Parsha Insights

Where Biblical law and Torah tale is brought vividly to life


The Jewish perspective on topical and controversial subjects

Life Cycle

Probing for meaning in our journey and its milestones.

Yearly Cycle

Discover depth and mystique in the annual Jewish festivals

Rabbi’s Desk

Seeking life’s lessons in news items and current events

Home » Yitro

Yitro: Piercing the Veil of Earth

Submitted by on January 21, 2007 – 4:58 amNo Comment | 2,719 views

The Debate

When Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Torah the angels objected. “G-d,” they declared, “Do you intend to squander this precious commodity on mankind? (1)

G-d instructed Moses to respond and he did. “The Torah expressly forbids idolatry, murder, adultery and theft,” he said. Are angels even capable of such behavior? Surely G-d wouldn’t instruct angels to avoid lying, cheating and duplicity. You are too exalted to be caught up in such folly” Moses pointed to these and other verses as proof that the Torah was written with the lowly human in mind.

It appears that the angels raised a valid question, one that Moses deflected brilliantly, but failed to answer. The angels argued that a mystical, sacred and divine Torah belongs in the heavenly abode. Its place is with angels, who would cherish her appropriately and revere her inherent value.

Moses didn’t even address this argument. Instead he made a textual, seemingly simplistic, point. The Torah text, he argued, seems to have been written with the immoral, lowly human in mind.

Moses succeeding in proving that G-d wrote the Torah with the mortal human in mind, but failed to explain why. If anything, he devolved the question onto G-d. Why did G-d write a brilliant Torah for the simple human? In the angels’ words, why did G-d squander his cherished gift on the lowly creatures of earth.?

Moreover, Moses’ response served to reinforce the angels’ argument. The angels perceived the Torah as a divine, heavenly gift. Moses defined the Torah as a guide book for people of crude passions and inappropriate inclinations. Does this response itself not demonstrate Moses’ and by extension humanity’s, lack of appreciation for the Torah’s true value? Does it not underline our inability to perceive the Torah’s lofty transcendence?

I know I’m Right

The Talmud tells a story about the legendary Rabbi Yochanan and his famous disciple, turned colleague, turned disputant, Reish Lakish. Reish Lakish was a brilliant debater. His intimate grasp of the multi faceted layers of halacha enabled him to challenge Rabbi Yochnan’s teachings. The impertinent challenges often sparked great debate in the academy, a fact that caused rabbi Yochanan no small degree of anguish.

Reish Lakish passed away prematurely and Rabbi Elazar Ben Pedat succeeded him as ranking disciple in the academy. Rabbi Yochanan, who grieved the loss of his colleague / adversary, was inconsolable. Rabbi Elazar, hoping to offer comfort, began to cite supportive source text for every theory his revered teacher proposed.

Unconsoled, Rabbi Yochanan wailed, “Reish Lakish’s challenges, impertinent as they were, sparked debate and analysis, thus crystallizing the import and meaning of the halacha. Your efforts simply prove my teachings correct. Don’t I already know that my teachings are correct?” (2)

Light Shines in the Dark

That a light can shine in a room filled with light is no surprise. That it can permeate a room filled with darkness, banish the gloom and replace it with cheer, demonstrates the power of light. (3)

Reish Lakish tested his teacher’s ideas against opposing theories to see how well they would stand up under scrutiny. He would introduce questions, sow confusion and obscure the clarity of Rabbi Yochanan’s ideas. Rabbi Yochanan then addressed the questions, reinforced his theories  and replaced the confusion with brilliant clarity.

Rabbi Elazar, on the other hand, never tested his master’s theories. He simply offered approbation, but Rabbi Yochanan didn’t need or want approbation. He wanted to subject his theories to debate and achieve the clarity that emerges from it. He wanted to shine his light into the darkness and test the power of his light.

Heavenly Gifts Appreciated on Earth

This was the underlying message of Moses’ argument. Moses didn’t contest the angels’ superior qualifications. He questioned the role that the Torah might play among them. To radiate spiritual light  unto angels, who are already ablaze with spiritual passion poses no challenge to the Torah. To inspire  those who are already inspired, is not a feat.

The Torah doesn’t seek a dwelling place of light, Moses argued. The Torah was intended to radiate light unto those who are otherwise in the dark. Give me a dark world, the Torah’s text seems to cry out, and I shall work to enlighten it.

It is the creature that is tempted to steal that the Torah addresses. It is to those, who disobey their parents, that the Torah speaks. The Torah seeks to motivate them to do good. Angels don’t need to be motivated, they are self-motivated to do good.

Moreover, humanity’s response to Torah demonstrates the compelling nature of the Torah’s call. Angels cannot prove that the Torah is compelling. Angels accept the Torah because they are holy. We, corrupt and imperfect as we are, demonstrate the Torah’s irresistible allure when we allow its teachings to pierce our resistance, wash over our hearts, and inspire our beleaguered souls.  (4)

Not Limited by Heaven

That the Torah’s light is radiated unto earth does not surprise us, the Torah’s light is divine. The question is rather, how does the human, a lowly, earthly creature, absorb this divine light?

Humans absorb divine light because our core is divine. On the surface, earthy creatures and divine light seem like opposites; our values and properties are so different from G-d’s. At the level of our essence, however, we are not at all distant from the divine. On the contrary, he is our creator. We are projections of the divine.

G-d is as comfortable in the physical realm as he is in the spiritual realm. He belongs with humans as he does with angels. Both were created by G-d and the essence of both is divine. (5)

This would not be apparent if the Torah were given to the angels in heaven. It would be assumed that G-d didn’t give the Torah to the human on earth because G-d has no business on earth. By giving the Torah to the human, G-d revealed the shared essence of all creation. He demonstrated that heaven and earth, though different from each other, are, at their quintessence, equal projections of one G-d.


  1. Bab. Talmud, Shabbat 88b.
  2. Bab. Talmud, Baba Metzia, 84a. Reish Lakish, also known as Rabbi Shimon Bebn Lakish, was originally Rabbi Yochanan’s student. He excelled in his studies and graduated to the level of colleague. He also married rabbi Yocahan’s sister and thus became his brother in law.
  3. See Sefer Haerkim, Kehas Publishing Society, NY, 1973, p. 580, Footnotes # 372 and 373.
  4. See Likutei Sichos I p. 148. (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994.)
  5. See Likutei Sichos V p. 245. See also Sefer Hamamarim Melukat III p. 271-279 and IV p.167-169.
Tags: , , ,