"God's Counsel is With Those Who Fear Him"

  • Rav Shimon Klein
 
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Dedicated in memory of Esther Zolty z”l by the Fields Family
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"The interpreter may not look at the text"
 
What is the source for the existence of "two Torahs" – the Written Law and the Oral Law? Our parasha offers two answers to this question, representing two different worldviews.
 
Our point of departure will be the Oral Law – specifically, a law cited in the midrash, which will lead us back to the Written Law:
 
Our Rabbi taught us: One who translates for the Torah reader – may he look at the text?
 
Thus our Rabbis taught: The translator may not look at the text, while the reader may not remove his gaze from the text. For the Torah was given only in writing, as it is written, "And I shall write upon the Tablets…" (Shemot 34:1). And it is forbidden for the one who translates in public to look at the Torah. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 6)
 
The midrash opens with a question: "One who translates for the Torah reader – may he look at the text?" The context in which the question arises is the situation in which the Torah text was read in Hebrew, while the spoken language was Aramaic. During the Torah reading, an interpreter would stand alongside the reader and as each verse was read, he would translate into the vernacular.[1] What if the translator not only listens to the reading, but also looks at the text itself while he translates it?
 
Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves how we would answer this question. Seemingly, there is nothing to deliberate: it sounds like a good idea for an interpreter to look at the text while he is interpreting, since this will help him to translate more accurately and remain completely faithful to the original.[2]
 
Surprisingly, the midrash answers in the negative: "The translator may not look at the text." Why not? No explanation is given, but the midrash goes on to state another halakha, along with its reason: "The reader may not remove his gaze from the text. For the Torah was given only in writing, as it is written, ‘And I shall write upon the Tablets…’ (Shemot 34:1).” This law is the converse of the previous one, suggesting that there is a fundamental connection between them.
 
First source
 
"The reader may not remove his gaze from the text, for the Torah was given only in writing." This law focuses the reader on the text, and explains this intense focus by awarding tremendous weight and significance to the written word. As the source, the midrash cites a verse that appears as part of the description of how the second set of Tablets was created:
 
God said to Moshe, “Hew for yourself two tablets of stone, like the first ones, and I shall write upon the Tablets the words that were upon the first tablets, which you broke." (Shemot 34:1)
 
Moshe is commanded to prepare the vessel, but the actual writing is left to God. Thus, the words, "For the Torah was given only in writing" would seem to point to the Divine contribution to the process.
 
The law seems to be saying something like this: "The reader may not turn his gaze away from the text – and by adhering to this he gives expression to the Divine nature of the Torah."[3] Looking away from the text would mean relying on memory – uttering a statement originating in the reader, as it were. The negating of such a possibility molds the reader’s role as a mouthpiece for the Torah written by God's hand, a high-fidelity "channel" for conveying God's word.
 
Now we can return to the first law and identify in it the "negative" of the latter one. "The interpreter may not look at the text" – because what he is interpreting for the listeners, what he conveys to them, is not God's voice. His translation is his understanding of what the reader has said. Thus, his connection with the text is severed both symbolically and physically.
 
This deliberate severance of the gaze from the text may be understood as a value statement, the expression of a worldview, but it also seems to mold a psychological and spiritual position. What is the difference between translation from one language to another with the eye remaining fixed on the writing in the original language, and the oral interpretation of a sentence or verse that is heard?
 
In written translation that adheres to the text, the translator might remain within the technical dimension: he adheres to the words, serving as a sort of "dictionary" for them, even when he does not understand the context or the essence of the text. An oral interpreter, in contrast, cannot rely on the written words, which he does not have before him, and certainly cannot provide a precise literal translation. His position as listener focuses him on the subject arising from the verses, on its meanings, and correspondingly on the listeners to whom he addresses himself.[4] The prohibition against looking at the text might be understood as a reminder to the interpreter that his role is not to convey to the listeners the words as they are. Rather, his role as interpreter is to convey them as he understands them, through the prism of his own logic and insight.
 
The subject of the midrash is the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, and the two halakhot effectively mold an occasion of a reading of the Torah in which two parallel processes take place: there is a reading from the sefer Torah, with the voicing of the Written Law, as well as an interpretation, giving voice to the "Oral Law."[5]
 
An initial definition of the two Torahs might be presented as follows: The primal source for the Written Torah is the Divine inscription upon the Tablets. The content of this inscription is the Ten Commandments, a set of laws and statements forming a sort of constitution; these are truths that transcend the context of time or place. The reference to these as the seminal source is equivalent to attributing the concept of the "Written Law" to Divine commands that express eternal values that do not arise from the here and now. The fact that it is written gives appropriate expression to the fact that it will not change.
 
The Oral Law, in contrast, is delivered by the interpreter. Here, man hears Torah and is required to answer for himself the question, "What have I understood?" Understanding depends, to a considerable extent, on the context, the environment, and the conditions acting upon him and his generation. The habitat of Torah is human beings – or, more specifically, the sages of each generation. This Torah is the voice of the sages who digest, deliberate, understand, and color the Divine word. They also assume responsibility for their understanding so as to illuminate the way for others and to rule on matters of Halakha.[6] This Torah was not written because it is tied up with life as it comes into being, with the here and now, with its changes and processes.[7]
 
The writing that was not chosen
 
The author of the midrash offers a source for the law, and we will now explore it further.
 
Many midrashei halakha, as well as other Talmudic discussions, start by seeking a source for a particular law. Is it proof that they are seeking, or something else? Our assumption here will be that the essence of the question is not a desire for proof. A textual unit, a verse or group of verses from the Torah, serves as a sort of "breeding ground" and may teach us much about the meaning of the halakha, the deeper insights that are concealed within it. Thus, the citing of a source may be understood as the demarcation of a formative conceptual sphere that tells the deeper story of the halakha in question.
 
