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7. The Role of Moses in the Transmission of the Written Torah

7. The Role of Moses in the Transmission of the Written Torah

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In contrast, the “Written Torah” is traditionally understood to be wholly and exclusively divine. A human being—Moses—was the vehicle for its transmission; yet Moses is described as a “messenger” and a “funnel,” speaking and transcribing the words which G‑d spoke to him without contributing anything of own.1 In the words of Maimonides:

The Torah, in its entirety, was transmitted to Moses from G‑d in a manner which we call “speech,” although we cannot comprehend the manner of its transmission, only Moses, to whom it was transmitted; he was like a scribe to whom a text is read and he writes it down… So, one who maintains that the Torah is not from G‑d, even a single verse, or a single word—if he says that that Moses said it from his own mouth—he denies the Torah…2

Thus, not only is the content of the Written Torah divine, but its actual words and letters are also regarded as having been communicated directly by G‑d. This distinction between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah has halachic Not only is the content divine, but its actual words and letters were also communicated directly by G dimplications: the law is that a person who speaks the words of the Written Torah fulfills the mitzvah of learning Torah even if he does not understand what he is saying, since the words themselves are divine—as opposed to the Oral Torah, where understanding the meaning of the words is a requisite part of the mitzvah.3

At the same time, however, the Rebbe demonstrates that human element is present within the articulation process of the Written Torah as well. In fact, it is the Written Torah that establishes the human mind as a partner in the generation of Torah.

Firstly, there is the fact that unlike the first two of the Ten Commandments (“I am G‑d your G‑d…” and “You shall have no other gods before Me…”), which the entire people heard directly from G‑d at Mount Sinai, the bulk of the Written Torah was transmitted by the agency of Moses. Thus, the Talmud cites the verse (Deuteronomy 33:4), “The Torah that Moses commanded us…,” and notes that the Hebrew word torah has a numerical value of 611, referring to the 611 of the 613 commandments of the Torah which G‑d communicated to us through Moses.4

In fact, Moses was reluctant to assume the role of transmitter of Torah, believing that the people should receive it directly from G‑d. It was the people who approached Moses (as related in Exodus 20:15–18, and in more detail, in Deuteronomy 5:19–30) with the request that he serve as the agent of the divine communication. As Moses recounts to the children of Israel:

These words5 G‑d spoke to your entire congregation at the mountain, from within the fire, the cloud and the fog, a great voice that did not cease; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone, and He gave them to me.

Moses was reluctant to assume the role of transmitter of Torah, believing that the people should receive it directly from G d

And it was when you heard the voice from within the darkness, and the mountain burning with fire, that you approached me, all your heads of tribes and your elders. And you said: “Here G‑d our G‑d has shown us His glory and His greatness, and His voice we heard from within the fire; today we saw that G‑d speaks to man, and he lives. And now, why shall we die, as this great fire consumes us? If we continue to hear the voice of G‑d our G‑d any more, we will die… You approach, and hear all that G‑d our G‑d will say to you. And you will speak to us all that G‑d our G‑d will speak to you, and we will hear and we will do.”6

The commentaries note that when Moses recounts the people’s request, “and you will speak to us all that G‑d our G‑d will speak,” he uses the feminine, or weaker, conjugation for the word “you,” instead of the appropriate masculine form. Rashi explains that this is Moses’ way of expressing his disappointment with the people’s request:

You caused my strength to weaken, like a female; for I was aggrieved over you, and you slackened my hand, since I saw that you are not anxious to draw near to Him out of love. Would it not have been better for you to learn from the mouth of the Almighty, rather than to learn from my mouth?7

Yet, as Moses goes on to relate, G‑d was pleased with the people’s request, and instructed Moses to do as they ask:

G‑d heard the voice of your words as you spoke to me. And G‑d said to me: “I heard the voice of the words of this people which they spoke to you. They did well in all that they spoke. If only they would have this heart, to fear Me and to keep all My commandments, all the days, in order that it be good for them and for their children forever.

“Go and say to them: ‘Return you to your tents.’ And you stand here with Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments and the statutes and the laws which you shall teach them…”8

This raises the question: Did Moses misjudge the people’s capacity for divine revelation? The Rebbe categorically discounts the notion that Moses was simply making an error which the people needed to correct. Rather, says the Rebbe, there is there a more fundamental dynamic at play in this dialogue at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses and the people are advocating two different approaches—both valid and tenable—to the manner in which the Torah should be communicated to man.9 Moses did not overestimate his people when he advocated that they should receive the Torah directly from G‑d; on the contrary—he perceived their true and ultimate potential and, as a true leader, he endeavored to actualize it. In Moses’ eyes, the people of Israel were capable of assimilating the divine revelation; and under his leadership, they could actually have achieved this.

Instead of lifting the people to his level, Moses was called upon to lower the divine communication to their level

But the people did not wish to relate to G‑d on this level. They wanted to receive the Torah with their own, self-actualized faculties, not with the sublime powers that Moses could summon forth from the core of their souls. They wanted that their experience of Torah should be true to how they are to themselves, rather than to how Moses sees them. This, explains the Rebbe, is the “weakening” and “slacking” of Moses’ prowess of which Moses speaks: that instead of lifting the people to his own level in apprehending the divine communication, he was being called upon to lower himself, and the divine communication, to their level.

In this debate between Moses and the people, G‑d agreed with the people. After having been exposed to the divine essence of Torah (as contained within the first two commandments), they would receive the Torah not as a supernal “voice from Heaven,” but as channeled via the mind, mouth and pen of Moses. The Torah—even the Written Torah, in which also the words and letters are wholly of divine origin—must not be an “otherworldly” revelation to the people’s everyday selves, but a communication that is formulated in human language and communicated to them by a fellow human being.10

Footnotes
1.
See Talmud, Menachoth 30a; Rashi to Talmud, Megilah 31b; Nachmanides’ introduction to his commentary on Torah; Bechayei to Deuteronomy 33:4; Abarbanel to Deuteronomy 34:5; et al.
2.
Maimonides’ introduction to Perek Chelek, The Thirteen Principles, Principle 8; Mishneh Torah, Hilchoth Teshuvah 3:8; ibid., Hilchoth Tefilah 13:6.
3.
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Hilchoth Talmud Torah 2:12–13, based on Magen Avraham to Orach Chayim 50; Likutei Sichoth, vol. 29, p. 176.
4.
Talmud, Makoth 23b–24a; Rashi to Exodus 19:19.
5.
I.e., the Ten Commandments, which Moses reiterates in the previous verses (Deuteronomy 5:6–18). As noted above, according to the Talmud the people heard only the first two commandments directly from G‑d, following which they approached Moses with the request that they hear the rest from Moses.
7.
Rashi to Deuteronomy 5:24. Zohar goes even further, stating that “had Israel not distanced themselves, had they all heard the words (directly from G‑d) as they had in the beginning, the world would not have been able to be destroyed after that, and they would have endured for all generations” (Zohar 3:261a–b).
9.
See discussions by Nachmanides, Alshich, Keli Yakar, Malbim and other commentaries, who also offer explanations as to as the different approaches advocated by Moses and the people, and the pros and cons of each.
10.
Likutei Sichoth, vol. 16, pp. 204–206; also see ibid., vol. 13, pp. 119–120.
Yanki Tauber served as editor of Chabad.org
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An excerpt from a larger work, titled The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Philosophy of Torah.
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