- Hashem pervades the Torah. Some of the time He is doing things – creating the universe, creating man, splitting the Red Sea, and so on. But most of the time He is speaking to man. It is that on which I wish to focus today.
- The Haftarah for today’s sedra is from the First Book of Kings, Chapter 18, and the link is between the worship of the Golden Calf in the sedra and the battle between Elijah and the Baal worshippers in the Haftarah. But I’d like to refer instead to the next Chapter of Kings. Although this is actually the Haftarah for the sedra of Pinchas, there is to my mind also a link with today’s sedra. A key moment in today’s sedra is when Moses stands in a cleft in a rock and Hashem passes by. Similarly, Elijah stood upon a mount and Hashem passed by:
“And, behold, Hashem passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before Hashem; but Hashem was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but Hashem was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but Hashem was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19: 11-12)
- And that is exactly the sense one has in today’s sedra – that after all the thunder and lightning of the giving of the Ten Commandments, and all the anger following the Golden Calf incident, there follows a moment of extreme intimacy between Hashem and Moses. We are told that in the normal course “Hashem spoke to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend” (Shemot, 33:11). But Moses’ spiritual yearning is not satisfied, and he pleads with Hashem to understand his ways; Hashem agrees, but warns that “Thou cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (33:20). The first reference is to be interpreted figuratively; and the second is an anthropomorphic way of saying that Hashem’s essence simply cannot be comprehended by human beings. But, then, going as far as possible to satisfy Moses’ desire, Hashem passes by him, and declares the thirteen attributes. It is as if Moses discerned Hashem through a still small voice – or at least that is how it strikes me.
- That passage has always seemed to me to be both powerful and moving. In my subjective opinion, it is the most intimate instance of man-G-d dialogue in the Torah. It is almost what might be called a conversation. What I want to do is to explore other instances of man’s dialogue with Hashem in the Torah, to see which, if any, resemble it. Of course there are too many to cover them all, so I have concentrated on Bereishit, and even there I have had to omit some secondary characters.
- Right from the start of the Torah, we see a personal dialogue between Hashem and Adam, and then with Cain. But they are in the nature of dialogues that one might expect between a disapproving parent and a wayward child. There is no sense of intimacy or conversation.
- The next person who is cited as being spoken to by Hashem is Noah. But there is no record of Noah saying anything in response. He is just – if I may use an Ark-related pun – the vessel for instructions as to how to save a residue of living creatures from the forthcoming flood.
- And so we come to Abram, and the first promise, at the beginning of Chapter 12 of Bereishit, to make his descendants into a nation, and of a land in which they could dwell. But the first sign of any dialogue between Abram and Hashem does not come until Chapter 15, after the repetition of the promise of a great reward, when Abram complains that he is childless. After the next promise that the nation will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and again about the land, Abram asks how he can know that he will inherit it (15:7). (This resembles the dialogue Moses was later to have with Hashem requesting proof of the validity of his forthcoming mission.) There follows the Covenant of the Pieces and the prediction to Abram, in a dream, that there would be a 400-year exile. But although in this episode there was a dialogue of sorts, and what was said to Abram was very promising, it was very much de haut en bas.
- It is thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael before Abram again converses with Hashem; and this is a more intimate dialogue than hitherto. It is the one in which he is renamed as Abraham, and is instructed about circumcision; but it is also when Abraham expresses joy and incredulity about the predicted birth of Isaac, and pleads for Ishmael’s future.
- There then follows the meeting with the three strangers, one of whom may actually have been Hashem himself; and then the debate about Sodom and Gomorrah, where there is a genuine to-and-fro dialogue in which Abraham tries to broker a more merciful outcome than Hashem had originally intended, relating to the number of righteous people to be found there.
- There remain only two more significant dialogues between Abraham and Hashem recorded in the Torah. The first was when Hashem told him not to oppose the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. And the second, much more momentous, was the Akedah, when, until the happy outcome, the gulf between man and G-d could not in one sense have been wider. With the promise that “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (22:18), and despite Abraham’s living another 38 years, there is no record of any further dialogue between Abraham and Hashem.