The source that is selected here is the verse in which God commands Moshe to hew tablets in preparation for the Divine inscription upon them:
 
God said to Moshe, “Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I shall inscribe upon the tablets the words which were upon the first tablets, which you broke." (Shemot 34:1)
 
This choice is not self-evident, since the Torah has already described the inscription on the first set of Tablets:
 
And Moshe turned and he went down from the mountain, and the two Tablets of Testimony were in his hand – tablets written on both their sides, on the one side and on the other were they written. And the Tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. (Shemot 32:15-16)
 
Aside from their chronological precedence, the first Tablets are also clearly superior in terms of the writing: they are inscribed on both sides; the "writing" (mikhtav) is a noun, rather than a verb ("I shall write"); this writing is emphasized through repetition ("the writing was the writing of God…"); and it is engraved, indicating that the writing is meant to last. Why, then, does the author of the midrash skip over this "writing," choosing to highlight instead the relatively low-key writing described in relation to the second set of Tablets?
 
The Divine writing on the first Tablets is indeed meaningful, but at the same time, in the context of our midrash, its advantage is also a disadvantage. The midrash seeks both voices – that of the reader of the Torah and that of the interpreter at his side. The former can be found in the context of the first set of Tablets, but the latter cannot.[8] When it comes to the second set of Tablets, Moshe hews the vessel – "Hew for yourself two Tablets of stone, like the first ones" – and only as a second stage does God play His part in writing them – "And I shall write upon the Tablets the words that were upon the first Tablets, which you broke." There is a vessel fashioned by man and there is writing that comes in its wake. It would seem that this role played by Moshe is translated in the midrash into the position of the interpreter of the Torah, who is faithful to the logic of his own heart and the life setting in which he finds himself.
 
Second source
 
Another source for these two laws is cited further on in the midrash:
 
R. Yehuda ben Pazi said: This is formulated inclusively: “Write for yourself these things” – this refers to the Torah which was given in writing; “for according to these things” – this refers to the interpretation that was given orally" (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 6).
 
This teaching is derived from a verse that is invoked by the Sages in many midrashim discussing the concept and meaning of "two Torahs:"[9]
 
God said to Moshe: “Write for yourself these things, for according to these things I have forged a covenant with you and with Israel.” (34:27)
 
R. Yehuda ben Pazi asserts that the verse is "formulated inclusively" and points to the instruction, "Write for yourself" as the source for the reader adhering to the text. The explanation, "for according to these things…," he applies to the interpreter, who brings the voice of the Oral Law.
 
Before delving into the intricacies of this teaching, attention should be paid to the general picture painted by the midrash. Thus far, one might have imagined two models for the nature of what happens between man and God: there are the "first Tablets," representing intensified Godly presence, and there are the "second Tablets," representing elevated and holy Divine content that is contained within human vessels. As noted, the midrash chooses the second model rather than the first.
 
Now, the midrash addresses itself to another meaningful event that took place on the mountain at the same time. This event offers yet another model. In contrast to the Divine writing upon the Tablets, both first and second, the writing is now performed by Moshe. "Write for yourself," God commands him, inviting him to a new and different level of involvement, a new spiritual position.
 
At first, the teaching appears to be meant literally: "Write for yourself," Moshe is told – and here we have a source for the Written Law. "For according to (al pi) these things…," the verse goes on to explain – and the midrash deduces from this a source for the Oral (be'al peh) Law. But this is a difficult interpretation. "According to these things" means "in accordance with" or "on the basis of." Their connection with the idea of "oral speech" seems tenuous at best. The introductory words of the teaching, "This is an inclusive formulation," likewise suggests a more intrinsic and fundamental connection – an "inclusive reading" from which we derive the subject and its related concepts, rather than literal interpretation. A third difficulty arises regarding the nature of the source. If we accept the assumption that a source serves as a "breeding ground" or conceptual sphere from which the halakha in question arises, then we would expect to find an inherent connection between the "two Torahs" and the verse cited in support of their existence.[10]
 
Some background and context: These words are addressed by God to Moshe following a lengthy "argument" that takes place atop the mountain in the wake of the sin of the golden calf. God tells Moshe that He will send an angel to lead the nation, rather than accompanying them Himself. Moshe refuses to accept this, and pleads again and again. His final attempt is worded as follows:
 
He said, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray You, go among us, for it is a stiff-necked people. And pardon our iniquity and our sin, and grant us our inheritance." (Shemot 34:9)
God acquiesces:
 
And He said, “Behold, I make a covenant: before all your people I will do wonders such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation, and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord that I will do with you, that it is fearsome."
 
There will be a covenant, meaning mutual commitment, and in its wake – "I will come." God does not suffice here with a one-sided promise. A "covenant" has two sides; I am committed and so are you. There follows a detailed list of the nation's part in the covenant:
 
"Take note for yourself of what I command you this day: Behold, I drive out from before you,[11] the Emorites and the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Chivvites and the Jebusites. Guard yourself lest you forge a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, lest it be a snare for you in your midst… Observe the Festival of Matzot… Six days shall you work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing and in harvest shall you rest… Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel… The first of the firstfruits of your land shall you bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." (Shemot 34:11-26)
 
Now, in the wake of this agreement, God addresses Moshe with the words cited above, in the midrash: "Write for yourself these words," referring to the agreement reached at the end of the saga (the sin of the golden calf, Moshe's pleading on the nation's behalf, and God's acquiescence)[12] – or, as Ramban refers to it, the "Book of the Covenant."[13] The expression "these words" now points both forwards and backwards. It points forwards to what Moshe is now commanded to write; there has been an agreement, with each side committing to its share, and this must now be committed to writing in order that it will stand for a long time. It also points backwards, as an explanation for why Moshe needs to write, for it is "according to these things that I have forged a covenant with you, and with Israel." The covenant between us is founded upon the words of this agreement. They are meaningful, and therefore I command that they be written down.
 
