Torah: Transformation and Transformative
Given the opportunity to go back to any moment in Jewish history, many religious, observant people say that they would go back to Matan Torah—to find out what really was given there at Har Sinai. The power of the theophany—the revelation of God, even to the masses of Bnei Yisrael, and not just the select prophets and leaders—surely was felt by all. But were these theoretical time travelers simply seeking divine revelation, they have many moments of Jewish history (or at least Biblical history) from which to choose. Rather, those who circumscribe their daily lives with Torah, who allow even the parameters of their decisions to be determined by Torah, and for whom Torah really is a guiding light, and do so out of faith and conviction and hopeful trust and confidence…even they seek validation that they are doing the right thing. To discover the way in which the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were designed to work together… to discover exactly what the nature of the Oral Torah as given at Sinai was…to discover the correct manner of interpretation of the Oral Torah for generations to come…If there were one single moment in history that could provide that knowledge—not trust, but sure knowledge—that the traditional practice of “Rabbinic Judaism” is exactly what God wants of us, surely that time is the giving of the Torah!
Yet our parshah this week suggests that time travel would not provide the moment of confidence that those who seek it envision. In a number of ways, we discover that while the gift of the Torah was the Jewish people’s crowning glory, the giving of the Torah was not necessarily our shining moment. Certainly, the classical commentaries explain that the instigators of the episode with the Golden Calf were not the mainstream of Israel, but the riffraff who followed the Chosen People out of Egypt. Certainly, a thorough search of the classical commentaries reveals that Aharon is never punished for his involvement in the idolatrous worship—though the incident haunts all his days, as much of the formulation of Sefer Vayikra suggests. That is, Aharon’s wrong-doing was not a problem of idolatry, nor even the troublesome seeking out of an intermediary through which to worship God. Rather, Aharon simply did not follow instructions. He was told precisely when to expect Moshe home, and instead of placating the people, reminding them that Moshe was not yet late (despite their impatience and concern), he gave in to their human need for immediate action (though some suggest that in truth, he acquiesced to their demands for a golden calf as a delay tactic, to stall until Moshe did return). Throughout the consecration of the Mishkan and the sacrifices of Leviticus, therefore, the Torah records, “as God had commanded.” Aharon learns to adhere to God’s word precisely…and worries that the deaths of his sons Nadav and Avihu, who offered “strange fire that they had not been commanded” were some disturbing and painful rebuke to him (according to Rashi, there). Nonetheless, even if Aharon is not at fault, and even if the bulk of the Children of Israel did not initiate the Golden Calf, the bottom line is that this conduct of the people, and so soon after the miraculous Exodus, always disappoints those of us who have 20/20 hindsight. Naturally, we assume, we would have done better. The traditional humility of all subsequent generations (as compared with those who left Egypt) notwithstanding, we read of their sin of the Golden Calf and dissociate ourselves from the transgression. We would have been inspired by the miracles of the Exodus and not swayed. We would have stood in that moment of time (ahem, forty days of moments of time) and waited with bated breath for Moshe to come down from Har Sinai. We would not have succumbed to an inclination for physical worship of the Divine!
Perhaps we are right. The concept of “nitkatnu ha-dorot”—the diminution of the generations—gives us the reputation of being spiritual midgets. And those who went out of Egypt were eye-witnesses to such greatness that they surely were spiritual giants. But, as the great expression goes, we are midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. We have the advantage of hindsight. We have the advantage of learning from (or at least exposure to) their errors. And as midgets standing on the shoulders of giants, we can see much further.
We have another advantage as well. The desire for “avodah zarah,” for idolatry, is said to have departed this world. For all that people might make all kinds of pursuits other than the Divine their “god,” we are as comfortable with the notion that the Omnipresent has no body as people who are limited by their own bodies can be. Perhaps we would have withstood the temptation of seeking a tangible divinity, if only because we do not emerge from a prevailing culture of physical idolatry like that of Pharaoh’s Egypt. But the end of this week’s parshah suggests that we today benefit from their endeavor. The gift of the second tablets grants us a different perspective. One is hard-pressed to say that the end of the parshah is objectively better or richer or more profound. It is the “be-diavad” situation, presumably far inferior to the initial ideal. But once it is already a fait accompli, as indeed it has been for thousands of years, we are well able to find the silver lining.
The final section of this week’s portion is a study in intimacy—we are privileged to eavesdrop, as it were, on the intimate relationship between God and Moshe. Surely this passage is our silver lining, for the implication of Moshe’s trek back up Mount Sinai for the second tablets implies that, whether he himself would have had this conversation with God, we would not have been privy to it. Thus, the need for a second set (that is, the Children of Israel’s inability to handle even the most basic requirements of the first tablets) implies these verses are in the Torah to assist us in our attempts to comply with the divine will. The terms of compliance have been adjusted, it would seem, as have God’s expectations of His people.
