Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

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Midrash and Method Home
Yisro 5764

As noted in the Introduction, interpretive midrash almost always responds to a difficulty or a problem in the text that it addresses. We had seen one such example in Beshalach, where there was both a gap and a difficulty and both were addressed. At other times we find what initially appears to be a disagreement between Tannaim which on farther reflection turns out to be a case of one of Tanna responding to one problem and another Tanna responding to the other There is a well described and perhaps related tendency among commentators on Aggada from the time of Maharal onwards to view disputes in the Aggada as representing not a disagreement but rather an expression of the two different sides of the same coin. This tendency finds its most prominent expression in the Michtav M’Eliahu.. We find an example of this phenomona in this week’s parsha.

…You have seen that from heavens I have spoken to you (Shemos 20,19) One verse states: “that from heaven” and another one says:”…and Hashem descended upon the mountain Sinai (Shemos 19,20)…” How shall both verses be reconciled? A third verse comes and mediates between them - from heaven He made you hear His voice to chastise you and His fire he made you see on the earth and His words you heard from within the fire (Devarim 4) - these are words of R. Yishmoel. R. Akiva says: “This teaches that the Holy One Blessed be He spread upper heavens on top of the mountain and spoke to them from heaven as it says “and He spread heavens and descended and darkness under his feet (Tehilim 18). Rebbi says: “and Hashem descended on Mount Sinai -top of mountain “and He called to Moshe” - to the top of the mountain “and Moshe went up” - you may think as it sounds, no, just like one who employs helpers can reach to places personally or through helpers, so much more the Glory of One who spoke and the world came into being (in other words, some messenger angel carried out Hashem’s commands and He Himself was not present at the top of the mountain)

Rebbi’s wording is somewhat obscure. I follow the explanation of Hagahos uBiurim in translation..

Rabbi Yishmoel, as Rashi explains in his comments to this verse, understands that “His Glory is in heaven and his fire and power are on the earth”. In other words, what concerns R. Yishmoel is an obvious contradiction between G-d being described as located both on the top of the mountain at Revelation and Him being heard from heaven, presumably far above the mountain. The solution is likewise straightforward - He was seen on the mountain but His voice emanated from heaven. R. Akiva, on the other hand, resolves the contradiction by positing the folding over of heaven on top of the mountain.

Similarly in an earlier comment, “…and all the people see the voices (20,15)”. They see that which is visible and they hear that which is audible - words of R. Yishmael. R. Akiva says: They see and hear that which is visible. There is nothing that comes from the Mouth of the Almighty and (was not) inscribed on the tablets, as it says “the voice of G-d inscribes flames of fire”(Tehilim 29). Thus, R. Yishmoel simply points out that they saw the fire which was at one place, on top of the mountain, and they heard the sound that came from another place, from the heaven. R. Akiva, on the other hand, suggests that they saw and heard that joining of the physical and heavenly that was at that moment taking place on the top of the mountain. In Rashi’s words - “they saw the audible, something not possible in another place” Somewhat tangentially, it may be pointed out that seeing is that way of perceiving reality which allows only one image or picture. Hearing on the other hand, permits many gradations of loudness, tonality and echo and multiple levels of interpretations. Seeing is instantaneous while hearing takes time and effort. R. Akiva explains that at the moment of Revelations they were able to grasp both the totality of the fixed, unchangeable image with all of its manifold details and retained the complexity and malleability that hearing allows. They saw the Tablets and they heard the Torah..

We realize, however, that R. Akiva is also addressing a completely different issue when we compare his words with an anonymous Tanna quoted in parsha 4 of the Mekhilta (19,20).

‘’...and Hashem descended on the mount Sinai”. You may think that the Glory literally descended and that He spread it over the mountain - it says to teach us - “for from heaven”. That teaches us that the Holy One Blessed be He spread the lower heaven and higher heaven on the mountain and that the Glory descended and spread them (the heavens) on mount Sinai as a man folds a pillow at the head of a bed and as a man who speaks from the top of that pillow. So it says: as the melting fire, fire bubbles water(Ishaia 64) and it says (ibid) in your making things of wonder”.