"According to these words"
 
What is the meaning of the expression "al-pi"? In many places in Tanakh, it is meant in the sense of "al-peh" ("by the mouth of" or "by the word of"), meaning, on the basis of the speech or utterance that emerges from the mouth. For example, "And the sons of Yisrael did so, and Yosef gave them wagons by Pharaoh's word (al pi), and he gave them provisions for the way" (Bereishit 45:21). "By Pharaoh's word" means "on the basis of the utterance that had issued from his mouth" just prior to this, in his instruction to Yosef.[14] Sometimes the "al-pi" does not refer to an actual statement, but rather is meant in the metaphorical sense: "Like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard – the beard of Aharon; running down in accordance with (al pi) his attributes" (Tehillim 133:2). Here, it is not a statement that is reflected, but rather Aharon's traits; the running of the oil expresses and reflects them.[15] The expression "al pi" can also be used to mean an "opening." For instance, "And he saw, and behold, a well in the field; and behold, there were three flocks of sheep there, lying by it, for out of that well they watered the flocks, and a great stone was upon the opening (al pi) of the well" (Bereishit 29:2). In this description as well, the connection with that which was already mentioned is maintained. Just as the "opening of the well" (literally, "mouth of the well") allows access to the abundant water inside, so the mouth of a person allows access to the abundance within him – his statements, the voicing of his thoughts.[16]
 
Now we have a better understanding of the midrash. The midrash identifies two instructions in the verse. First, there is an instruction to write the "Book of the Covenant": "Write for yourself these words…"[17] Then, there comes the meaning behind this instruction: "For it is according to these words that I have made a covenant with you, and with Israel." In the tangible sense, the reference here is to the speech and the statement reflected in them; in a broader sense, the reference is to additional messages, which are not necessarily reflected in speech.
 
Two methods are juxtaposed in this verse. The first speaks of writing, the physical eternalizing for all generations, and eternal value. The second appeals to inner logic, to the speech or statement arising from these words, to moral and spiritual meaning. The midrash declares that this "mouth" (peh) or "speech" should be "be'al peh" – conveyed orally, not in writing. It seeks to leave the world of the spirit in its living state, in speech, in movement, in dialogue – in all that characterizes Torah that is "be'al peh."[18]
 
We will now review what took place upon the mountain, starting from the sin of the golden calf and up until the agreement between God and Moshe. An understanding of this episode may shed light on the nature of the two Torahs that are derived from it.
 
Drama atop the mountain
 
Moshe spends forty days on the mountain. Just before he descends, the nation stumbles and creates the molten calf. God commands Moshe, "Go, descend, for your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt have become corrupt" (Shemot 32:7-8). God sends Moshe away, ordering him to descend the mountain and casting responsibility for the nation's behavior on his shoulders.
 
This triggers one of the greatest dramas in the Torah. There are two actors – God and Moshe, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the continued existence of the nation and its relationship with God.
 
God adopts the position of strict justice, while Moshe takes up the defense, arguing and not giving up. Over the course of almost sixty verses, the text records speech that is "face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow" (33:11), the playing out of an incredible mind-game. Moshe poses difficult questions:
 
"Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, 'With evil did He bring them out, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from upon the face of the earth'?" (32:11).
 
He goes on to plead: "Turn from Your fierce anger, and relent of this evil against Your people" (ibid. 12), and recalls the oath made to the forefathers:
 
"Remember unto Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael, Your servants, that which You promised to them by Your own self, saying to them, 'I shall multiply your seed like the stars of the heaven, and all of this land of which I have spoken, I will give to your descendants, and they will inherit it forever.’" (33:13)
 
In response, God softens His position: "And the Lord relented of the evil which He had spoken of doing to His people" (32:14).
 
Moshe does not rest. The threat of annihilation has been lifted, but reconciliation is still far off. He goes down to the nation, the Tablets in his hand. This, too, is not self-evident: he is bringing Torah to a nation that has a terrible Divine decree hanging over it. He draws closer to the people and – unbelievably, inexplicably – casts the Tablets down and shatters them at the foot of the mountain.[19] Now he stands before the people and spearheads a process both complex and painful. At its conclusion, there is a declaration of intent: "Moshe said to the people, ‘You have sinned a great sin, and now, I shall ascend to God – perhaps I shall make atonement for your sin’" (32:30). Once again, he ascends the mountain, this time assuming the position of a "threat": "And now, if You will forgive their sin – and if not, erase me, I pray You, from Your book which You have written" (ibid. 32). God answers Moshe in the same language: "Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book" (ibid. 34). And then God adds that from this point onwards, an angel will accompany the nation, instead of God Himself: "And now, go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you; behold, My angel shall go before you" (ibid.).
 
At this stage, Moshe adopts a different strategy. From this point on, there will not be argument between him and God, but rather closeness – perhaps the greatest closeness that has ever existed between man and God: "God spoke with Moshe face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow." Moshe says:
 
“You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight…’ And now, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You, that I may find favor in Your sight.” (33:12-13)
 
Moshe speaks of finding favor in God's sight and asks to know Him – in order "that I may find favor in Your sight."
 
God acquiesces: "God said to Moshe, ‘I will do this thing, too, which you have spoken, for you have found favor in My sight, and I know you by name’" (17). Moshe continues: "And he said, ‘I pray You, show me Your glory.’" God responds, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live." The distance between you, as a mortal man, and God is unbridgeable. Nevertheless, a compromise is proposed:
 
God said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon a rock. And it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by, and I will remove My hand, and you will see My back; but My face shall not be seen." (33:20-23)
 
"Were it not written in the Torah, one could not utter it" – the description of this intimate encounter between Moshe and God.
 
