Friday, December 10, 2010

Moses: Torah Warrior, Master of Angels

In my last entry, I wrote that there are many versions of the story that Moses had to ascend into heaven to receive the Torah and that the angels resisted giving it to him.

[E.M. Lilien illustration of angel gripping the Torah (is Moses tugging on the other end?) from Die Bucher der Bibel]

Today I thought I’d show you some examples from the Midrash:

At that time [when Moses ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah] the ministering angels sought to strike Moses. The Blessed Holy One caused his face to resemble Abraham's. Then the Blessed Holy One 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 Blessed Holy One then said to Moses, "The Torah is given to you only in the merit of Abraham." (Shemot Rabbah 28:1)

And then there is this version found in the Talmud as told by Joshua ben Levi, a Talmudic expert on angels and himself an occasional visitor to the celestial realms:

Rabbi Joshua b. Levi said, "When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Blessed Holy One, 'Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman among us? ''He has come to receive the Torah,' answered God to them. They said to Him, 'That secret treasure, which You have concealed for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created. You desire to give it to flesh and blood! What is man, that You art mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him? O' Lord our God, How excellent is Your Name in all the earth! Who has set Your glory [the Torah] upon the Heavens!' (Ps. 8:1-2).
The Holy One said to Moses, 'Return them an answer.''Sovereign of the Universe' replied Moses, 'I fear, lest they consume me with the [fiery] breath of their mouths.'' Hold on to the Throne of Glory,' said God to Moses, 'and return them an answer. '

Moses [then] spoke before God, 'Sovereign of the Universe! The Torah which You give me, what is written in it -- I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. ' Said Moses to the angels, 'Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why then should the Torah be yours?''
Again, what is written in it? You shall have none other god. Do you dwell among peoples that engage in idol worship?''
Again, what is written in it? Remember the Sabbath day -- to keep it holy. Do you then perform work, that you need to rest?''
Again, what is written in it? You shall not take [tissa] [the name ... in vain]. Is there any business [massa] dealings among you?''
Again, what is written in it? Honor your father and your mother. Have you fathers and mothers?''
Again, what is written in it? You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. Is there jealousy between you; is the Adversary [working] between you?'

Immediately the angels conceded to the Holy One, for it is said, [Ps. 8:10, after it meditates on the significance if humanity] 'O' Eternal, our Eternal [God], How excellent is Your Name throughout the land, [but] 'Who has set Your glory upon the heavens is not repeated.' Immediately each angel saw Moses as beloved..." (Talmud, Shabbat 88b).

I am amused by the first in that it shows God pulling pranks on His angelic retinue – God loves a good laugh, though always with a point. But I particularly love that in the second version the angels quote Psalm 8 (“…You have made him [humanity] little lower than angels”) to make their argument against humanity. Angels have a sense of irony. And always, I love the genius of rabbinic close reading and imagineering; that it finds Ps. 8 to be a narrative of how the Torah passed from heaven to earth.

There are many things we can take away from this mythic story, but perhaps my favorite is this – The Torah is meant for humanity, not for angels. If God wanted the Torah to be observed perfectly, She would have kept it for the angels. God gives it to us knowing we will be imperfect in our practice of it (I guess that’s why we “practice Judaism”; we just keep doing it until we get it right). Here, as in many other places, we are reminded that Judaism teaches that God looks for our devout service not our perfect service.

Let me also add that, given this legend, the old King James translation of Psalm 8, “…little lower than the angels” actually misses the sense of the Hebrew. A more accurate translation is the NJPS “…little less than divine.” Literally, we are low only in comparison to God while implying we are (potentially) closer to God then the angels themselves.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because of these blogs, ive discovered E.M. Lilien's art. I love it.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the article. I also enjoy E.M Lilien because he was a Jewish art deco/nouveau artist that I have never heard of....
You think he would been far more well-known throughout the world.


4:16 PM  

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