Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Taking A Captive (Shavuot 5767)

Moshe ascended to God. As it says: you ascended on high and you took a captive. What does ‘you ascended’ mean? You prevailed in disputing with the supernal angels. Another explanation: you ascended on high - no creature succeeded on high in the way that Moshe did. Said Rebbi B’rechya: the tablets were six hands breadths long. In the hand, as it were, of the ‘one who spoke and there was a world’ was two hands breadths, two hands breadths were in Moshe’s hands and two hands breadths were left between hand and hand. (Shemot Rabbah 28:1)

This curious source intends us to imagine a kind of wrestling match between God and Moshe – the tablets (six hands breaths in length) are a third in Moshe’s hands, a third in God’s hands with a third in the middle. After a tussle, Moshe succeeds in wresting them from God’s hands and bringing them back to earth for the Jewish people. The Talmud records a slightly different version of this source:

Rebbi Sh’muel bar Nachman said in the name of Rebbi Yochanan: the tablets were six hands breadths long and three wide. Moshe grasped two hands breadths, God two, and two remained spare in the middle. When Yisrael did that deed, God wanted to grab them from Moshe’s hand, but Moshe’s hand prevailed and he grabbed them from Him. (Yerushalmi Shabbat 4:5)

The ‘deed’ mentioned here is, of course, the making of the Golden Calf, which occurred just before Moshe came down the mountain with the tablets. What might this allegory be trying to convey?

The preparations of the heart are Man’s, but the answer of the tongue comes from God. (Mishley 16:1)

The preparations of the heart are Man’s - he organises his counsel and his words in his heart. But the answer of the tongue comes from God - when he comes to answer, God makes him wise with his words, or, should he merit, He prepares a good answer for him. (Rashi ad. loc.)

Many Jewish thinkers divide human experience into three parts: thought, action and speech and devote much thought to the interaction between them. In the context of this story and using the above verse from Mishley, the Shem MiShmuel offers the following insight.

The thoughts of Man are ordinarily outside of his control – things just pop into our heads whether we like it or not. The other extreme is action, which is entirely within our control. The realm of speech lies in between, which seems, according to Rashi’s reading of the above verse, to reflect a partnership between Man and God. While Man prepares his thoughts, they only express themselves correctly should God will it. This is the meaning of the three sections of the tablets in the Midrash – God holds the thoughts, Man holds the actions and the speech is somewhere in the middle.

When God saw that the Jews had made the Golden Calf, he attempted to wrest the tablets from Moshe’s hands. We are encouraged to imagine that God realised that it would best if Man had no control over his actions if rebellion and idolatry is what he uses them for – this is the image of the Yerushalmi. Moshe, as it were, prevailed over God and succeeded in grabbing the tablets. This may be understood as God’s consent to Man trying again to control his own world. Despite the inherent dangers, God concedes that Man must be allowed to exercise his freewill once more, hence he allows Moshe to take the tablets.

The Shem MiShmuel gives this an interesting spin – he sees the tablets gradually moving from God’s sole possession to that of Moshe as key to his reading of the Midrash. Once one takes control of one’s actions (the part of the tablets that started in God’s hands), God will enable one to control one’s speech (the unheld part in the middle). Finally, it may even be possible to take charge of one’s thoughts. This is the project of the Torah, which, when applied to its maximum extent, enables one to elevate and manage every aspect of one’s experience.

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