Thus far, we have words or plans. Throughout, Moshe has upheld his demand: "See that this nation is Your people" (33:13), or, to put it differently:
 
He said to Him: “If Your Presence will not go [with us], do not take us up from here. For in what shall it then be known that I have found favor in Your sight – I and Your people? Is it not in Your going with us, such that I and Your people are differentiated from every nation that is upon the face of the earth?" (15-16)
 
The next stage is that of realization: "God descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the Name of the Lord" (34:5). With these words, the text alludes to the moment of the greatest closeness: when God stands "with" Moshe, when Moshe's wish is granted: "Show me Your way, that I may know You, that I may find favor in Your sight."[20] And now, at the moment of the greatest closeness of all, Moshe once again pleads:
 
"If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray You, go among us, for it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and grant us our inheritance." (34:9)
 
Moshe never loses sight of his aim. He understands reality perfectly well, and at the moment of the greatest closeness, he is the spokesman for the people waiting down below, seeking that God Himself continue to go in their midst.
 
God responds with the words:
 
"Behold, I make a covenant: before all your people I will do wonders such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation, and all the people among whom you are, shall see the work of the Lord that I will do with you, that it is fearsome." (34:10)
 
God is appeased. He agrees to lead the people once again – but there are conditions, and there is a binding framework. The general heading is "covenant" ("Behold, I make a covenant…"), and it contains commitments on both sides. God promises to perform wonders for the people, to accompany them when they enter the land – "Behold, I drive out before you the Emorites…" (ibid. 11). The nation is committed to a string of commandments, which form the basis of the relationship and the covenant.
 
A formative event
 
As noted, this unit is chosen as a formative source in midrashei Chazal that discuss the existence of two Torahs. In its more focused version, it points to the "Book of the Covenant" but in the broader sense, it points to the conversation between God and Moshe in the wake of the sin of the golden calf.
 
What is the significance of this choice?
 
In the broader sense, the author of the midrash chooses the most meaningful dialogue ever to have taken place between man and God. Hanging in the balance is the fate of the nation. The prosecutor is God Himself; as the defense attorney, there stands a man who demands life and mercy. In the dialogue, there is closeness, commitment, and responsibility. It would seem that the choice of this dialogue extends an invitation to the Sages of the Oral Law of all future generations: "The sky is the limit with regard to your power," if only you understand this event and the role that it entrusts you with: to pave the way, to mold, to take responsibility.
 
In the narrower sense, the choice of this scene is surprising in both respects. With respect to the writing – in contrast to the "Written Law," which is derived from the first source which speaks of Divine writing, here there is nothing about Divine writing, nor about the "Ten Commandments" that embody a lofty statement in terms of content. The "Written Law" that is mentioned here contains the conclusions drawn from the great rift, and it is pieced together laboriously, stage by stage, between Moshe and God. "Write for yourself," God tells Moshe, as an involved party who bears responsibility, rather than as a scribe who simply writes from God's mouth.[21]
 
The Oral Law, too, is very different from what it had been previously. Previously, Moshe hewed the Tablets, preparing the vessel, and God wrote the content. Now, Moshe has a role in the realm of the content – in the process in which he had played such a pivotal role.
 
What, then, is the relationship between them?
 
In the next two sections, we will examine the midrash and verses from elsewhere in the Tanakh, according to their plain meaning. Following this, we will return to our question.
 
"They have been counted as a stranger"?
 
If we pursue our Midrash Tanchuma a little further, we find ourselves dealing with verses from elsewhere in Tanakh and with the world of the spirit:
 
R. Yehuda Ha-Levi ben R. Shalom said: Moshe sought to have the Mishna written down as well… The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Shall I then write for you “the great things [or "the majority"] of My Torah?” (Hoshea 8:12). If so, "they shall be considered as a foreign thing" (ibid.). And why so? Because the Mishna is God's secret, and God reveals His secret only to the righteous, as it is written, “God's counsel is with those who fear Him” (Tehillim 25:14)… (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 6)
 
According to this midrash, Moshe seeks to commit the Oral Law to writing.[22] This request is rejected out of hand. God recalls the verse from Hoshea: "Shall I then write for you the great things of My Torah? [For] they shall be considered as a foreign thing" (Hoshea 8:12). The context of this verse is the vast distance separating Israel from God: "Israel shall cry to Me: 'My God, we know You'" (ibid. 2). They believe that they are close; they are unaware of the extent of the distance and severance. To illustrate, God posits the option of Him writing for them most of what is contained in "My Torah" – in the first person – as an expression of the intimacy that should prevail between them. The result would be that "they" – these written words – would "be considered as a foreign thing." Why? Because "the Mishna is God's secret,[23] and God reveals His secret only to the righteous: ‘God's counsel is with those who fear Him.’" The Oral Law is "My Torah," the intimacy with God alluded to in Sefer Hoshea, and it contains God's deepest secret, which cannot be shared with those who are "foreign."[24]
 
Now we must pause and pay attention to the paradox that has revealed itself. The midrash began by identifying the nature of the Written Law as reflecting the supernal Divine word, descriptions belonging to eternity, transcending the here and now. In contrast, the Torah that remains "be'al peh" is the arena of the living encounter, detailed speech, contemporary descriptions that are not written down. But then, surprisingly, the midrash turns in a different direction: it is the Oral Law that contains God's secret, which is reserved for those who fear Him and cannot be conveyed to strangers![25] How are we to understand this paradox? What is the essence of the Oral Law according to this midrash?
 
We shall now examine a textual illustration of the insight presented here in relation to the Oral Law.
 
