Derashot haRan, I’ve been suggesting in these columns, is Ran’s sustained attempt to analyze the balance between the world following its course and Hashem actively intervening. This fourth Derasha is going to grapple with those issues even more explicitly than the previous ones.
In the previous Derasha, Ran said Moshe’s speech defect was Hashem’s way of ensuring that people would know his prophecy was supernatural, different from all other prophets. He brings up that idea at the start of this Derasha, launching a discussion of differences between when Hashem is directly involved in our lives and when we are left to ordinary natural forces.
If you read the Derashot casually, you might think Ran had an interesting thought in Parashat Bo and it happened to come up again in Parashat Mishpatim. Considering that this is the next sermon in the book, I think it’s more than that. He is building an argument, I think, and Moshe’s supernatural (as opposed to natural) prophecy is a building block of his argument.
Preparing for Entry into the Divine Presence
Shemot 24:16 tells us that Hashem’s Presence rested on Sinai and the cloud covered “it” for six days. Yoma 3b-4b raises the possibility that the “it” refers to Moshe; the cloud covered him for six days to prepare him for his encounter with Hashem. In that reading, this was the source for the High Priest before Yom Kippur and the priest who would burn the red heifer (when a new one was needed) taking a week to prepare.
Ran questions how Moshe Rabbenu’s waiting a week before spending a month learning the entirety of the Torah directly from Hashem teaches us anything about those other two, who are engaging in a one time or one day service (even if it is in the Holy of Holies). His answer springboards him to his real concern, the kinds of Divine supervision the Jews had in the Desert (and, by implication, that we have in our lives).
Before we get to that, let’s notice that he’s manipulating the sources a bit to set up this conversation. R. Yose haGlili says the cloud covered Moshe, whereas R. Akiva (a more authoritative figure) read the verse as referring to the mountain. Similarly, it was Resh Lakish who saw this as the source for the High Priest’s weeklong preparations, but R. Yochanan (like R. Akiva, the more authoritative figure of the pair) derived it from the seven days Aharon and his sons spent preparing for the dedication of the Mishkan.
Ran seems to me to be cherry picking sources to bring us to a point he wants to make. That alerts us to the fact that his point matters more to him than the specific sources.
The Prophet Who Didn’t Need to Prepare
Ran says that since Hashem visited prophecy directly upon Moshe, circumventing the ordinary route of rigorous training, Moshe’s prophecy could happen at any time (this doesn’t imply Moshe didn’t deserve to be the other kind of prophet, only that that kind of prophet would have needed preparation each time he or she desired prophecy). If so, the Torah made a point of mentioning his weeklong preparations only as a way to teach us how long other people should prepare for significant ceremonies.
The value of this point, for Ran, is that it leads him to the distinction that will take up the rest of the Derasha, between Hashem acting directly or through intermediate forces. It is that, he thinks, that underlies an odd back and forth between Moshe and Hashem in the aftermath of the Chet haEgel, the sin of the Golden Calf. Aside from its textual interest, the explanation lays out a modern-sounding view of Divine Providence.
The Jews’ Escort from Here On
In Shemot 33, Hashem and Moshe discuss whether Hashem will go with the Jews or send an angel; along the way, Moshe asks to be shown Hashem’s Kavod as well as Hashem’s ways, with the upshot that Hashem, in chapter 34, teaches Moshe the 13 Attributes of Mercy. It is a difficult interaction to follow, and many commentators have offered explanations (including my teacher, R. Ezra Bick, in an Appendix to his important book, 13 Attributes of Mercy, available in both Hebrew and English).
Ran starts with Shemot 23, where Hashem tells Moshe that He is sending an angel to lead them, and that the Jews have to be extremely careful not to disobey that angel because the angel will not bear their sins (seemingly meaning: the angel will punish their misdeeds more immediately than Hashem would). Yet in Shemot 33:2-3, the explanation for the need for an angel was that otherwise Hashem might wipe out the people. Is the angel more likely to punish the Jews or less?
Similarly, Rashi comments that the angel cannot bear our sins because a messenger does not have the power to forgive. True, Ran says, but if Hashem has the power to forgive, why can’t he do it just as much when we’re being guided by an angel as when Hashem is guiding us directly?
The Power to Change
Ran notes that rebelling against Hashem, as through idolatry, can incur annihilation when it is Hashem leading us (while it’s foreign to modern sensibilities, Ran accepts as a simple truth that idolatry forfeits our right to existence). But Hashem can forgive and be lenient as well, can choose to give us more time to repent, or to punish us partially instead of fully.
In contrast, an angel doesn’t actually lead us, it informs us how the world works, the way we need to act to secure positive results. So that disobeying the angel doesn’t bring punishment, it brings the natural outcome the angel predicted.
That’s what Hashem was saying: since the angel tells us how the world works in the absence of Divine intervention, disobedience is sure to lead to failure. Today, we might say the angel gives the Jews insight into how the path of Nature works. Providence comes with an upside, that there’s room to change the natural course of events, and a downside, that rebellions can incur annihilation.
We’ll see more nuances of how Providence works next time. For now, we have the reminder that the world has two tracks, the natural and the supernatural. Those work differently, and we should be aware of each, as Ran is in the process of teaching us.