JWR Revelation Anew

Jewish World Review / May 27, 1998 / 2 Sivan, 5758

The food of angels

By Rabbi Nosson Scherman

At that time [when Moses ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah] the ministering angels sought to strike Moses. The Holy One, Blessed is He, caused his face to resemble Abraham's. Then the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to them, "Aren't you ashamed before him? Is he not the one to whom you descended and in whose home you ate?" (Genesis 18:1 8). The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Moses, "The Torah is given to you only in the merit of Abraham." (Shemos Rabbah 28:1).

IN SPEAKING OF MOSES' ASCENT to receive the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people, the Sages describe a clash between angels and humans, between spiritual beings to whom the Torah had belonged until then and the ordinary mortals to whom it was about to be given.

In our own human terms, we can understand the objection of the angels very well, for we can readily think of things that are too precious to be handed over to people who cannot appreciate or care for them. A great yeshiva would be reluctant to admit students who cannot live up to its standards. A synagogue will not allow very young children to dance with heavy Torah scrolls. A research library or a museum will make rare documents or paintings available only to qualified scholars. A mother will not let toddlers run with her baby. The deans of the most rigorous graduate schools will resist efforts to lower admission standards.

So too, the angels protested that the Torah is too holy to be given to human beings; such spiritual richness, they insisted, should remain with spiritual beings, where it had always been (Tractate Shabbes). Their reaction was not different from the annoyance of people when they are told that their hard-earned privileges will be taken away and given to others who are less qualified and who will not even know how to value them. It would be like dressing children in silken finery and sending them out to frolic in playgrounds and sandpiles. So agitated were the angels that, in the simile of the Sages, they tried to drive Moses away by violent means.

This is especially comprehensible in terms of the premise expounded by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, that the Sages often speak symbolically. What is difficult, however, is how G-d ended the protest by making Moses resemble Abraham, and chiding the angels for their ingratitude toward the Patriarch who had shown them courtesy and fed them, as Abraham had. Was it some sort of masquerade? Were the angels expected to think that the man confronting them was no longer Moses, but Abraham? And what if it had been Abraham himself --- would any of us surrender his most treasured possession to someone because he had once invited us into his home for a fine meal?

I. Source of Sustenance

Kabbalistically, the Zohar (vol. 3, 7b) teaches that Israel provides sustenance, as it were, to its Father in Heaven. Indeed, the Torah describes the Temple offerings as providing a Satisfying aroma before G-d, meaning that He is pleased "because I have spoken and My will has been done" (see Rashi, Leviticus 1:9).

Obviously, this does not mean that G-d has any intrinsic need for our deeds, as if to say that without us he would be lacking something. That is an impossibility, because God is perfect and has no need of anything outside of Himself. Rather His "craving" for the good works of human beings is a reflection of His desire to be generous to others. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto expresses it, it is the essence of G-d's goodness that He desires to confer kindness upon others, and it was in order to do so that He created the universe with man at its center, and gave him commandments and free will.

His Good Inclination would encourage him to follow G-d's dictates and do what is right and proper. His Evil Inclination would seduce him to indulge his passions and pleasures. These inclinations, of course, are not external spirits hovering over a person; they are personal desires within each human being, pulling him or her this way and that, and the Torah exhorts him to choose wisely: "I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life ... to love HASHEM, your G-d, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him... (Deut. 30:19-20)." If he would overcome his inclination to indulge himself, he would deserve G-d's reward; if he would choose to disobey, he would deserve to be punished.

But if G-d seeks to confer benefits upon man, why does He not do so without requiring difficult choices? Because only by giving man the opportunity and even the predilection to transgress His commands would G-d's reward be meaningful; generosity is not complete unless the recipient feels the pleasure of having earned the gift. Unearned gifts are "the bread of shame;" people take pride in what they have worked for, not in what they have been given. The winner of a lottery is happy, not proud. It is understandable, therefore, that G-d takes pleasure in Israel's fulfillment of His commandments, not because He is diminished without it -- as a factory owner would suffer if his foreman failed to produce the products needed to fill urgent orders -- but because He Himself had ordained that He wanted man to deserve every possible reward (Derech Hashem 1:1).

Thus, G-d longs for man's good deeds more than man realizes; in the simile of the Sages, more than the calf wishes to nurse from its mother, the cow wishes to nurse its calf (Tractate Pesachim), and it is only man's freedom of choice that makes this possible.

Part of man's duty is to recognize G-d the Supreme Power, and to let this recognition influence his reactions. Man can attribute events to Providence or chance; here, too, the choice is his.

