When Moses ascended to heaven, the angels protested to G‑d: What is a human being doing amongst us?

Said He to them: He has come to receive the Torah.

Said they to Him: This esoteric treasure, which was hidden with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood? (Talmud, Shabbat 89a)

According to Torah law, your neighbor is not just the fellow on the other side of the fence, but someone toward whom you have certain responsibilities and obligations. One of these is spelled out in the law of bar mitzra (literally, "the one on the boundary"), whgich states that when a person wishes to sell his field, his neighbors — i.e., those who own land bordering the land being sold — must be given first priority to purchase it. The neighbor's right is enforced by the court, to the extent that if the property is sold to an outside buyer without first being offered to the neighbor, the neighbor has the right to pay the purchase price to the buyer and evict him from the land (see Talmud, Bava Metzia 108a; Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Neighbors, chs. 12-14; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 175:5-63).1

Halachah (Torah law) is not just a code of behavior for life on earth; it is also G‑d's own "code of behavior," the manner in which He chooses to relate to His creation. Thus, we find G‑d observing Shabbat,2 donning tefillin,3 and otherwise fulfilling the requirements of Torah law. In the words of the Midrash, "G‑d's way is not like the way of flesh and blood. The way of flesh and blood is that he instructs others to do, but does not do so himself; G‑d, however, what He Himself does, that is what He tells Israel to do and observe" (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 30:4). If G‑d commanded us the law of bar mitzra, He conforms to it Himself.

Thus, the Talmud tells us that "When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah from G‑d,"

The angels protested to G‑d: "What is a human being doing amongst us?"

Said He to them: "He has come to receive the Torah."

Said they to Him: "This esoteric treasure, which was hidden with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood?... Place Your glory upon the heavens!"

Said G‑d to Moses: "Answer them."

Said [Moses]: "Master of the Universe! This Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it? 'I am the L-rd Your G‑d, who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.' Have you descended to Egypt? Have you been enslaved to Pharaoh? So why should the Torah be yours? What else does it say? 'You shall have no alien gods.' Do you dwell amongst idol-worshipping nations? What else does it say? 'Remember the Shabbat day.' Do you work? ... What else does it say? 'Do not swear falsely.' Do you do business? What else does it say? 'Honor your father and your mother.' Do you have parents? What else does it say? 'Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal.' Is there jealousy among you? Do you have an evil inclination?

The commentaries explain that the angels had a legal claim on the Torah — the neighbor's prerogative stipulated by the law of bar mitzra. For, as they noted, the Torah is G‑d's "esoteric treasure": before it was given to us at Sinai it was a wholly spiritual manifesto, "written of yore before Him in black fire upon white fire,"4 relating exclusively to the spiritual infrastructure of creation. Thus we are told that at Sinai "G‑d spoke to us from the heavens,"5 and that Moses "ascended to heaven," entering into a spiritual state of being in order to receive the Torah ("And he (Moses) was there (atop Mount Sinai) with G‑d for forty days and forty nights; bread he did not eat, and water he did not drink" —Exodus 34:28) We, argued the angels, are the Torahs natural neighbors; it should be offered to us before it is translated into a doctrine for physical life for some distant earthly customer. (See Shetei Yadot, Terumah; Sheeirit Yaakov, Bamidbar; Chida (Penei Dovid and Rosh Dovid, Yitro; Chasdei Avot, 3:14); Beer Yitzchak, Yitro (2); Maarchei Lev, Mattan Torah (12); Berit Avot, Yitro; Sefat Emet, Yitro; Nachal Yitzchak, Pesach, Shaar I & II; et al.)

(The fact that the angels' claim was based on the law of bar mitzra explains many points of the dialogue beetween Moses and the angels. For example: why could not Moses simply say to the angels: "Open up the Torah and have a look: virtually every section is prefaced with the words, 'Command the children of Israel,' 'Speak to the children of Israel,' etc. The Torah is already ours! I'm just here to pick up the merchandise." For the law of bar mitzra gives the neighbor the right to purchase the field even after it has been sold to the non-neighboring buyer.)

