Shavuos 5766: Torah’s Primary Message
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
“…Behold I will cut a treaty, against all your people I will do wonders that have never been created in all the land and with all the nations, and all the people that you are among will see the acts of God that they are fearful, that I do with you.” (Exod. 34:10)
“And God said to Moses, ‘Behold I come to you in thick cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak with you, and also in you they shall believe forever…” (Exod. 19:9)
“And it was when Moses descended from Mount Sinai and the two tablets of testimony were in Moses hand when he descended from the mountain, and Moses did not know that his face beamed with light when He spoke with him. And Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, and behold his face beamed with light, and they feared to draw close to him.” (Exod. 34:29,30)
In the book of Joshua (10:12) Radak says that the words “I will do wonders that have never been created in all the land and with all the nations” refer to the miracle of God causing the sun and moon to stand still in Joshua’s days. Radak says, “acts of God that they are fearful” refer to the miracle of Moses’ face shining with light. Through these two miracles, God demonstrates His sustained providence over the Jews: from Moses through Joshua. Thus, miracles with similar objectives are placed in a single verse. And miracles at times may serve to endorse leaders. For a miracle does not happen on account of someone who violates God, but someone completely deserving of God’s feats.
We learn, that upon Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, God deemed it essential that a miracle accompany Moses for the remainder of his life, in the form of his face beaming light. What was this necessity?
God also said, “Behold I come to you in thick cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak with you, and also in you they shall believe forever” referring to His revelation at Sinai. The purpose was so the people witness God, His selection of Moses as His prophet, and remain loyal to Moses forever. How can loyalty to Moses endure “forever”, since Moses died? Of course, it means that Moses will be eternally accepted as God’s prophet to mankind. However, even though the people attest to Moses’ selection by God and communion with Him on Sinai, will they accept all of Moses ‘future’ words as divine?
Revelation: Two Goals
These questions, and verses above point to the two purposes of Revelation at Sinai, what we are celebrating on this Shavuos holiday. That is exactly what God said, “in order that the people hear when I speak with you, and also in you they shall believe forever”. God desired that Sinai act as, 1) a proof of His existence and communication with Moses (man); and 2) an eternal endorsement of Moses, upon whom all future Torah truths depend.
We cannot know what God is: for we can detect only that perceived by our five, biological senses, and God is not detectable by any of them. This concealment of God’s true nature from our senses, and ultimately, our minds, is conveyed by the words “Behold I come to you in thick cloud”. Cloud is that which conceals other things. God wished to convey the impossibility of man to know God’s essence. Even Moses could not know God’s essence, “…for man cannot know Me while alive”. (Exod. 33:20) Moses too tells the Jews many times “you saw no form [of God]” on Sinai.
The second part of the verse says “in order that the people hear when I speak with you” teaching that God’s intent in revelation is to prove His existence. And the last part, “and also in you they shall believe forever” is to sustain the system, by endorsing its primary teacher. As a Rabbi once taught, Maimonides uses the term “yesode”, or “fundamental” in connection with only two principles: 1) God’s existence, and 2) prophecy. (Maimonides’ Fundamentals of Torah; first word of both 1:1, 4:1) It is these two truths that are indispensable for Judaism: 1) the truth of a Creator, and 2) His communication with man. For without God, impossible as it is, nothing can be, and without communication, there can be no adherence to His word, His “religion”. How precise is the Torah that this single verse above formulates what the true religion must contain. And this was the objective of Sinai: to commence Judaism by instilling in man the knowledge of an unknowable Creator, who communicates His will to mankind. (Joseph Albo agrees to these two fundamentals, adding Reward and Punishment as his third.)
But there is more to this verse. Let us read it again: “And God said to Moses, ‘Behold I come to you in thick cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak with you, and also in you they shall believe forever…” This also teaches that God desires to work within man’s frame of reason. He creates revelation in order that humans will arrive at truths based on reasoning. The words “in order that the people hear when I speak with you, and also in you they shall believe forever” that God orchestrates His plan on how man perceives it. God works only with man’s intellect. And we then must work with this intellect to perceive God’s plan for mankind.
Revelation teaches God’s desire that man obtain “proof” for religion. This explains why He created an undeniable event, where intelligence emanated from fire: the only element in which known life perishes. Intelligence emanating from fire teaches that the Source of that intelligence must not be of Earthly origin, thereby establishing an undeniable proof of a supernatural, intelligent existence.