During the last year of the Holocaust, a Jewish family was fleeing from the Nazi deportations of the Hungarian Jews. They managed to reach an underground bunker where Jews were in hiding, and desperately knocked on the hidden door, pleading to be let in, but they were refused. The bunker was already overcrowded, its inhabitants insisted. It would be too dangerous to admit another family. Disheartened, the fugitives turned away only to see American planes swooping down on a bombing raid. Racing to the only cover in sight, the exposed Jews huddled under a bridge --- and then realized that their shelter was the target of the bombers! Miraculously, every bomb missed the bridge, but one of them scored a direct hit on the bunker. Had the family been permitted to enter it, not one of them would have survived.

As a young man, a member of that family told this writer about that experience and said: "The One Above wanted us to live, and we must try hard to repay Him for His mercy."

He did. That survivor matured into a respected rabbi and head of a yeshiva. He perceived the Presence of G-d as an active force in his life, and that awareness has inspired him in his considerable achievements. Others have had similar experiences, but failed to see anything more than "luck" or "chance." G-d is everywhere, of course, but in the former case His Presence was recognized; in the other cases He may as well have been absent. G-d wants man to see Him, to acknowledge Him and to act accordingly. That is why He created the world, and that is why it is up to man to decide whether G-d succeeds or fails, as it were.

II. The Divine Hierarchy

In his lofty vision of Heaven, the prophet Ezekiel saw G-d's Throne of Glory. In the literature of Kabbalah, a king and his throne symbolize the open exercise of G-d's glory, just as a monarch demonstrates his sovereignty by imposing his authority over his subjects. Kingship is the simile for human awareness that G-d's power over people is absolute. It is remarkable, therefore, that in Ezekiel's vision of Heaven, man was higher than the Throne of Glory.

This position of hierarchy alludes to the concept that G-d's desire to make His Presence felt in our world depends on human perceptions and deeds. It is in this sense that the "appearance of a man" was "above" the throne itself, as it were. G-d does not "announce" Himself to us; since He leaves it to people to recognize His presence in the world, His power is manifest only in proportion to how well man perceives Him.

In this sense, too, we can understand the climax of the creation of man, when G-d "blew into his nostrils the soul of life" (Genesis 2:7). That G-d blew His own breath into man is to imply that He left it to man to determine whether the Divine breath of life would come to fruition. He gave man the full power and potential to decide whether His goal would be fulfilled.

At Sinai, as well, G-d let every man, woman, and child of Israel hear the voice of prophecy proclaiming, "I am HASHEM, your G-d," but then it would be up to every individual to decide how much that spiritual reality would shape his or her own life.

Another part of the Divine plan was that there should be an entire nation, not merely saintly individuals, that would live by this proposition. Until the time of the Patriarchs, this concept was on the verge of becoming extinct, for nearly everyone was convinced that a variety of gods and heavenly forces had independent power, just as nowadays, people may attribute Divine intervention to coincidence.

The patriarch Abraham began to change that. He recognized and fearlessly proclaimed that the world must have a single Master. His faith remained strong in every test. But he and Sarah were individuals. So were Isaac and Rebecca. Even Jacob's family, unanimously righteous though it was, was still a group of individuals.

Israel became a nation in Egypt under horrendous circumstances that nearly denuded it of any semblance of holiness, but no matter how low they were driven under the Egyptian lash, a spark of Abraham remained alive within them. Chiddushei HaRim comments that the shield of Abraham, which concludes the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei prayer, alludes to the spark of Abraham's faith within every Jew, which does not become extinguished. That legacy is the "shield" that maintains the Jew's identity. History records countless instances of Jews who seemed hopelessly far from their heritage --- and the spark was fanned into conflagration of Faith in G-d and loyalty to the destiny of Israel.

One of the most remarkable of these instances involved one of the most unlikely heroes imaginable: King Ahab, one of the most wicked of the ancient kings of the Ten Tribes, the man who, with his queen Jezebel, executed every prophet he could lay his hands on and covered the landscape with idols. King Ben-Haddad of Aram besieged Ahab's capital with an overwhelming force, and Ahab sued for peace. Ben-Haddad's emissary demanded Ahab's gold and silver, and his choicest women and children. Cravenly and sure that he had no choice, Ahab agreed. Then the emissary came back and demanded even more; he wanted "what is most precious in your eyes." That, Ahab refused to give him! (I Kings 20:1-9).

What could it be that was dearer to Ahab than his wives and children? The Sages comment that Ben-Haddad wanted Ahab's Torah Scroll (Tractate Sanhedrin) --- and that Ahab refused to surrender! The idolater and murderer who despised everything holy was ready to fight an overwhelming army rather than give up the Torah whose commandments he rejected. Was this not the spark of Abraham asserting itself?

The Sages teach that after 210 years in Egypt, Israel had fallen to the 49th degree of spiritual extermination -- barely above the point of no return -- and then G-d recruited Moses to go to them with the message that G-d had heard their cry and remembered His covenant with Abraham. Isaac, and Jacob.