Overt vs. covert discourse
 
From where did Moshe draw the courage to stand and argue with God, answering back again and again and not giving up? We seek the answer to this question in the text:
 
God said to Moshe, “Go, get down, for your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt have become corrupt. They have turned away quickly from the way which I commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’" (Shemot 32:7-8)
 
With these words, God pushes Moshe away from the mountain: Go, get down from your lofty position, for your nation has corrupted its way. What is Moshe supposed to do, in the wake of this news? He must go down the mountain and rejoin the people. But God addresses him again:
 
God said to Moshe, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now, therefore, leave Me alone that My anger may burn against them, and I shall consume them, and I shall make of you a great nation." (ibid. 9-10)
 
This is perplexing. The message is completely different from the previous one in every respect. God is now drawing a wedge between Moshe and the people. They are stiff-necked; you are not. They will be annihilated, but with you I shall continue.
 
What is the meaning of this contradiction? Is there any way to bridge the two Divine statements?
 
The answer is – no. These statements are very different from one another, not only in terms of their conclusion, but also in terms of the process, at each and every stage:
 
"Go" – Leave the place where you are at. This is a "bottom line" order, with no explanation. First there comes this absolute rejection; only afterwards does Moshe hear the reason.
 
"Descend" – You are at a high place, but right now this is not appropriate. After Moshe is summarily banished ("go"), there comes a sliver of explanation: "Descend" – you do not belong in the high place that you currently occupy. Now there follows a process of "retroactive discovery," stage by stage.
 
"For your people has become corrupt" – This is another sliver of explanation as to what the nation has done, but it is still a judgmental statement with no attention to facts.
 
"Whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt" – They are your people; this being the case, go down to them and be with them. Only right at the end of this shocking moment does Moshe become aware of the facts, of what the nation has done: "They have made for themselves a molten calf, and worshipped it, and sacrificed to it, and said: ‘These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’"
 
The second statement opens with the words, "God said" – a new statement, something new.
 
"I have seen" – looking anew, a new perspective on matters.
 
"this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people" – The word "hinei" ("behold") signifies a "discovery" in the wake of a new analysis of reality.
 
"this people" – Unlike the previous statement, here God speaks of "the people," not "your people;" they are not attributed to Moshe.
 
"And now" – in contrast to the mood and direction of the previous statement,
 
"leave Me alone that My anger may burn against them, and I shall consume them, and I shall make of you a great nation" – Leave Me; do not seek compassion for them. As a result of your severance from them, I shall be able to make of you a great nation.
 
God offers two possibilities. The first is a sweeping rejection of everything; the second is salvation for Moshe and rejection of the rest of the nation.
 
The presentation of a position, followed by an updating of it as a second stage, is a relativist act; the position is a changing one. What Moshe is being presented with is not absolute truth, but rather partnership in the process; he is given space to think and bring something of himself.[26] Moreover, God tells him, "Leave Me alone" – meaning, "don’t interfere" with God's anger, but on the covert level, Moshe may ask himself, "Why does God say to leave Him?" This may expose that which is left unsaid: "I have the power to overcome this anger, and if you choose not to leave Me, the catastrophe will not happen."
 
These descriptions present God's speech to Moshe as ambiguous. On the overt level, there is rejection. On the covert level, there is an invitation to assume responsibility. Openly, God is saying one thing; in His heart, as it were, He wants something else.[27] And here comes Moshe's great test: which position will he take? Will he listen to and go along with God's overt message, or will he resist it, preferring the covert message, "God's desire"?
 
The key to this dilemma would appear to lie in our previous question. Will Moshe adopt the position of obeying God's word as it is, without thinking and without taking responsibility, or will he ask himself not only what God has said, but also what He truly wants? The tools at his disposal are a deep, profound listening to God's voice and the logic and the insights reflected in it, examining it from its different angles with Moshe's own inner logic and inner world.
 
What in fact happens?
 
And Moshe entreated the Lord his God, and said, “Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, 'With evil did He bring them out, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from upon the face of the earth'? Turn from Your fierce anger, and relent of this evil against Your people. Remember unto Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael, Your servants, that which You promised to them by Your own self, saying to them, 'I shall multiply your seed like the stars of the heaven, and all of this land of which I have spoken, I will give to your descendants, and they will inherit it forever.'”
 
And God relented of the evil which He had spoken of doing to His people. (Shemot 32:11-14)
 
"Moshe entreated the Lord his God" – his God. This is speech that displays intimacy.
 
"And he said, ‘Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?’" – they are Your people; it is You Who brought them out of Egypt. For what purpose? Can You now allow all of that to be lost?
 
"Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, 'With evil did He bring them out, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from upon the face of the earth'?" This is about more than just commitment to Am Yisrael. It involves the other nations, too. You are destroying that which You have built!
 
"Turn from Your fierce anger, and relent of this evil against Your people" – This is an appeal to God's "mood." Let go of the anger; relent.
 
"Remember unto Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, Your servants, that which You promised to them… and all of this land of which I have spoken, I will give to your descendants, and they will inherit it forever'" – The oath to the forefathers will be violated if and when God fulfills His word.
 
Here we must ask: What was God thinking in relation to these arguments? Had He not already considered "what the Egyptians will say"? Had He forgotten His covenant with the forefathers?
 
God occupies two positions. On the one hand, He occupies a high, superior position, the heavenly perspective. A terrible thing has happened. In the midst of the formative ceremony for the connection between us, you have worshipped idolatry. You have lost the right to exist.[28] At the same time, He loves His children, and does not truly wish to kill them. In His heart there is compassion; there is the oath to the forefathers, along with the desire to see to the welfare of their descendants.
 
"God's counsel is with those who fear Him"
 
"God's counsel is with those who fear Him," teach Chazal, establishing an equation. God exacts justice with His children through open discourse, but at the same time there is another discourse, no less significant: between Him and those who fear Him.
 
