Friday, March 3, 2017

Shabbos at Sinai: Experiencing the Impossible

The Torah invests much ink and parchment in describing the buildup to the Ten Commandments. Remembering the seminal event of our history is a mitzvah in and of itself; we must read with a listening ear.
"Hashem came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain..." (Shemos 19:20)
It sounds as if the Creator of the Universe left heaven behind, entered our world and landed on a hill in the Sinai Desert, but this is not the whole story. The reality of the revelation was more complex.
"Hashem came down on Mount Sinai" - One might think He literally came down onto it, the verse therefore states [later], "You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens..." (20:19). [The combined verses] teach us that He bent the upper and lower heavens and spread them out on the mountain like a sheet on a bed. And then the divine throne - כסא הכבוד - descended on them. (Rashi ad loc. citing Mechilta)
Hashem was on the mountain and in heaven, at the very same time? Yes. He brought heaven down with Him. This resolves the contradiction and Rashi believes that this is the correct way to understand the text. 

Forgive me, but what exactly are we supposed to do with this information? Disregard it as inscrutable and irrelevant? If that were true, the Torah would not record it, Rashi would not comment, and we would all live happily ever after. Hashem is describing the scene for posterity and He is undoubtedly telling us something important. Our job is to figure out what that something is.
תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך


The Torah gives us two versions of the Ten Commandments, one on location in Parshas Yisro and one forty years later when Moshe reiterates them in Parshas Va'eschananEarly commentators posit that the first version appeared on the original tablets which were smashed by Moshe when he saw the Golden Calf, and the second version appeared on the second set of tablets (Gaon cited by Ibn Ezra). 

Although both versions are basically identical, significant discrepancies do appear in the fourth commandment, the mitzvah of Shabbos. In the first version, we are told to "remember" - זכור - the day of Shabbos to sanctify it, whereas in the in the second version, the mitzvah is not to remember, but to "guard" - שמור - the day of Shabbos to sanctify it. As the Ramban writes, this is indeed a fundamental change, for a mitzvah to "remember" requires a positive act, reciting Kiddush, as opposed to "guard" which is essentially passive, abstaining from violating Shabbos. 

The Gemora resolves the problem. שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו. Both obligations - to remember and to guard - are equally valid and were declared simultaneously by Hashem at Mount Sinai.

Generally, the Torah does not give reasons for mitzvos, however, Shabbos is one of the exceptions, and here we find another major discrepancy between the two versions of the Fourth Commandment. According to the first version, working for six days and resting on the seventh affirms that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The second version, however, makes no mention of creation. Rather, it states that by observing Shabbos we affirm the Exodus from Egypt. Both ideas find expression in Kiddush, where Shabbos is said to be both זכר למעשה בראשית, commemorating creation, and זכר ליציאת מצרים, commemorating the Exodus.


The changes to the text of the Fourth Commandment are not random; they are complementary. There are two ways for man to relate to God and, correspondingly, there are two types of holiness and two dimensions to Shabbos. 

As the infinite and timeless being that created our universe, God is unfathomable to the human mind. Awareness of God thus generates awe and humility, turning man into a vessel for Kedusha. It takes work to gain and maintain this awareness and that is the mitzvah of "Zachor." We must engage in a positive act, the verbal declaration of Kiddush, to sanctify the day of Shabbos with an awareness of the Creator. This is the original Shabbos recorded in the first version of the Ten Commandments.

When the Jews sinned and built a Golden Calf, it became clear that this ideal was too challenging. Human beings are born, raised, and live out their lives trapped inside a physical universe. As such, our minds are more comfortable with the concrete than the abstract, and a physical idol seems more real than something we cannot see or touch. Even if man knows the truth, it is unrealistic to expect him to maintain an uninterrupted awareness of the Creator. And so, for the second set of tablets, Hashem emphasized a more accessible type of Kedusha: awareness of Hashem's presence in our world. While Hashem's essence is infinite and unknowable, He is also the one who entered Egypt and saved the Jewish People. The truth is, we know Him well; He cares for us and He is a constant presence in our lives. No effort is needed to generate this Kedusha; it is always there. We need only to preserve it and abstain from violating it. This is the mitzvah of "Shamor."

"It is a sign between Me and you." The day of Shabbos speaks to fullness of our relationship and as such both types of Kedusha are present: God as Creator and God as Redeemer. The Creator is beyond us; the Redeemer is with us. This dichotomy is the paradox of the God/man relationship - and it cannot be any other way. One type of Kedusha without the other is not only incomplete, it is false. A person who accepts God as Creator but denies His involvement in our lives is no less a heretic than the person who humanizes God and relates to Him as a friend. An authentic experience of God requires the coexistence of both perspectives: שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו. Hashem said "guard" and "remember" simultaneously. This is the unified Kedusha of Shabbos.


The duality of man's relationship with Hashem finds expression in the beracha we recite before performing a mitzvah. 
Blessed are You Hashem our lord, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to...
The sentence begins by referring to Hashem in second person (blessed are You) and then switches mid-sentence to third person (His mitzvos). It is grammatically inconsistent and deliberately so. As we prepare to perform a mitzvah, we encounter the impossible, the concurrent presence and distance of the God Who sanctifies us.

Returning now to Sinai, the meaning of the contradictory verses is clear. When giving the commandments, Hashem spoke to us from the mountain and from heaven. Yes, that is impossible, but it is the familiar impossibility we call Kedusha.

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