The hallmark of Abraham was his impregnable faith in G-d "And he trusted in HASHEM, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6) --- but Moses was sure that Israel under Egypt was no longer capable of such faith. Moses knew what was happening in Egypt; he had been there, and he had seen for himself how his people were lapsing into spiritual oblivion. G-d reproached him for so denigrating people, because the Jews still had the devotion to trek to Sinai and receive the Torah directly from G-d.

How could Moses accuse them of lacking faith? (See the narrative and commentary in Exodus 4:1-9.) Logically, Moses was right. The story of Israel. however, transcends logic. The spark of Abraham would always stay alive; G-d guarantees it. This was the pledge He was to give Moses in the Wilderness, when He pledged that even during the worst times of exile, persecution, and annihilation "I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them -- for I am HASHEM, their God (Lev. 26:44).

It is axiomatic in Jewish thought that the ultimate physical survival of Israel depends on its spiritual standing. As long as its soul remains alive, it will survive, for G-d will not let it succumb to its oppressors. And He promises that He will never let His Chosen People disappear. He will never let the last spark of Abraham flicker out. He did not do so in Egypt, He did not do so at many other bleak junctures in Jewish history, nor will He ever do so.

Indeed, the downtrodden Jewish mood that Moses feared actually showed itself more than once. There were Jews who refused to leave the "security" of Egypt, where bread was assured, even if freedom was not, and there were times in the Wilderness when frustrated Jews wanted to overthrow Moses and return to the comfort of the Egyptian womb. Nevertheless, then and always, the essence of Israel remains good, and the legacy of Abraham comes to the fore when survival is at stake.

Aside from the question of faith in G-d, Moses wondered what the people had done to deserve a miraculous redemption, because miracles do not occur in a vacuum; they must be earned. If, as the angels argued at the time of the Splitting of the Sea, both the Jews and the Egyptians were idol worshipers, then by what virtue should Israel be redeemed and Egypt destroyed as a major power? It was no secret that the long years of exile and servitude had left Israel in a state of severe spiritual debilitation, so Moses' question was logical and compelling.

In response, G-d told him, "This is your sign that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain." (Exodus 3:12) The nation deserved to be redeemed because it was destined to stand at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah less than three months after leaving Egypt (Rashi). G-d's answer showed that people can be judged and even rewarded on the basis of their potential. The very fact that Israel had within itself the capacity for such growth was sufficient reason to justify the Exodus.

There are two points here: The Revelation at Sinai sealed the Exodus; and that Revelation was possible only because the Jews, degraded though they might have become over the course of their long Egyptian ordeal, still had the faith to follow Moses to Mount Sinai.

Indeed, their faith would only be further reinforced by the events at Sinai. Maimonides sets forth the principle that true faith is never based merely on miracles, because there is always a lingering doubt that miracles can be fabricated or brought about by means other than Divine intervention. This was the basis of Moses' fear that the Jews would not believe him --- even miracles could not induce perfect belief. To dispel this fear, G-d assured that the nation would experience "Revelation on this mountain" when they received the Ten Commandments. Israel's faith in Moses and his prophecy is based on its own experience at Sinai, where it became indisputably clear that G-d was speaking to them.

Abraham is the fountainhead of Jewish faith; his life foreshadowed the future in Egypt and at Sinai. He left his past behind when G-d commanded him to go to the land of Canaan and then, in the face of a famine in his new home, to leave Canaan and go to Egypt. He had almost no precedents to guide him, but his faith did not waver, and it became the spark that remained in his children. More. His greatness was the paramount fulfillment of G-d's hope for Creation, that man would choose freely to obey G-d and seek to grow in His service.

Such holiness and spirituality are the nourishment of the angels, the Divine beings whose "food" is the sustenance of G-d's spiritual glow. When the angels came to Abraham in the guise of people, he prepared a lavish feast for them, as he always did for guests. Yes, the angels sat and ate, but spiritual beings are not nourished by bread and meat.

That the angels ingested the physical victuals of Abraham was part of their disguise, of course, but they did derive nourishment from Abraham --- the same G-dly nourishment that always sustained them, because Abraham's conduct was what G-d had created the universe for. Abraham pleased G-d; his daily life was equivalent to a raft of offerings, just as G-d told King David that one day of his songs of praise was more pleasing to G-d than the thousands of offerings that King Solomon would offer to Him (Tractate Shabbes). Such was the nourishment that the angels derived from being at Abraham's table, the same that they had received in Heaven in the proximity of God, as it were.