God shares His counsel with Moshe, inviting him to assume responsibility and to occupy the other position. It is difficult to imagine how God would have responded were Moshe to have agreed willingly to the offer, "Let Me be, that I may annihilate them." Apparently, that possibility lies outside the boundaries of this story. Instead, Moshe assumes responsibility as leader of his people and readies himself for one of the greatest battles for the people's survival.[29] From this point onwards, two voices are heard. God proudly voices the heavenly position, in its purity, and Moshe, for his part, proudly voices the position of life. He serves this position as a mouthpiece, setting forth its claims and arousing the compassion of the Father for His children.[30]
 
It would seem that we now have better insight and perhaps a direction for definitions with regard to the two Torahs. Instead of the dichotomy that existed at the outset between the Divine writing and the mortal speech, the situation is now more complex. One event is described – "These words" – but it offers two perspectives, two different methods, one alongside the other.
 
The Written Law is meant to last. In order to formulate it, Moshe adopts a position that facilitates an "overall view," a broad perspective. He must climb, ascend; this entails a sort of distancing from the living encounter with live situations, from direct contact. He reaches into the dimension of abstractness, a new sort of state – categorical, conceptual.
 
From this lofty, transcendent, separate view, there is nothing wrong with openly declaring and sharing with all the world.
 
At the same time, there is another place – a place that is not abstract, that is not an eternal law. What defines it uniquely is discourse of the heart, a connection with life, one that differs from one sage to another and from one period to another. This is a place of meeting where a sage expresses himself and his world as a student, committed to the text and committed to life, to what his eyes see, and to the logic of his heart.
 
This place is one that reflects God's counsel, His "secret."
 
Translated by Kaeren Fish
 
 

