Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Parshat Yitro: Worshipping God via Dualing Human Emotions by Yaakov Bieler

January 20, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

 Praying that our Jewish practices feel pleasant and joyful.

One of the requests that we make when we utter the blessings over the Tora each morning, is “VeHa’arev Na HaShem Elokeinu Et Divrei Toratcha BePhinu U’VePhi Amcha Beit Yisrael…” (Please Make PLEASANT, Lord, our God, the words of Your Tora in our mouths and the mouths of your people, the family of Israel.) Similarly, the blessings that immediately precede  the recitation of the Shema in the morning and evening, also contain the hope that “VeTein BeLibeinu LeHavin U’LeHaskil  LiShmoa, LiLmod U’LeLamed LiShmor VeLa’Asot U’LeKayem Et Kol Divrei Toratecha BeAhava” (You Will) place in our hearts the ability to understand and to analyze, to hear, to learn, and to teach, to guard, and to do, and to fulfill all the words of the learning of Your Tora in a state of LOVE”; “VeNismach BeDivrei Toratecha U’VeMitzvotecha LeOlam VaEd” (We will REJOICE in the words of Your Tora and Your Commandments forever.)  These blessings all reflect the assumption that Mitzva fulfillment in general, and Tora study in particular, are difficult and daunting.[1]  Unless these activities are experienced as pleasant, attractive, and a manifestation of mutual love, people will shy away from devoting the sort of time and effort necessary to be able to carry out God’s Will by means of the fulfillment of His Commandments and the study of His Tora.  Furthermore, when people are left to their own devices, they may not be able to reach a point where on their own they perceive Judaism to be the most pleasant of experiences, we request God’s Assistance, Siyata D’Shmaya, to assure that we achieve proper heights of commitment to Mitzvot and Tora study by helping us to find these activities pleasant and attractive, rather than disheartening and difficult. 

The Revelation at Sinai seems to have engendered the opposite of a positive and joyous association with the Tora.

                In light of such awareness that Jewish tradition places a value on religious practice  being experienced as joyful and loving in order to promote ever-increasing and deeply devoted observance and Tora study, it is notable that in Parashat Yitro, when the Tora is initially given to the Jewish people, it appears that God deliberately Avoids Providing the people with a very pleasant experience. The Jews are required to undergo a series of discomfitures and terrors leading up to the Divine Revelation. First comes an imposed separation of husbands from wives[2] and the demand for a general washing of clothes in order to achieve proper ritual purity in anticipation of  the holy event (Shemot 19:10-11, 14-15, 22).   These preparations are followed by repeated warnings regarding the mortal dangers associated with coming too close to Mt. Sinai (19:12-13, 23-24) while the Divine Revelation is taking place. But the most literally terrifying aspect of the giving of the Tora is the awe-inspiring sounds, images, and bodily sensations to which the Jews are exposed during this period. (19:16) “…And there was thunder and lighting and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the very powerful sound of a Shofar…”(19:18) “And Sinai was completely obscured by smoke…and its smoke was like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain shook exceedingly.” (19:19) “And the sound of the Shofar became ever louder and stronger…” The response of the people to this cacophony of sounds, terrifying sights, and general diastrophism could have easily been predicted: (19:16) “…And the entire people trembled.” (20:15) “…And when the people saw it, and they were shaken, and stood afar off.” Moses’ ultimately telling them that all of this was precisely God’s Intent, (20:17) “…Don’t be afraid, for God Has Come to test you and in order for His Fear to be upon your faces, so that you will not sin,” unambiguously states that the association that the people made between the giving of the Tora and a sense of terror and intimidation was fully  in accordance with the Divine Plan.

A hypothesis for why the Tora was given in such a disconcerting fashion.