Five Answers

Indeed, it seems that G‑d acknowledged that the angels had a basis for their claim in Torah law — He told Moses to "answer them" before he could receive the Torah and take it down to earth.6 How, indeed, might Moses defend the legality of the contract between G‑d and Israel? The above-cited commentaries offer the following halachic solutions:

1) The law of bar mitzra applies only to a sale, not to a gift — a person is obviously free to make a gift of his field to whomever he desires.7 Since G‑d granted us the Torah, the angels' claim has no basis.

2) The law of bar mitzra applies only to real estate, not to transportable objects.8 The Torah, which is a portable entity (as evidenced by the fact that Moses came up to heaven to bring it down to earth), is thus exempt from this law.

3) If a person wishes to sell his field to a family member, he is permitted to do so without first offering it to his neighbor.9 The people of Israel are "G‑d's children" (Deuteronomy 14:1) and His "close relatives" (ibid., 4:7). Thus, the law of bar mitzra is not applicable to Israel's acquisition of the Torah.

4) A sale to a partner is likewise exempt from the bar mitzra requirement.10 The Talmud (shabbat 10a) states that "Any judge who judges law with an utter exactitude of truth becomes a partner with G‑d in creation." Moses, being such a juror of Torah law, is thus considered G‑d's partner, and may purchase property from Him over the objections of the property's supernal neighbors. (As per the Talmud, Shabbat 119b, keeping Shabbat also makes one "a partner with G‑d in creation." Since the Jewish people had been given the mitzvah of Shabbat several weeks before Sinai, they, too, are G‑d's partners).

5) The Torah refers to Moses as "a man of G‑d" (Deuteronomy 33:1) "half mortal, half supernal" (Midrash Rabbah on verse). So he was no less a "neighbor" to the spirituality of the Torah than his celestial competitors. (Again, the same could be said regarding the people of Israel, whose souls are "carved from under the Supernal Throne of G‑d"11 )

However, each of these defenses has its difficulties. Regarding the first defense, while it is true that the Torah is called "a gift from Above" (as in Numbers 21:18 and numerous other places) it is also called an "inheritance" (Deuteronomy 33:4), and a "purchase" (Proverbs 4:2; Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 33:1). As we have elaborated on another occasion, these three metaphors describe three distinct elements in Torah and the manner of its possession by the people of Israel. So the angels' claim to the Torah stands, at least in regard to the "purchase" aspect of Torah.

As for the second defense, the reason why the law of bar mitzra does not apply to a portable object is that a portable object has no defined place, and thus no true neighbors: anyone can acquire it anywhere and transport it to his property. In our case, however, the Torah's defining place is the very issue at hand. The angels were insisting that it should remain in heaven and spiritual in essence, while Moses' "acquisition" would mean its removal to earth and the redefinition of its primary function from a spiritual manifesto to a doctrine for physical life. Indeed, after we received it at Sinai, the Torah is expressly "not in heaven" and placed under terrestrial jurisdiction. The giving of Torah to Israel meant that the angels would no longer have access to the Torah — at least not as something of their own environment (in the same way that the Torah's remaining in heaven would have meant that we could relate to it only on the spiritual level, not as a sanctifier of physical life — as indeed "was the case prior to the Giving of the Torah). It follows, then, that as regards the law of bar mitzra, the Torah is indeed supernal real estate, and ought to be subject to the neighbor's prerogative claimed by the angels.12

Finally, all five explanations beg the question: Where is there mention of any of this in Moses response? If the basis of the angels argument to G‑d, "Place Your glory upon the heavens!" is the law of bar mitzra, then Moses must explain why this clause is not applicable in this case. Yet nowhere in Moses words do we find a sign of any of the five defenses enumerated above. Indeed, as far as the third, fourth and fifth defenses are concerned, Moses seems to be saying the very opposite. The gist of Moses response is that, unlike the angels, the Jewish people are physical beings inhabiting a profane and even heretical world marked by jealousy, dishonesty and idolatry, and thus they have need of and right to the Torah. Instead of refuting the angels claim by speaking of Israels innate spirituality (defense #5) or their relationship or partnership with G‑d (defences #3 and #4), Moses seems to be confirming their claim by emphasizing Israel's distance from their divine origins and the spirituality of the heavens.

