Shelach: Negotiating With God

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Person Holding Up Arms

Far too many years ago, my sixth grade Rebbe once challenged our class: For a moment, imagine that you can be an eyewitness to any scene in Tanach – which one would it be? I honestly don’t remember my classmates responses, but surely some chose matan torah (they were there – but have a slight memory loss); others opted for box seats in the Elah valley to watch Dovid and Goliath; the dramatically inclined wanted to be a fly on the wall in the Yehuda-Yosef reunion, while those looking for “action” were Mt. Carmel-bound (watching Eliyahu defeat the false Ba’al prophets). These admittedly fuzzy projections stand in stark contrast to a crisp recollection of my Rebbe’s answer. It was the compelling image of the intense Sodom negotiations conducted between Avraham and Hashem that captured his soul. To consider the humble Avraham uncomfortably and yet confidently uttering: My dear God, do you mind if I ask for a further price reduction was for him the ultimate in human heroism (Some claim this to be the Biblical source that Jews don’t pay retail – but we’ll leave that for a different discussion.)

Heroism? Surely! – but does it not also smack of incredible chutzpah?

Every teacher, youth leader, parent etc. knows that if the rule is set, one simply can not negotiate – for it wreaks havoc with authority structure. Experience has taught us that policies not meant to be implemented shouldn’t be stated – for negotiation or mitigation simply invites anarchy. Does it not follow that once Hashem has determined and explicated that it is time for Sodom to go – then indeed it is time for Sodom to go?

We must ask a similar question of Moshe Rabbeinu in our parsha and in so many others. Akenu badever v’orishenu (1) – In the post meraglim (spies) dialogue, Hashem explicitly wills to wipe out Bnei Yisrael and start afresh from Moshe. A strikingly similar sentiment is expressed (2) in the eigel hazahav (golden calf) aftermath. Each time, Moshe springs into action and takes the mantle of Hashem, k’viyachol and refuses to let go (3). Moshe employs various arguments, including the remarkable argument of chillul Hashem, which runs something like this: God, You can not destroy Your nation – because you then profane Your name – for nations of the world will impute weakness (God Forbid) to You.

To clarify, what’s at stake here is not merely the question of the logic and efficacy of prayer. That is a famous, significant, and yet distinct issue – which ponders: if God decreed a punishment, how could He change his mind, and if He wills reward why pray in the first place (4)? That problem focuses upon the nature of Hashem and the power of prayer. Here our question precedes and somewhat sidesteps those issues and asks: When the explicit will of God is known, is it not impudent and somewhat absurd to negotiate it away? Can one imagine, for example negotiating with God for a shorter summer Shabbos (God, let’s end Shabbos at 6:30pm throughout June, July, August)

Rav Shimon Schwab (5) (1908-1995) addresses this conundrum by first noting a fascinating anthropomorphism. Immediately preceding Avraham’s negotiations, the Torah, quoting Hashem states (6): Let Me go down and see their cries …

The question is clear: Why does God need to descend to hear the plight of Sodom? Surely the Divine eyesight does not suffer from myopia. Rav Schwab also notes that Moshe’s negotiation with Hashem regarding Moshe’s personal role as redeemer (Please don’t choose me Hashem) is immediately preceded by the following verse (7)And I will go down to save it (the nation)“. Again, the notion of Hashem’s descent seems to precipitate human negotiation.

Finally and most remarkably, the classic prayer of the yud gimel midos (thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy) that which we invoke throughout the year, as presented in the Torah is preceded by the verse (8): And Hashem came down in the cloud and He stood there with him.

Apparently, Rav Schwab states, the notion of Divine descent allows for human petition; i.e. Hashem coming down into our world implies that He does not desire to dictate by fiat; it is (God given) human logic that Hashem wants us to employ to ultimately create a man-God dialogue.

Once Hashem descends into this world, He actively encourages human intervention. This gives Moshe permission to “fight” on behalf of Klal Yisrael. By definition, He must be willing to be “swayed” by powerful human argument, e.g. chilul Hashem, even as it is objectively absurd to employ that argument (or any others) against Hashem. A few thousand years later, we still invoke on a twice weekly (Monday/Thursday tachanun) basis, the same argument of chillul Hashem on our behalf:

Most striking is Rav Schwab’s final application. Prior to matan torah, the verse states (9): Vayeired Hashem al har sinai: And Hashem descended upon Mt. Sinai – for every Jew who has merited to study deep Torah knows that the very fabric of learning requires challenging and questioning the d’var Hashem (in order to ultimately clarify). What license do we really have to engage in this process? Is the Torah ours that we have the right to dissect and reconstruct, to bifurcate and then repair?

In the classic talmudic showdown between R. Eliezer and the Sages (10), Rabbi Eliezer finally calls in his heavy artillery: He evinces a bas kol (heavenly voice) to prove his halacha. The bas kol comports to his view – whereupon the chachamim respond: it is not in heaven! And what, pray tell, asks the Talmud, was Hashem doing at the very moment that this earth shattering dialogue was occurring? Ka chayach v’amar nitzchuni banai, nitzchuni banai – Hashem was smiling and saying: my children have defeated me, my children have defeated me (11).

It is not merely that Hashem “allows” himself to be swayed, he revels in it.

God’s nachas is not limited to the fight for Torah. In the spy episode, Hashem ultimately concedes to Moshe: salachti kidvarecha – I have forgiven (them) per your words. A stunningly similar Talmudic comment illuminates:

Rabbi Yishmael taught: כדבריך עתידים אומות העולם לומר כן. אשרי תלמיד שרבו מודה לו – It is true, as you said. In the future, the nations of the world would have said (I am weak). Praiseworthy is the student (Moshe) whose Teacher (Hashem) admits to him.

As one who has had the privilege of regularly teaching Talmud, it is hard to properly express the ecstasy of losing the argument to a talmid whose enthusiasm and investment is such that he simply does not trust me. Echoes of my teacher reverberate: Never trust Rashi, never trust Tosafos! – for in the study halls, blind trust breeds complacency and simple faith equals laziness. Paradoxical as it might sound, but in an act of imitatio dei, for the teacher and parent who bend down to listen, there is none so bitter as the agony of (uncontested) victory and none so sweet as the joy of (passionate) defeat.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. Bamidbar, 14:12
2. Shemos, 32:10
3. ילקוט שמעוני כי תשא רמז שצב ועתה הניחה לי, אמר רבי אלעזר אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאמרו מלמד שתפס משה להקב”ה כאדם שתפס לחברו בבגדו ואמר לפניו רבש”ע אין אני מניחך עד שתסלח ותמחול להם
4. See Sefer Haikarim, 4:16-18 for a classic approach
5. Ma’ayan Beis Hashoeiva Shemos, 3:13.
6. Bereishis, 18:21
7. Shemos, 3:8
8. Shemos, 34:5
9. Shemos, 19:20
10. Bava Metzia 59b
11. It is not merely about nachas. The Talmud (Shabbos 89) states that when Moshe went up to receive the Torah, the angels were opposed to it being in human hands. Hashem turns to Moshe and commands him to respond to the malachim. Moshe is afraid that they will incinerate him – whereupon Hashem tells Moshe to grab onto Divine throne and respond. Moshe’s fighting for the Torah now becomes a requisite to receive it.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.