The most outstanding difference in formulation between this Tanna and R. Akiva is that the former describes a process of folding upper and lower heaven and compares it to everyday events while the latter mentions only the upper heaven and clearly views Revelation as something exceptional and not like everyday matters.

It seems to me that R. Akiva is not as much troubled by the contradiction between verses as he feels the need to address the philosophical and religious difficulty that they present. Every religion must present a compelling vision of how the spiritual or heavenly realms can interact with the physical and the earthly. It does not matter whether the physical is the top of a mountain or the lowest valley and it should not matter whether you conceive of the spiritual as the highest or lowest heavens; the twain should never be able to meet. “Never had Glory (Shekhina) descended below and never had Moshe and Eliahu ascended to above, as it says” The heavens are heavens of the L-rd and earth he has given to the sons of men (Tehilim115) (Sukkah 5 and in the Mekhilta D.Rabbi Yismoel here). Yet history and human experience demonstrate unequivocally that in some way the physical and the spiritual intertwine, or at the very least, touch each other.

There are two ways of describing this relationship. The first one sees the spiritual as dimension above and beyond the physical. To explain this, imagine a world that is completely two dimensional, consisting of length and width and nothing else. Imagine also that it is populated by two dimensional intelligent beings, sort of cut-out paper characters that operate and move solely along a two-dimensional plane. How would these beings perceive a man walking about in their world?

Well, first of all they see him as a set of footprints, unaware of the vast dimensions above their two dimensional space. More importantly, what they do percieve, seems to randomly disappear and then miraculously reappear far from where it was originally sighted. This is because they are only aware of him when he steps on their plain; they are blind to the process of walking that occurs above and outside their dimension.

R. Akiva sees the spiritual as a dimension above our world. Sefer Yetsira (5,2), attributed by many sources to R. Akiva (Pardes1,1) expresses this view in these words:”…depth of beginning and depth of end (dimension of time), depth of good and depth of evil (moral), depth of above and depth of below (height,) depth of east and depth of west (width), depth of north and depth of south (length)…When the dimensions, for a moment, connect, we perceive them as miraculous events - and that is what took place at Sinai

There is, however, another solution to the problem of physical and spiritual. It is possible to see the spiritual as present within the physical and the physical as enveloping and enclothing the spiritual. Take, for example, a concept such as kindness. Now, kindness does not exist in a physical sense; it cannot be touched, measured or tasted. It is, therefore, a spiritual entity.

One cannot, however, grasp the concept of courage without understanding the concept of free choice to be kind or otherwise; in this sense, the concept of kindness enclothes the concept of choice within it. The concept of free choice itself cannot be grasped without knowing the concept of good and evil, without which choice mean nothing. Good and evil themselves presuppose a system of moral authority or a Divine Being from Whom it stems.

Thus, an observable physical act of kindness enclothes the concept of kindness, which itself enclothes a concept of choice, within which dwells the understanding of good and evil and the concept of a Divine Being. (I set up an example to consist of 4 stages corresponding to the 4 Kabbalistic worlds, but, of course, the act of courage also envelopes many other concepts of different levels of complexity, analagous to the Kabbalistic idea of Partsufim).

The anonymous Tanna resolves the difficulty of the spiritual physical connection that is resident in the concept of Revelation in the manner just described. The higher heaven are folded into the lower heaven, G-d speaks form above form a pillow above the double covering, and as a part and parcel of daily existence.

This Midrashic passage illustrates how the presence of both a contradiction and a difficulty impelled different Tannoim to address different questions.

R. Yishmoel focused on the contradiction whereas R. Akiva sought to resolve both. The anonymous Tanna, on the other hand, elected to ignore the contradiction but instead offered an answer that illuminated the difficulty, in the process enriching us with an understanding of a basic religious question that is familiar to us from Kabbalistic works.

Gut Shabbos and Kol Tov,

Meir Levin