[1] The Rambam writes (Laws of Prayer and Priestly Blessings 12:10): "From the time of Ezra, it was customary that a translator would translate to the people the [passages] read by the reader from the Torah, so that they would understand the subject matter. The reader should read one verse at a time and remain silent while the interpreter translates it. Afterwards, he should read a second verse. The reader is not permitted to read to the interpreter more than one verse [at a time]." It should be noted that at that time, no written Aramaic translations of the Torah existed.
[2] In addition, his rendering is further improved by being based on not one, but two sets of sensory input, both hearing and seeing. Furthermore, maintaining eye contact with the text eases the burden on memory, allowing better focus on translation.
[3]  There is admittedly a difference between the source, which speaks about God writing on the Tablets, and the halakha, which refers to a sefer Torah written by a human scribe. Nevertheless, there is attention here to the Divine origin of the Torah, which was nourished to some extent by a purer Divinity than existed in the Tablets of Testimony.
[4]  The issue of meaning is involved in other senses, too. The ability to remember the content of an entire verse, without relying on the text, is conditional on understanding what one has heard. If there is no understanding, it is difficult to remember a string of words and details and to translate them. This fact may prompt an interpreter to study and prepare in advance of the reading, ensuring that he has fully understood and internalized the meaning of each verse. Indeed, the Aramaic translations that are still in use – Targum Onkelos and Targun Yonatan ben Uzziel – are also commentaries, for all intents and purposes, offering renditions that incorporate moral and spiritual worldviews and go far beyond literal, word-for-word translation.
[5]  These two laws join a series of other laws that shape the simultaneous expression of both voices. The reader reads from a sanctified Torah scroll, whose production is governed by detailed laws (the parchment, the ink, the letters, laws pertaining to the scribe, etc.); the reading must faithfully and meticulously reflect the text; and now there is the additional obligation of adhering to and following the text from beginning to end. The interpreter is responsible for the voice of the Oral Law. Unlike the reader, who is a mouthpiece for something that exists in and of itself and lies beyond his world, the interpreter voices Torah as it has left its impression on him, Torah whose study demands deliberation and responsibility.
[6]  This is expressed most eloquently in the following midrash: "'And you shall come… to the judge who will be in those days' – [Why is it necessary for the Torah to stipulate, 'who will be in those days'?] Is it then possible for a person to come to a beit din that is not in his own days? This comes to teach that one seeks out instruction only from a beit din that exists at that time, as it is written, ‘God Who made Moshe and Aharon (Shemuel I 12:6)… and Yeruba'al and Bedan and Yiftach and Shemuel’ (ibid. 11). The text equates ‘lightweights’ with three of the greatest in the world: Gid'on in his generation is like Shemuel in his generation; Yiftach in his generation is like Moshe in his generation; Shimshon in his generation is like Aharon in his generation. And likewise it says, 'Do not say: The earlier times were better than these – for you do not inquire wisely in this regard' (Kohelet 7:10)" (Midrash Aggadah, Devarim 17:9). The same principle is given interesting expression by R. Kook in his Orot Ha-Torah 1:12: "We receive the Written Torah through the most elevated and inclusive conception within our souls… It makes us soar higher than all logic and intellect.  We sense a supernal Godly spirit hovering upon us… This great light was not created by the spirit of the Jewish People.  Rather, it was created by the spirit of God…
With the Oral Torah, we descend to life.  We feel that we are receiving the supernal light in the second conduit within our soul… Without a doubt, this Torah of man is encompassed within the Torah of God.  It too is the Torah of God…  The Oral Torah exists in the essential character of the Jewish people…" (Translation by Yaacov David Shulman, http://www.ravkook.net/torah.html).
[7] A similar idea is expressed by R. Yehuda Gershoni: "It is part of the wondrous wisdom of the Torah that the interpretation of the Torah is given to the sages of each and every generation, and this itself is what the Rambam teaches in his Laws of Mamrim 2:1 – 'When, using one of the principles of exegesis, the supreme Sanhedrin derived a law through their perception of the matter and adjudicated a case accordingly, and afterwards, another court arose and they perceived another rationale on which basis they would revoke the previous ruling, they may revoke it and rule according to their perception. This is reflected by the verse in Devarim 17:9: ‘To the judge who will be in that age.’ This indicates that a person is obligated to follow only the court in his own generation. Therefore the interpretation of the Torah is given over to the sages of each and every generation, so that the Torah will live with the nation and develop with it; that is its eternity… And this indicates the desire of the God, the Commander, to allow the sages of the Torah to interpret the Torah in each and every generation, so that the interpretation of the Torah will not be fixed and unchanging… What emerges from all this is that through the Oral Law, the Torah allows a free hand for interpretation in accordance with the development of the sages of each generation." (Kol Yehuda [Jerusalem, 5750], p. 622).
[8]  In the case of these Tablets, the vessel itself was Divine ("and the Tablets were the work of God"), with no human input; they were given openly, in sight of the entire nation, without dependence on anyone's personal level of spirituality – "and the sight of God's glory was like a consuming fire at the top of the mountain, in the sight of Bnei Yisrael" (Shemot 24:17); and we find that "all the people saw the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the shofar…" (20:15). Hearing is an inner experience, with an element of subjectivity. The transformation of sound into something that could be "seen" embodies a spirituality that was exposed to all. The first Tablets might be viewed as a point of departure, a basis of transcendent holiness, of a vision greater than the vessels of reality. As such, what remains of them, ultimately, is "fragments of Tablets that were placed in the Ark."
[9] This teaching serves as Chazal's main source concerning the existence of two Torahs. See Gittin 60b; Temura 14b; Yerushalmi Megilla 4:1; Yerushalmi Chagiga 1:8; Shemot Rabba 47, and elsewhere.
[10]  The connection between the expression "al pi" and the "Torah she-be'al peh" is made explicit in some of the sources. For example: "R. Chagai said in the name of R. Shemuel bar Nachman: There were things that were said orally, and there were things that were said in writing, and we do not know which are more beloved, except for what we are told (Shemot 34:27), 'For according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel' – this suggests that what was conveyed orally is more beloved" (Yerushalmi Megilla, chapter 4). We propose that here, too, the lesson does not remain in the philological sphere; it has inherent meaning.
[11]  Now it is God Himself who will drive out, as opposed to the previous position, "I shall send before you an angel, and I shall drive out the Canaanites, the Emorites and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites" (Shemot 33:2).
[12] The commentators offer variations on this understanding. Rashbam comments: "Write for yourself these words" – i.e., those words that appear in this parasha: 'Behold I drive out from before you…' 'For according to these things' – that you will not go after other gods, nor forge a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, nor intermarry with them; and that you will observe the pilgrim festivals." Ibn Ezra offers a similar explanation in his short commentary: "'Observe that which I command you this day' – He will speak with Moshe, that he should observe these conditions, and write them in a book, and all Israel will hear." Apparently, the "agreement" is meant to include the unit of verses 10-26 in chapter 34.
[13]  Ramban: "Write for yourself these things' – He commanded him to write a Book of the Covenant and to read it to the people, so that they would accept it upon themselves with the words 'We shall do and we shall hear,' as they had the first time… It appears to me that since it was Bnei Yisrael who sinned and violated the covenant, the Holy One, blessed be He, had to draw up a new covenant so that He would not violate His covenant with them. So He told Moshe to write the conditions, and this is the meaning of the expression, 'according to these words I have forged a covenant with you and with Israel.' The reason for the words 'with you' (i.e., Moshe) is to say, 'It is for your sake that I make the covenant with them.'"
[14]  There are many examples in the Tanakh of the expression used in this sense: "The whole congregation of Bnei Yisrael journeyed in the wilderness of Sin by their travels, by God's word (al pi HaShem)" (Shemot 17:1); "By God's word Bnei Yisrael journeyed, and by God's word they encamped; for all the days that the cloud rested upon the Mishkan they encamped" (Bamidbar 9:18), and elsewhere.