                It is possible to contend that the need for creating an atmosphere of fear and trepidation at Sinai did not primarily emanate from a desire to associate the Tora with such emotions, but rather as a response to a specific request made by the Jewish people. In Shemot 19:8, after listening to Moshe’s review of God’s Proposal for the people to become  (19:5) “His Treasure”, (19: 6) “A kingdom of priests, and a holy nation”, they answer (19:8) “…Everything that God Says we will do.” In verse 9, it would be logical to assume that Moshe has conveyed the people’s response before God Says anything additional to him; yet at the end of the verse, after God Informs Moshe that he was to serve as an intermediary between the Jews and God, we read again, “…And Moshe told the words of the people to God.” Klee Yakar surmises that Moshe recognized that the Jews in 19:8 did not merely intend that they would follow God’s Commands, but rather they would do so only if God addresses them directly, i.e., “Everything that God Says (to us directly) we will do.” The people wanted all communications from the Divine to come to them first-hand. Since such a communication system would be highly impractical, given the requisites for achieving ritual purity, the forty days that it took for Moshe to be presented with the entire Tora (24:18), and the numerous clarifications and individual revelations that followed,[3] God Decided to “encourage” the people to reconsider their demand. It is only after Moshe reiterates that the people themselves expect to literally act as God’s Prophets from this point forward,  that the series of instructions about husbands and wives separating, washing clothes, not touching the mountain, and the frightening scenario of thunder, lightning, earthquakes, fire, smoke, Shofar blasts and earthquakes are introduced. If this was all a ploy on God’s Part to force the people to change their minds regarding their wish to be the direct recipients of God’s Revelation, it appears to have been successful in light of 20:16, “And they said to Moshe, ‘You speak with us and we will listen, and let God Not Speak with us, lest we die.’” Is it possible that had the people been ready to accept Moshe as God’s Intermediary from the outset, all of these inconveniences, pyrotechnics and fear tactics would have been omitted?

From passages in Devarim, it appears that “fear and trembling” was not only foisted upon those standing at Sinai, but intended to inform all Jews’ attitudes towards  Tora and Mitzvot.  

                Nevertheless, however tangential the reason for associating the giving of the Tora with a frightening experience may have been, it happened, and for sensitive students of the Bible,[4] the association will be for all intents and purposes indelible. Furthermore, when Moshe recapitulates the events of Sinai in the book of Devarim, once the previous generation had been replaced by their children, he states that a general sense of fear and awe with respect to the Tora was not only expected of the generation that had actually stood at Sinai, but that such feelings should also inform future generations as well.  In the same manner that we are repeatedly instructed to remember that God Took us out of Egypt (Devarim 7:18; 15:15; 16:3; 24:18), and even to vicariously relive that event with all of its accompanying feelings and experiences (Shemot 13:8), a parallel expectation is formulated regarding the receiving of the Tora at Sinai: (Devarim 4:9-13) “You shall surely be careful and guard your soul exceedingly lest you forget the things that your eyes saw and lest you remove them from your heart all of the days of your life, and you will make them known to your  children and your children’s children; The day that you stood before the Lord Your God on Chorev, when God Was Saying to me, ‘Gather to Me the people and I Will Make Heard to them My Words that they should learn TO FEAR ME all of the days that they are alive on the earth and that they should teach their children’; And you came near and you stood at the foot of the mountain and the mountain WAS BURNING WITH FIRE UP TO THE HEART OF HEAVEN, DARKNESS, CLOUDS AND FOG; And God Spoke to you from the midst of THE FIRE, the sound of words you heard, but an image you did not see, aside from the sound; And He Told to you His Covenant that He Is Commanding you to do, the ten commandments, and He Wrote them on two tablets of stone.”  It would seem that rather than encouraging us to make pleasant associations with the Tora, we are called upon to continually call to mind a state of fear and panic. What could the rationale for such an approach possibly be?

A dialectic of emotions.