When Moses came to receive the Torah, it is understandable that the angels were loath to part with it --- but not because someone else would be able to join them in its study. Let all the people in the world come closer to the blueprint of the universe; that would not deprive the angels of their wisdom. One does not become less wise because someone else becomes more learned. Surely the angels were as unselfish as Moses, who exclaimed, "Would that the entire people of HASHEM could be prophets, if HASHEM would but place His spirit upon them." (Numbers 11:29)

The angels feared something else entirely. They knew that the Torah was the soul of the universe, and the world's continued existence depended on Torah study. The Sages (Tractate Pesachim) teach that for the 26 generations before the Torah was given, G-d provided for all living things purely out of His mercy. But once the Torah was given, the existence of the universe is predicated on Israel's performance of the commandments. The angels knew that if the Torah was to be given to Israel, human beings would become its caretakers, and that their study of its wisdom and performance of its commandments would become the life-giving soul of the world and all that was in it including the angels themselves. This the angels opposed. They did not want their survival to depend on the deeds of Israel.

Let us not forget that the angels, too, are part of the universe, and did not exist before G-d created it. So it stands to reason that if man's deeds were to became the life-giving factor of the rest of the world, the angels would be part of that equation.

In response, God showed them that Moses resembled Abraham, not necessarily in the color of his eyes or the shape of his features, but in the essential characteristics of the one whose deeds had once truly nourished the angels. "Is he not the one to whom you descended and in whose home you ate?" G-d asked. And didn't that prove that the holiness generated by man was what G-d wanted and that was identical to that with which G-d Himself had sustained even the angels?

That demonstration served as the preamble to the logical arguments by which Moses overcame the objections of the angels. Once it was established that human beings could create the spirituality that the angels craved, Moses proceeded to show that the text of the Torah itself proved that it was meant for the Jewish people. He demanded of the angels: Were you enslaved in Egypt? Are you tempted to serve alien gods? From what work can you be commanded to desist on the Sabbath? Have you parents to honor? Are you subject to the sort of jealousy that could provoke you to kill, steal, or commit adultery?

Immediately the angels acquiesced in G-d's decision that the Torah should be given to Moses and Israel (Tractate Shabbes).

III. The Infinite Tree

In the blessing recited after a portion of the Torah reading, we bless G-d "Who gave us the Torah of truth and implanted eternal life within us." The text requires explanation. What is the "Torah of truth" and what is "eternal life?" What is the difference between "gave us" and "implanted within us?"

Tur (Orach Chaim 137) explains that the "Torah of truth" is the Written Torah, the recorded text that G-d actually gave us in toto. "Eternal life" is the Oral Torah. True, the Oral Law is the indispensable twin of the Written Torah, and it, too, was given to Moses at Sinai, but it is different. In describing the giving of the Oral Torah, the blessing uses the same verb that describes the planting of a tree, because just as a tree grows from a single seed, and continues to grow and reproduce, so, too, the Oral Torah was implanted within Israel, and with it the capacity for Jews to delve ever more deeply into it and derive more and more wisdom.

This does not mean that there can ever be a new Torah per se; it is one of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith that the Torah is immutable. The Sages teach that everything a diligent scholar would ever ask or innovate was taught to Moses at Sinai, meaning that every true Torah idea was contained in the principles taught at Sinai. Rather, the wisdom contained in the Oral Torah is as infinite as the combined capacity of all the people who would ever study it and is the source of everything they may ever elucidate.

In the simile often quoted by Rashi, the process of explicating the Torah is like a hammer striking a rock; sparks and splinters fly out in all directions, but all emanate from the same rock. So too, a phrase of the Torah can yield a wealth of legal and ethical teachings, all of them true and applicable. The copious volumes on every aspect of Torah law are only part of the riches waiting to be mined from it.

These are the gifts the Jewish people received at Mount Sinai, the spiritual emanations of which remain with us always, and particularly every Shavuos. They elevate even the angels; they surely elevate every Jew who studies and lives by them. That is why the observance of Shavuos calls for physical enjoyment: Through the study of the Torah, through its application to everyday life, through intellectual immersion in the intellectual gifts of the Creator, through the analysis of new situations and technology in the light of the unchanging principles that flow from Sinai, the Jew perfects himself both spiritually and physically. Just as Abraham's banquet nourished spiritual beings, Shavuos teaches that ostensibly mundane life situations are not separate from the Torah and its teachings.

The uniqueness of Israel flows from the gift of the Torah and the nations' continuing allegiance to it. The spark of Abraham's faith has often flickered within his offspring, but it has never gone out. Because it remained alive in Egypt, the people followed Moses to Sinai and became the eternal source of sustenance for Creation.

It remains alive today -- every day -- and the reappearance of Shavous every year beckons to us to recognize anew that the Torah was meant for us, and by observing it, we give life and sustenance even to angels, and surely to ourselves.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman, one of Jewry's foremost Jewish educators and thinkers, heads Brooklyn-based Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


©1998, Mesorah Publications, Ltd. Excerpted from Shavous: its Observance, Laws and Significance