As we celebrate Shavuot and receiving the Torah, it’s worth remembering that it almost didn’t transpire. In tractate Shabbat 88b, many of the famous narratives surrounding the giving of the Torah are found.
One of them recounts that when Moses went up on high to receive the Torah, he encountered opposition. From whom? From none other than the angels. These celestial creatures felt that it was below the dignity of the Torah for mere human flesh and blood to receive the treasured Torah that had been kept and sealed for generations.
“What is someone born of a woman doing among us?” they asked G-d, the story goes. The Torah is “chamuda gnuza,” veiled, coveted and cherished, they claimed. Such a holy and lofty treasure of G-d does not belong in the world below, as a tangible item in the hands of mere mortals.
A triangulated dialogue and negotiation ensues between the protective angels, Moses and G-d Himself (although the reader does not actually hear the anglic responses, only the conversation between G-d and Moses).
Both the angels and Moses keep trying to rise to the challenge of putting forth a convincing reason to either guard and retain the treasure, as the angels want, or, in Moses’ case, to receive it and bring it to the world below.
The angels feel the Torah is eternal and should fittingly remain in a purely spiritual realm. Moses comes to understand that the purpose of the Torah is not static, but rather to be lived, not merely guarded like a precious jewel in a vault.
There is tension. The implied assertion of the angels is the danger involved in the Torah leaving its safe spot in Heaven. Introducing the Torah to the physical world brings the danger of it’s being desecrated.
G-d directs this concern of the angels to Moses himself. Although in this narrative G-d is painted with a protective instinct toward Moses, we see that within this dialogue G-d places the burden on Moses to articulate to the angels why it is important to reveal the Torah to the lower world. Moses is forced to come up with a thoughtful response and to verbalize it to the angels.
Almost as if to say that the moment the desire in the world for the Torah is born, this “coveted and cherished” treasure that’s been hidden away is now ready to reach its destiny in history, revealed to a people that can receive it.
By the end of the conversation, not only do the angels come around to Moses’ point of view, but a complete transformation takes place. The angels now want to assist in the process. In fact, in acceptance of Moses’ position, each of the angels grants Moses a gift. They understand that while they have been guarding this treasure faithfully, they have not been able to partner with it in its destiny.
They come to understand that the purpose of the Torah is to be chosen by human beings, who, in choosing it, become Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.
When the Torah was the angels’ charge it had no connection to the physical world, but once it came to man it was not limited to the material world. It became a bridge from this world to the eternal, spiritual one.
By the end of the narrative, after Moses has won the argument, received the Torah and finally descends the mountain, who awaits him? Satan! One more stumbling block needs to be overcome before the Torah is brought to the Jewish people. As if to say, struggle comes with the receipt of the fountain of wisdom that is the Torah. It’s not a simple, pre-ordered gift that one receives, then moves on.
Receiving the Torah is a privilege. It will take work. And to partner in plumbing the depths of this historic gift is always to maintain a mysterious dimension — the dimension of “chamuda gnuza,” of the unknown.
Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News