In Exodus, chapter 33, Moshe asks for some sign of favor from God. He begins: “Now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, please make known to me Your ways, so that I may know, in order that I might find favor in Your eyes, and see that Your nation is this people,” (verse 13). Eventually (verse 17), God responds affirmatively: “…Also this thing that you said, I will do, for you have found favor in My eyes…” “Show me, please Your glory.” And God replies: “I will pass all of My goodness over your face, and I will proclaim the Name of God before you, and I will bestow grace upon you, and I will be merciful…” Moshe’s relationship with God has been restored, and with grace, despite the prophet’s breaking of God’s tablets. The added dimension of mercy and grace that God grants Moshe is understood to be integral to the second tablets. Just as Moshe himself needs a measure of God’s mercy, not only for smashing the first tablets, but also for his own desire to know God, all the more so do the Children of Israel require the divine grace that underlies the relationship that will emerge over the years of their keeping (and not-keeping) of the Law. After all, the fulfillment of God’s promise (passing His goodness over Moshe’s face) dominates our liturgy during the Days of Awe, training us in the ways of repentance and atonement.
Let us note that only subsequent to this apparently private conversation between Moshe and God is the leader instructed to hew new tablets, so that God may write upon them has He had the first ones. The fanfare that had accompanied the first tablets is absent from the second set. The pyrotechnics that are associated with the giving of the Torah at Sinai are only part of the initial revelation of Torah. This second time, though Moshe again remains on the mountain for forty days, his brother and the elders are kept away. We are not told of lightening bolts or fireworks that indicate theophany—or anything else!—to the Children of Israel. Rather, when Moshe comes down with the second set of tablets, “like the first ones,” he does so in quiet radiance (verse 29). God passes “al-panav” (over his face) as He had promised, yielding Moshe’s cry of acknowledgement of God’s many (thirteen) ways of mercy, and his hurried prostration of worship. Moshe himself is oblivious to his own shining face. Yet this radiance and the transformation it proclaims may provide a key for understanding the gift of the second tablets.
Torah is transformative. Adhering to the precepts of the Torah transforms our lives—and we have a sense of how we would live without shemirat ha-mitzvot to guide our ways. Talmud Torah transforms our lives as well. When we learn, our horizons expand and we are led, even inadvertently, to consider ourselves and our place in the world. But Moshe’s experience suggests more. Even without the conscious performance of mitzvot, even without the intellectual rigor of learning, the simple exposure to God’s Torah will transform us—regardless of whether we are paying attention! Like Moshe’s shining face, we cannot emerge from the encounter with Torah, the encounter with the Divine, unchanged. The process is automatic and on-going.
And lest we think that this point should have been made with the first tablets, we learn from the second ones instead: namely, the tempering of the “Torah experience” is what transforms. Just as the fanfare is absent, the potential for arrogance is removed. Bnei Yisrael are great for the acceptance of the Torah and their preservation of it. But in the wake of the Golden Calf, Bnei Yisrael cannot feel that greatness about themselves. God’s gift of the second tablets is tempered with His thirteen attributes of mercy, but Moshe does not come down the mountain proclaiming, “Look at me, I’m great, God gave the Torah through me!” Rather, he has no sense of his own greatness, though his very face is shining. The message to those who behold him, however, is clear. The radiance, the transformation, is evident for all to see—and to such an extent that he eventually dons a veil!
Ironic, perhaps, that this Moshe is the purported subject of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, Moses. The interpretation from the Latin translation of the Torah that turns “the light radiated” (“karan ohr”) into the famous horns (from “keren”) gives the sculpture Moses small nubs of horns (Note that other interpretations have been suggested for Michelangelo’s horns, including the idea that the sculptor was attempting to solve the difficulty of representing the rays of light in stone without distorting the face, so he portrayed them as horns, hinting to the second implication of the word). The difficulty, however, lies not with the likely mistranslation, but with the conflation of the two sets of tablets. Upon Moshe’s first descent, with the initial tablets, he beholds the Children of Israel with the Golden Calf and he smashes the tablets in rage. The rays of light adorn Moshe’s face when he descends the second time, having been granted mercy and the promise of mercy for his people. Michelangelo’s Moses presents the prophet after the second descent, with the rays and the tablets. But the figure is angry, perhaps furious. This punishing passion is not the nature of the second tablets, however. Rather, they provide its antidote. For it is in the quieter, merciful, humility of the second tablets that the shining Moshe, and then Bnei Yisrael themselves, are transformed: God’s Chosen People of Israel.