The Home

Our sages teach that "The purpose of the creation of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral, is that G‑d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms.13 G‑d desired to created a "lowly realm" — a world that is virtually devoid of all manifest expression of His truth — and that this lowly realm should be made into a "home" for Him, a place that serves and facilitates His presence.

Thus, our Sages say that the world was created "for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of Israel"14 : the people of Israel are the builders of this home for G‑d, and the Torah is the instrument of its construction. The people of Israel inhabit the physical universe, the "lowly realm" where G‑d desires to dwell. The Torah instructs the Jew how to transform material things such as animal hides, grain and coins into holy and G‑dly things such as tefillin, matzah for Passover, and charity. With the Torah as his blueprint and empowerer, the Jew transforms a mundane world into an environment that is receptive and subservient to the divine reality.

Why is the sanctification of the physical world referred to as the making of a dwelling for G‑d? Because the concept of a "home" is the prototype that most expresses the significance of what we achieve through our fulfillment of the Torah's blueprint for life.

There are many environments and structures that house a person and serve his needs. A person might spend many toilsome hours in a field, tilling its soil to derive sustenance from the earth; others mark time in offices, factories and laboratories to earn a livelihood. Man also constructs buildings to serve his educational, medical, legal, and entertainment needs, and vehicles to move him across land, sea and air. But what all these containers of man have in common is that they each house a specific aspect of the person, as opposed to the person himself. They shelter and facilitate the farmer, the businessman, the student, the patient, the art critic and the vacationer, rather than the man. All these are places where a person fulfills a certain role or fills a certain need; only at home is he himself. Echoing the Talmudic adage, "A man without a homestead is not a man", Chassidic teaching defines the "dwelling" as a place that houses a person's very essence.15

This is what is meant when we say that "G‑d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms." G‑d has many venues for the expression of His reality. He created many spiritual "worlds" or realms, each of which conveys another face of His infinitely faceted truth. But only the physical world can be His home, the environment that houses His essence.

For the wisdom of the sage is not revealed in his scholarly discourse with his colleagues, but in his ability to explain the loftiest of concepts to the simplest of minds. The benevolence of the philanthropist is seen not in his generosity to his family and friends, but in his kindness toward the most undeserving of recipients. The power of the torch is expressed not by the light it sheds upon its immediate surroundings, but by its illumination of the most distant point its light can reach. By the same token, the infinity and all-pervasiveness of the divine is expressed not in the spirituality of the heavens, but in the sanctification of material earth. When the physical world "whose workings are harsh and evil and the wicked prevail there" for it is dominated by forces that seem indifferent and even opposed to the divine will16 is made to express the divine truth, it becomes a dwelling for G‑d. When the lowliest and most profane of G‑d's creations is made to serve Him, a true home has been constructed for Him, an edifice that houses His very essence.

Therein lies the ultimate refutation of the angels' claim on the Torah. The law of bar mitzra states that "If the outside buyer wishes to build homes on the land, and the neighbor wishes to seed it, the outside buyer retains the land, since the habitation of the land takes precedence, and the law of bar mitzra is not applied in this case" (Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Neighbors 14:1; Talmud, Bava Metzia 108b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 175:26).

Thus Moses said to the angels: Do you have an evil inclination? Do you deal with the mundanities of the marketplace? Do you dwell in a pagan world? So to what end should you be given the Torah? To cultivate another lush garden of spiritual delights? But we will build a home with the Torah, as only we can. Only we, who daily struggle with the deceit, the strife and the profanity that mark the lowliest stratum of G‑d's creation, can construct with the Torah a dwelling for Him, a place to house His quintessential self.