[15]  Similarly: "But if he dedicates his field after the Yovel (Jubilee year), then the Kohen will calculate the money for him according to (al pi) the years that remain up until the [next] Yovel, and it shall be deducted from the estimation" (Vayikra 27:18). Here, "according to" refers to the calculation. It is as though the text attributes speech to the years, and it is "by their word," their number, that the value of the field is estimated.
[16] Another example: "Teach a child according to (al pi) the way that he should go (darko); when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Mishlei 22:6). The meaning here is that a child should be educated in accordance with the speech, or "statement," in the broader sense, that flows from his way. Another meaning would accord with the meaning of “al petach darko”' – i.e., "at the opening to his way." It would seem that in both cases, the expression "al-pi" means the same thing. The difference between them stems from the question: what is “his way”? If “his way” means “the place he is coming from,” then we would prefer the first interpretation: teach a child in accordance with the way, or place, that he is coming from and what it reflects. If “darko” refers to the future, however, then the verse means: "Teach a child at the opening to his way" – in the sense of standing at the entrance, paying attention to the path on which his inner orientation leads him.
[17]  The specification "these words" (ha-devarim ha-eleh) seems to be a deliberate emphasis, since the verse could have read, "Write for yourself the words (ha-devarim)…" and it would have been clear which words were being referred to. The addition – "ha-eleh" – opens the door to the understanding that not everything is written down.
[18]  There is an interesting midrash of Chazal that presents a contradiction between the two parts of the verse: "R. Yehuda bar Nachmani, the interpreter (meturgeman) of R. Shimon ben Lakish, taught as follows: It is written, 'Write for yourself these words…,' and elsewhere it is written, 'For according to these words…'. What are we to understand from this? That the words which are written, you may not utter by heart; and the words conveyed orally you may not write down" (Gittin 60b). From the instruction, "Write for yourself," he learns about writing, while from the reason – "for according to (al-pi) these words" – he deduces the "al-peh" that is not written down. It seems that he is referring to the contradiction between the instruction to write and the silence of the text as to its logic, once its existence has already been noted.
[19]  This moment represents a head-on collision between the Torah, as it is manifest in the first Tablets, and life – the "place" where the people are at. Moshe's shattering of the Tablets contains within it a value decision to "clear space" from the Torah for reality. The price is a heavy one on all fronts: three thousand men die, but a "new Torah" will now be given, on the "second Tablets," that is better suited to the reality of the nation.
[20]  In contrast to the detailed description of intimacy at the "planning" stage, here the text is brief when it comes to the fulfillment of the promise. This brevity introduces a measure of abstraction.
[21]  The attribution of the writing to Moshe is expressed in the following midrash: "A different interpretation: 'Write for yourself' – the ministering angels said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Do You then extent permission to Moshe to write whatever he wishes? Can he then tell Bnei Yisrael, 'I gave you the Torah; it was I who wrote it and gave it to you'? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: Heaven forefend that Moshe would do such a thing. And even if he did – he may be relied upon, as it is written (Bamidbar 12), 'Not so My servant, Moshe; he is trusted in all of My House'" (Shemot Rabba, Ki Tisa 47).
[22] This refers to the method of Mishna, as an expression of the Oral Law; it certainly does not refer to the "Mishna" as we know it, which was compiled by R. Yehuda ha-Nassi.
[23]  Alternatively, the word may be understood in the sense of "sitra" – a "side": Mishna "belongs to His (God's) side."
[24] In the midrash, "foreigners" refers to the nations of the world.
[25] Chazal offer many and varied formulations of this advantage or superiority of the Oral Law. For example: "‘For Your embraces [or ‘Your loved ones’] are better than wine…' – Shimon bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: The enactments of the Scribes are as beloved as the laws of the Torah. And what is the meaning of the words, 'And the roof of Your mouth like fine wine"? His fellow said in the name of R. Yochanan: The enactments of the Scribes are more beloved than the commandments of the Torah, as it is written, 'for Your embraces [loved ones] are better than wine.'" (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 1). The expression "for Your embraces are better than wine" alludes to sexual intimacy, and this intense closeness is translated, in R. Yochanan's imagery, to the intimacy of the Oral Law.
Rav Kook explains: "The Oral Torah exists in the essential character of the Jewish People... In its revealed state, the Oral Torah is lower than the Written Torah… But in the inner form, is it not the case that the Torah is given to Israel for the sake of our inner, supernal unique being?  It is this divine, hidden, unique being that caused the Torah to be revealed to us from heaven. And so in its root, the Oral Torah is higher than the root of the hidden Torah. 'The words of the scribes are more beloved than the words of the Torah.'" (Orot Ha-Torah 1:1, translation by Yaacov David Shulman, http://www.ravkook.net/torah.html­).
[26]  In practice, Moshe rejects both possibilities and chooses a third one.
[27] In the Midrash, Chazal illuminate this covert discourse with the following description: "Since God said, 'Let Me be and I shall annihilate them,' Moshe said: 'This is in my hands!’ Immediately, he stood and reinforced his prayers and sought compassion. This may be compared to a king who was angry with his son and struck him a great blow. His friend sat before him and feared to say anything. The king said, ‘Were it not for my friend sitting here before me, I would kill you!’ Similarly, Moshe said, ‘The matter is dependent on me!’ and he stood and did what he could to save them" (Berakhot 32a).
[28]  In the words of Chazal: "Anyone who says that the Holy One, blessed be He, is forgiving [i.e., may be relied upon to extend mercy and not punish harshly] foregoes his life" (Bava Kama 50a).
[29]  Expression of his part in the responsibility is detected in God's statement of reconciliation: "He said, ‘Behold, I make a covenant: before all your people I will do wonders such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation, and all the people among whom you are, shall see the work of the Lord that I will do with you, that it is fearsome’" (34:10). The people is Moshe's people ("before all your people;" "and all the people among whom you are"), and its merit flows from the fact that Moshe is present in its midst. The concluding words, "that I will do with you," likewise indicate the dependence of the process upon Moshe.
[30]  At first, God adopts a position that is Godly and distant, from a place where the verdict for Moshe and his people is clear. As a second stage, he declares, "I have seen, and behold" – an expression of rapprochement. Now God regards the situation from closer. The picture looks different; there is a distinction between Moshe and the people. They are stiff-necked; you are not. God also hints to him: "Leave Me alone that My anger may burn against them" – but the covert discourse offers the option of Moshe standing his ground and not leaving God to realize His plan. And Moshe receives the hint; he takes the initiative and assumes responsibility, demanding forgiveness for the people.
A real-life illustration of the situation: A school principal sets down safety regulations; anyone caught breaking these rules will be expelled. An outstanding student violates the instructions, and the principal faces a dilemma. He wants to keep the student, but if he retracts his original threat, the safety regulations will have been trampled; this supreme value will have been cheapened. The only way for him to extricate himself from this situation is through an initiative on the part of the students demanding that the student in question remain and committing themselves to ensuring that no such violation happens again. Such an initiative would not harm the integrity of the original instruction, for the principal would not have retracted it; at the same time, the initiative, along with the assumption of responsibility, will allow both values to coexist. Ultimately, the principal had spoken of expulsion not because this is what he truly desired for the students, but rather because of the need to establish a supreme value, one whose violation could not be met with an ambivalent response. In fact, the initiative on the part of the students creates a new structure: while until now the reason for observing the safety regulations was the principal's decree, from now on, the responsibility for their observance will rest with the students, who have become active partners in their establishment.