                The two emotional poles that are brought into play in Jewish tradition with respect to relating to God, and therefore, by extension, His Tora and Mitzvot, are represented by the commandments to both love and fear God simultaneously. The commandments appearing in  Devarim 6:5; 11:10   “And you will LOVE the Lord your God…”, as well as 11:13 “And it will be if you will certainly listen to My Commandments and I Am Commanding you today to LOVE the Lord your God…”[5] are complemented by the numerous calls to maintain a sense of fear and distance from HaShem: (VaYikra 19:14, 32; 25:17, 36, 43) “…And you will FEAR your Lord…” (Devarim 6:13) “And God, your Lord, you shall FEAR …” (6:24) “And God Commanded us to do all of these statutes to FEAR the Lord our God…”[6] Whereas in most verses in the Tora either one or the other of these emotions is emphasized, they are both mentioned within the same immediate context in Devarim 10:12—“And now Israel, what does the Lord your God Ask of you? Only to FEAR the Lord your God, to walk in all of His Ways, to LOVE Him, to serve the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul.” Another manifestation of these two emotional vectors are reflected in two verses in Tehillim:

                2:11 “Ivdu Et HaShem BeYira VeGilu BeRa’ada

Serve the LORD with FEAR, and rejoice with TREMBLING.

                100:2 “Ivdu Et HaShem BeSimcha Ba’U Lefanav BiRenana.”

                                Serve the LORD with GLADNESS; come before His presence with SINGING.

Simultaneously loving and fearing God.

                Based upon these verses, we could hypothesize that Judaism envisions the phenomenology of the ideal relationship with God to entail vacillating feelings on the part of the worshipper of closeness and remove, intimacy and estrangement, compassion and criticism, immanence and transcendence. Consequently, although when initiating an individual, or, for that matter, an entire people, into the performance of a commandment that is new to them, it is reasonable to try to make the experience as pleasant as possible, the giving of the Tora, which represents the overall interaction between God and the Jewish people, is designed to clearly convey the intrinsic dynamics that such an association will involve, sensibilities that cannot be sugarcoated or deemphasized.  A complex emotional relationship is being prescribed for the Jew and his/her God, comprised of dual, opposite feelings, designed to convey the sense that we must maintain a considerable modicum of respect and distance, even as we yearn to come closer and become ever more deeply involved with the Divine. We are expected to love the opportunity to do Mitzvot, even as we perform them precisely and punctiliously, out of fear and respect. Love and fear could be understood as serving as a type of check and balance, whereby the confluence of these two emotions guarantees that the individual never becomes overly familiar or excessively distant.

How might one achieve this dual emotional response to God?

                Not only is fear an important component of the feelings that we are expected to experience when believing in and worshipping HaShem; it may be the prerequisite, the first vector in the dialectical God-man relationship.   One cannot avoid noting that not only is fear of God discussed earlier in the Tora, in the book of VaYikra, than love of God, first appearing in Devarim, but that in the single verse in which both emotions are mentioned, Devarim 10:12, fear precedes love as well. Tora study, of all Commandments, perhaps comes closest to reflecting the Sinai experience, and therefore once we recite the blessing that acknowledges how we are commanded to struggle to understand the Tora (…VeTzivanu La’Asok B’Divrai Tora),[7] the corollary to the thunder and lightning on Sinai, we plead that we also can love and appreciate the experience of seeking to understand God’s Will by means of studying His Words (VeHaArev Na…)  Apparently, to reach the stage wherein we experience both of these sensibilities, love and fear of God, in equal measure forming a constructive tension, involves a progression on the part of each individual—it seems that the Tora posits that one cannot from the outset be both a lover and fearer of God simultaneously, even if this is the ultimate goal for which one ought to strive. One aspect of the human relationship with the Divine, fear of God, will per force come before the other, love, due to cognitive, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the human developmental process. Consequently, just as in the case of the formative religious development of an individual, during one’s younger years, one is instructed to be punctilious in Mitzva observance due to a sense of ominousness and foreboding, as a result of a very concrete conception of a system of positive and negative reinforcements and inducements that parents, teachers, institutions, and communities construct to illicit compliance with religious norms, so too was the manner in which the Jewish people were originally approached at Sinai and during the years of wanderings in the desert,  essentially a “fear” perspective. However something that constitutes a prerequisite and a first step, should never be construed as the end and the ideal. While Judaism expects its adherents to maintain a significant degree of awe and respect when it comes to God and His Commandments, the sturm and drang of Sinai is supposed to be complimented and even surpassed by the joy and exhilaration that comes about when an individual senses that s/he is living life as God Intended, and that s/he is truly fulfilled, that s/he loves and is beloved by HaShem. Naturally, the question can then be posed as to what happens when the individual never reaches the more developed, sophisticated stage where love balances fear—will this result in alienation at worst, and a skewed view of observant Judaism at best?

