by R. Gidon Rothstein
Installing Permanent Faith in Moshe
The Torah links the Jews’ leaving Refidim to their arrival at Sinai. Rashi says it was to contrast their leaving, when they were a disunified crowd, signaled with the plural va-yis’u, they traveled, and arrived at Sinai as a nation, with the singular va-yihan, and he [meaning, the nation, but as a unified group] camped. Meshech Hochmah instead reaches for something Hashem says seven verses later (in a second talk with Moshe) to explain the connection.
[I note the distance because it weakens his explanation. Were Gd to have intended to reveal to Moshe something about Refidim, I would have thought it would come up immediately. When a commentator makes a claim with an obvious flaw, it may indicate he had a personal or contemporary reason for it, which I like to notice.].
When Moshe split the Sea, the Torah says the people believed in Gd and in Moshe, His servant (Shemot 14;31). Yet not five full chapters later, 19;9, Gd tells Moshe the revelation at Sinai will instill the people’s perpetual belief in Moshe. Where did the faith from the Sea go?
Refidim, where Yehoshu’a led the battle against Amalek. Bereshit Rabbah 73;5 tells us Amalek will always only be defeated by descendants of Yosef (Yehoshu’a was from Efrayim). When the people saw other people than Moshe could provide effective and necessary leadership, they developed doubts, and Sinai would dispel those forever.
He says ve-haven, understand this, and my guess is he was commenting on how quickly the Jews of the desert (and other eras, including his?) were able to put aside what had been so convincing. When Sea split, they were absolutely one hundred percent certain it could not but be Gd’s messenger who led them through that. Yehoshu’a wins a war, and they’re ready to moderate or dispense with their belief in Moshe. So Gd has to provide a more lasting proof.
[Or maybe I see it that way because I have been thinking about how quickly people can convince themselves their worldview is correct, after having had it proved wrong, and can reject certainties in the name of new preferences.]
Chosenness is Permanent
The first time Moshe climbs the mountain, Gd famously tells him the Jewish people will be segulah (special) among all the nations, for the whole earth is Mine, 19;5. We might think Gd means we are special in a world where all others are idolaters, but will recede to the mean once—as we hope happens soon—humanity embraces the full truth of Gd’s rule. Perhaps Jews will then be only as special as any other person.
Not so, Gd assures Moshe; even when ki li kol ha-aretz, the whole earth is focused on Gd’s service, the Jewish people will still have a special role (he does not say what it is, and I will not speculate).
As another possibility, Menahot 110 knows of non-Jews who sort of recognize Gd [an idea that will also come up in my other essay this week], speak of Gd as the ultimate power, but still believe other powers are worth worshipping, because they too have a meaningful effect on the world. (Meshech Hochmah points to Malachi 1;11, where Gd says His Name is great among the nations all over the world.) As long as Gd is only one among many (even if first among equals, or first among lessers), it will not be what is supposed to happen.
The Jewish People’s Political Fortunes as the Vehicle of Faith
That will only last while the Jewish people are downtrodden, a situation that necessarily means the Jews do not yet rely on Gd fully and wholly [notice his assumption!]. When the Jews as a nation do achieve such faith, Gd will certainly provide salvation, and the nations will concede the truth of Gd. [I stress the point: Meshech Hochmah—I have seen a teshuvah of R. Moshe Feinstein’s where he notes Talmudic passages to the same effect—is sure the Jewish people’s relationship with Gd directly impacts their position in the world. Something to think about as we focus on politics in various other ways.]
Coming back to here, Gd is not only promising the Jews will be segulah¸ Gd is saying when we will be fully dedicated to Gd, our fortunes will rise, and the whole earth will be brought to Gd’s service.
Chosenness as a permanent status and/or as the way Gd will be recognized in the world.
The Coercion of Obviousness
When the Torah describes the Jews as gathering be-tahtit ha-har, 19;17, the phrase most literally means under the mountain, leading Shabbat 88a to say Gd held Sinai over them, threatened to crush them under it unless they accepted the Torah (as we saw last week, sparking the idea they were not fully responsible for their actions until the time of Esther, when they recommitted to observance voluntarily).
Meshech Hochmah says the Gemara did not mean Gd physically threatened them with destruction, but the full, direct, conscious experience of Gd—an unusual state even for prophets—robbed them of their usual freewill, made them like angels, who have no choice but to serve Gd.
I have at least two reasons to focus on this. First, the idea clarity of insight into the world forces Gd’s service seems to me very Jewishly true. Its why traditional sources speak of this world as olam ha-sheker, world of falsehood, and of sin as dimming our vision, messing up our discernment. At Sinai, we were shown the full truth, and awareness of the full truth leaves no room to question whether to serve Gd. [Although apparently people are skilled at forgetting, because the sin of the Golden Calf is only a few weeks away.]
Second, this is more than the first time we have seen him grapple with the role of freewill. It’s possible I’m just drawn to those type of comments (I try to avoid harping on themes, though), but it’s not like I’m fabricating them. He also here again draws our attention to the idea of courts’ coercing mitzvah performance, as Rambam explained in Laws of Divorce, because in truth we all want to act correctly.
Freewill, its misuse, and how to bring people into line, seem to be on his mind.
A Bonus Meshech Hochmah
That’s three, so if you have committed to reading only three, you can stop here. But since I brought them in under a thousand words (originally; in the re-editing, I went just over 1000), let me share a bonus one close to my heart. When Gd begins the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, the verse closes with the word lemor. Usually, we take it to mean the person was being told to say this to someone else [Ramban does not]. Each time Gd speaks to Moshe lemor, we think Gd was telling him to tell it to the people. Here, the people were all there, so who’s the lemor?
Meshech Hochmah says it was for the people themselves, to relay to their children, grandchildren, etc. As Rambam says in Yesodei Ha-Torah, we should not believe in Moshe or the Torah because of miracles, because our belief would be susceptible to a more impressive (yet false) miracle. The foundation of Jewish belief is the entire people’s having directly personally experienced the Revelation at Sinai, a revelation they pass down, as an heirloom, from generation to generation. [This idea is usually credited to R. Yehudah Ha-Levi in the Kuzari, I think.]
Devarim 32;7 tells Jews to ask their father, and he will tell you. Meshech Hochmah relates it to this idea, that our fathers (not some unrelated prophet or long-ago person) will tell us of this foundational moment in Jewish belief.
I share this because I vividly remember and often have noted my father, a”h, giving me this gift as well, telling me the source of his faith was this unbroken chain of parents telling their children their ancestors themselves stood at Sinai and told us about it (and I asked him, so he wasn’t imposing it on me).
May we all merit achieving the faith, in the Torah Moshe Rabbenu transmitted and in the Gd Who dictated it and Who showed Himself to us in Sinai, so we become fully Gd’s nation, bringing the rest of the world with us to the Messianic future.