angels’ acceptance of Moshe’s argument: “Immediately, each and every one of [the angels] became a friend of [Moshe] and gave him something [as a gift].”[6]

What is the meaning behind this sudden friendship and each angel giving Moshe a gift? Is it simply a matter of “no hard feelings”?

Upon realizing that Moshe, representing human beings, is capable of making a contribution to Hashem’s Glory exceeding even that of the angels, they came to appreciate that part of their role as heavenly beings is to “befriend” him and even assist him in that endeavor. This was expressed in the gifts which each angel gave to Moshe.

Shavuos and “You”

The Gemara records an interesting dispute among the Tannaim (Sages of the Mishnah) as to how to reconcile two verses related to the festivals. One verse states that the festivals are “for Hashem,”[7] while the other states that they are “for you”:[8]

The Gemara notes that a case that is an exception to this debate is the festival of Shavuos:

הכל מודים בעצרת דבעינן נמי “לכם,” מאי טעמא? יום שניתנה בו תורה לישראל.

All are in agreement regarding Shavuos that we also need [the physical element represented by the term] “for you.” What is the reason? For it is the day the Torah was given to Israel.[9]

On the face of it, this statement seems rather puzzling. Would one not have thought that, on the contrary, Shavuos is a day when all agree that one may devote it entirely to Torah study and other spiritual pursuits? Why does the Gemara rather insist that all agree that there should be physical enjoyment on this day?

Based on our discussion, we can better appreciate the Gemara’s statement. It is specifically our physical existence that enabled us to receive the Torah on Shavuos; therefore, it is only appropriate that the physical part of our makeup partake of the celebration on this day.[10]

Torah and the Evil Inclination

Taking this discussion one stage further, Rav Chaim Friedlander points out that there is something else about man which caused the angels to object to him receiving the Torah — his yetzer hara (evil inclination).[11] In this regard, as well, the angels look at man from the vantage point of their own existence, which revolves solely around doing Hashem’s Will. Accordingly, from their point of view, to entrust that Will to the hands of a being who could even consider disobeying it is an absolute affront to Hashem and a disgrace to His commandments. However, here too, the answer to that claim is that drawing upon the higher faculties of man to overcome that inclination to disobey makes its fulfillment a greater achievement and gives more glory to Hashem.

The full impact of this idea is the realization that even the yetzer hara exists ultimately to serve Hashem by allowing for a greater revelation of His Glory. Indeed, for this reason, the Gemara concludes its discussion by saying that included among the angels who gave Moshe gifts was the Angel of Death and, moreover, the gift he gave Moshe was one which promotes life! The Torah relates that when a plague broke out among the Jewish People during the episode of Korach’s rebellion, Aharon took a firepan and placed ketores (incense) on it, thereby stopping the plague.[12] From where did Aharon know that offering ketores would have this effect? The Gemara states that the knowledge of this life-saving quality of the ketores was the gift that the Angel of Death gave to Moshe.

The idea of the Angel of Death giving Moshe a gift reflects the fact that even the forces of evil that he represents likewise ultimately exist for man to overcome them and increase the glory of Hashem. For this reason, the gift he gave Moshe was the secret of the ketores. The Gemara states that one of the spices in the ketores, the chelbenah, has a very foul odor and yet, when it is incorporated within the ketores, not only are its negative effects neutralized, but it also enhances the aroma of the other spices. That quality parallels the function of the yetzer hara itself. As a separate entity and indulged in only for itself, its effects are entirely negative. However, when enlisted in the cause of Divine service, it can lead to higher levels of revelation of Hashem’s glory — and hence become the basis for higher living.

Chametz and Shavuos

As a rule, the Torah forbids any meal-offering to contain chametz.[13] A notable exception is the Shtei Ha’lechem offering brought on Shavuos, where the Torah specifically mandates that it consists of two loaves of chametz bread![14] How are we to understand this unusual situation?

The Kli Yakar explains.[15] The Gemara refers to the yetzer hara as “the yeast in the dough.”[16] The meaning behind this analogy is that, like yeast, the yetzer hara takes physical ingredients and inflates them to makes them appear significantly more impressive. Additionally, it inflates the person’s own self-image to the extent that he is prepared to issue directives to others for how to behave, but not to receive them himself. Understandably, therefore, yeast is not a friend of Divine service and hence, no trace of it may be found in the Beis Hamikdash. However, on one day a year, the Torah requires that it be incorporated into the Temple service. On Shavuos, we recall that it is specifically because of this yeast that we received the Torah. The message for us on this day is that the very existence of the yetzer hara is for it to be overcome. Armed with this deeper vision of our uniquely human constitution, we receive the Torah anew for the coming year and resolve to give the yetzer hara what it really wants — to be conquered and thereby to become enlisted as a cause for the level of existence attainable only to man.

[1] Tehillim 8:5.

[2] Ibid., v. 2.

[3] Shabbos 88b.

[4] See e.g. Introduction of Ramban to his Commentary on the Torah.

[5] See Teshuvos Radvaz §1,067; Mabit, Beis Elokim, Shaar Hayesodos chap. 12; Shelah Hakadosh, Shavuos, Torah Ohr §91; and Meshech Chochmah, Shemos 20:18. See also commentary of Alshich to Iyov 28:20.

[6] Shabbos ibid.

[7] See Devarim 16:8.

[8] See Bamidbar 29:35.

[9] Pesachim 68b.

[10] Beis Halevi, parashas Yisro, s.v. ha’kol.

[11] Sifsei Chaim, Moadim, vol. 3, p. 122.

[12] Bamidbar 17:13.

[13] See Vayikra 2:11.

[14] Ibid., 23:17.

[15] Vayikra loc. cit.

[16] Berachos 17a.