A mystical, Rabbinic view of Sinai that perceives the experience as joyful rather than terrorizing.

                Finally, a different depiction of the Sinai experience appears in Yerushalmi Chagiga 2:1. At the party celebrating the circumcision of Elisha ben Avuya, who after his apostasy, comes to be known as Acher  (the other one), Rabbis Elazar and Yehoshua are described as discussing the Tora so intensely with one another, that “fire descended from Heaven and surrounded them.” When Avuya decries the danger to his home and his guests, the Rabbis tell him, “We were reviewing the Tora, which led us to discussing the Prophets, which led us to share insights in the Writings. All of this became so ethereal and JOYFUL for us that we actually recreated the experience of Sinai. Fire leapt up at us just as it had the Jews on Sinai, since the essential giving of the Tora took place in a fiery environment, as the text says, “and the mountain was burning with fire up to the heart of Heaven.” While the Jews in general reacted fearfully to the fiery backdrop of the giving of the Tora, could this have been due to their relatively low spiritual level, whereas those who come to appreciate the Tora, not only love God and His Mitzvot, but are even drawn closer to HaShem by the vision of the intensity and Hitlahavut (becoming inflamed, suffused with enthusiasm) of Sinai, rather than being turned off by it?


[1] When considering the tradition that before the Jews uttered their acceptance of the Tora, Mt. Sinai had to be suspended over them, the Midrash Tanchuma on Parashat Noach, #3 posits that while the Jews were prepared to accept the Written Tradition without coercion, the detailed and rigorous Tora SheB’Al Peh (the Oral Tradition) was the element which the people were reticent about. It would appear that the Rabbis are embodying in such a Midrash the challenges posed when one is required to study and live by the combination of the Written and Oral Traditions.

[2] Devarim 5:27-28 are generally interpreted by classical commentators as God allowing everyone but Moshe and Tzippora to resume normal husband-wife relationships.  Since Moshe has to be constantly on call as God’s permanent prophet, the state of separation that was only temporarily imposed upon the rest of the Jewish people was permanently imposed upon him. Tosafot, on Shabbat 87a “VeAta Poh Amod Imadi” suggests that Moshe’s separation from Tzippora was a misunderstanding on the part of Moshe of God’s Intent. Other commentators, such as Ibn Kaspi on BaMidbar 12:1, insist that Moshe never permanently separated from Tzippora, because this is not in keeping with the principles of Judaism that rejects demanding celibacy from its religious leaders, in contrast to forms of Christianity.

[3]In the first five chapters of BaMidbar, the phrase “And God Spoke to Moses Saying” appears no less than thirteen times: 1:48; 2:1; 3:11, 14, 44, 51; 4:1, 17, 21; 5:1, 5, 11. If each time that God Had a message to convey, the entire nation would have to purify itself and undergo other preparations, the process would become extremely inefficient and unproductive.

[4]Those unfamiliar with the biblical text will neither be aware of the graphic description of the Revelation at Sinai, nor of the commandment to attempt to personalize and relive the receiving of the Tora over and over. A classical interpretation of Devarim 6:6, “that I Have Commanded you today”—is presented by RaShI who writes that one is supposed to approach his Tora study as if he has just received the Tora, each day of his life. 

[5]Additional verses delineating the commandment to love God appear in Devarim 11:22; 13:4; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20.

[6]Additional verses delineating the commandment to fear God appear in Devarim 8:6; 10:20; 13:5; 14:23; 17:19; 28:58; 31:12, 13.

[7]Commentaries on liturgy, such as Eitz Yosef (Otzar HaTefillot, Vol. 1, Nehora D’Orayta, Yerushalayim, 5720, p. 60a) define the verb “LaAsok” as reflecting the struggling (“Yegi’a”) to understand Tora, in contrast to those who study with a sense of pleasure and enjoyment.

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