- And so we come to Isaac. There are, in fact, only three recorded instances of his actually communing with Hashem (beyond the statement in 25:11 that, after Abraham’s death, “Hashem blessed Isaac his son”). First, Isaac entreated Hashem to make Rebecca fertile (25:19). Second, Hashem told Isaac not to go to Egypt and repeated the promises made to Abraham about the land and his progeny (26:2-5). And, third, the promise was repeated in Beer-Sheba (26:24), whereupon Isaac built an altar and “called upon the name of Hashem” (exactly as his father had done near Beth-El right at the start of his journey). None of the intimacy that can be detected occasionally in Abraham’s converse with Hashem is seen in the case of Isaac.
- And then comes Jacob, and the famous dream of Jacob’s Ladder, also at Beth-El. Again there is the promise of many descendants and a land to inhabit; and there is the additional promise that Hashem will be with him wherever he travels. This epiphany seems somehow more profound than those granted to his father and grandfather, and causes him to exclaim: “Surely Hashem is in this place and I knew it not”, followed by: “How full of awe is this place; this is none other than the house of G-d.” (28; 16-17) This is perhaps the only time that the feelings of awe of one of the Patriarchs are expressed so vividly. This episode is the closest in spirit, in my opinion, to the conversation with Moses in today’s sedra, even though it is not actually a dialogue at all.
- The next significant episode is the wrestle with the angel – effectively with Hashem himself. Here there is a more intimate dialogue than is usual – with the angel demanding to be released as the day breaks, and Jacob bargaining with Him: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:27). There follows the exchange in which Jacob is granted the name Israel. And, in significant contrast to what Hashem says to Moses about not seeing His face, Jacob calls the name of the place Peniel because, as he says, “I have seen G-d face to face and my life is preserved” (32:31). This is the first time that the phrase “panim el panim” is used in the Torah, and it is of course to be understood figuratively.
- The next recorded interaction between Jacob and Hashem is in Chapter 35 of Bereishit (in Vayishlach), after the episode of Dinah, when he is instructed to return to Beth-El, and he is again blessed with the promise of the land (and told to “be fruitful and multiply”). But there is no response from Jacob, no dialogue. Eleven chapters later, Hashem encourages Jacob to go down to Egypt (46:2); this is the last time they are seen to speak together, with Jacob responding “Hineini”- “Here I am” to his twice repeated name (echoing Abraham’s response at the Akedah and Moses’s later response at the Burning Bush, each preceded by the repetition of their names). And there is no recorded instance of Hashem speaking directly to any of Jacob’s twelve sons, including Joseph.
- This brings us to Moses. Time does not permit me to conduct a similar taxonomy. What is clear, however, is that from the Burning Bush onwards the Torah records much more of what Moses says to Hashem than it does of what the Patriarchs said to Him. That is something of a paradox, because Hashem had become a much more impersonal G-d by then, in the sense that he was recognised as G-d by a whole nation of 600,000 souls rather than by a tribe of just seventy people who went down to Egypt. So you might expect a more remote communication. That it was a proper dialogue at times is a measure of Moses’ greatness; that it would not be repeated in the future with anything like the same intensity is clearly signalled in the ante-penultimate verse in the whole Torah (Devarim, 34:10): “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face.”
- In conclusion, I’ve covered a lot of ground, but certainly cannot claim to have got anywhere near to the bottom of what was going on in the intimate conversation with which I began. But I’m in good company, and I’ll end by quoting what Samson Raphael Hirsch said about that whole episode:
“Nowhere must any translation or explanation of the Word of G-d tread more carefully than with the contents of Verses 12 to 23 [of Chapter 33 of Shemot]. For these passages lead us to the outer limits of man’s knowledge of G-d. The area that lies beyond these limits is indicated to us precisely in order to show us the spheres we cannot reach with the [finite] measure of knowledge granted to us for our life on earth. How, then, in any attempt of ours to understand and interpret these passages, should we not be filled with trepidation lest we overshoot the mark of truth and go beyond the bounds of what the text was meant to convey?”
6 March 2010