In essence, God is complying with the human design He had cast years ago in Adam and Eve, His perfect will being unchanging for us today. He granted man intelligence, and demands that man use this faculty. And when God desires man to apprehend something, He desires this apprehension be based on what is provable to human senses, reason, or trust in the prophets. Sinai conforms. It is via these three vehicles alone that Maimonides states we view information as true:
“It is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things: 1) clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning; 2) what is perceived through one of the five senses; 3) what is received from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: “This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said “The simple believes everything”. (Prov. 14:15) (Maimonides Letter to the Community of Marseille)
Returning now to our initial questions: why God did create the beams of light on Moses’ face? Would the Jews accept all of Moses’ words subsequent to Revelation as truly divine, or as Moses’ invention?
To satisfy the third criterion above, God desired a continued demonstration that He endorsed all that Moses taught. All events subsequent to Sinai were not received at Sinai in that first, incomplete Torah. Otherwise, Moses could not have questioned God’s later actions, as he would already know the answers, had the entire Five Books been given to him. Additionally, there would be no free will for any person, as the entire nation would know their future sins, before they committed them. Therefore, as Moses would be instructing the Jews in God’s name, with commands not received at Sinai but only later, a method of divine substantiation was required, lest some Jews accuse Moses of writing his own Torah. The ‘continuous’ miracle of the beams of light did just that: it demonstrated beyond any doubt that Moses continually acted and taught on behalf of God, long after Sinai. Had Moses deviated from God’s words, God would have killed Moses, and would not have bestowed miracles upon his face. Miracles mean that the Creator of miracles endorses the recipient. This continued into Joshua’s era, when God halted the sun and moon.
Revelation at Sinai proves God’s existence and His prophesy to man, thereby proving Judaism to be the only divinely inspired religion, as all other imposter religions are based on the lies of one or a few men. Revelation was manifested precisely in a manner that satisfies the human mind beyond all doubt, since God’s desire is that man engages his intellect to “prove” what is real, and not simply follow blind faith, which proves nothing. “And God said to Moses, ‘Behold I come to you in thick cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak with you, and also in you they shall believe forever…”
This Shavuos holiday, let’s obtain and apply the true lesson of Revelation on Mount Sinai: God desires man to use reason in all areas of his life, starting with his and her Judaism. We all must cease from our fear of the masses and peers, and their approval: for if we all live for others, no one lives for himself! And who determines if other Jews are correct: their numbers? Their reputations? If so, numbers exist in far greater quantity within Islam and Christianity. Do we then say those religions are correct, and Judaism is false? We also witness famous people who err. So, reputations and masses are no measure of truth. What we must use as our barometer are God’s words, and those of the Prophets and Writings.
From God’s intent of Revelation to prove His existence via human reason, to the successful outcome when the Jews admitted they witnessed God’s created voice (Deut. 5:21), Shavuos addresses the central lesson of our lives: to engage our reason. Minds far greater than anyone today, from Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Rabbi Bachya, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and Sforno, all attest to this primary mandate from God. Therefore, when you hear notions in the name of Judaism that are inexplicable, mystical, demanding faith and no reason like pop-Kabbalistic notions, or notions that contradict Judaism’s fundamentals, be not impressed by their popularity, emotional appeal, or their author. You must be told a source, and you must see it…and not just any source, but any notion must be rooted in only Torah, Prophets or Writings. And the explanation you accept must fit the words without force, “Pshuto K’mashmaoh”. The Rabbis teach that Torah verses cannot teach outside the confines of the plain textual meaning, “Ain mikra yotzei miday pshuto” (Tal. Sabb. 63a).
Only with this allegiance will you know what is authentic, and save yourself from acting contrary to God and reason. Although our culture provides freedom of religion, that carries the danger – and proven success – of alien doctrines seeping into the Jewish mindset.
Sinai and Torah were intended to separate us from those infantile and primitive religious beliefs, replacing our decision-making with reason, where we abandon all things inexplicable like Egyptian and Kabbalistic mysticism, reincarnation, superstition, omens, signs, blind faith, magic, and human deification. “Reasoning” is the only barometer for truth. If you forfeit it, reality will forfeit you, just as the Rabbi Shimone said, “Yom ta-azveni, yomayim eh’azvecha”, “If you abandon me (Torah) one day, I will abandon you for two.” (Rabbi Shimone, quoting from Megilas Chassidim, Jerusalem Tal. 68a)