Moshe Rabbeinu vs. The Malachim
Shabbat 88b-89a presents a stunning interaction between Moshe Rabbeinu and the malachim, the Heavenly angels. The Gemara records (from the William Davidson edition of the Talmud):
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended on High to receive the Torah, the ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, what is one born of a woman doing here among us? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: He came to receive the Torah. The angels said before Him: The Torah is a hidden treasure that was concealed by You 974 generations before the creation of the world, and You seek to give it to flesh and blood? As it is stated: “The word which He commanded to a thousand generations” (Psalms 105:8). Since the Torah, the word of God, was given to the twenty-sixth generation after Adam, the first man, the remaining 974 generations must have preceded the creation of the world. [the malachim continued:]“What is man that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You think of him?” (Psalms 8:5). Rather, “God our Lord, how glorious is Your name in all the earth that Your majesty is placed above the heavens” (Psalms 8:2). The rightful place of God’s majesty, the Torah, is in the heavens.”
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Provide them with an answer as to why the Torah should be given to the people. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, I am afraid lest they burn me with the breath of their mouths. God said to him: Grasp My throne of glory for strength and protection, and provide them with an answer. And from where is this derived? As it is stated: “He causes him to grasp the front of the throne, and spreads His cloud over it” (Job 26:9), and Rabbi Naḥum said: This verse teaches that God spread the radiance of His presence and His cloud over Moses. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, the Torah that You are giving me, what is written in it? God said to him: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt from the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Moses said to the angels: Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? God said to him: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Moses said to the angels: Do you dwell among the nations who worship idols that you require this special warning? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: “Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:8). Moses asked the angels: Do you perform labor that you require rest from it? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7), meaning that it is prohibited to swear falsely. Moses asked the angels: Do you conduct business with one another that may lead you to swear falsely? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). Moses asked the angels: Do you have a father or a mother that would render the commandment to honor them relevant to you? Again Moses asked: What else is written in it?
God said to him: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13) Moses asked the angels: Is there jealousy among you, or is there an evil inclination within you that would render these commandments relevant? Immediately they agreed with the Holy One, Blessed be He, that He made the right decision to give the Torah to the people, and as it is stated: “God our Lord, how glorious is Your name in all the earth” (Psalms 8:10), while “that Your majesty is placed above the heavens” is not written because the angels agreed with God that it is appropriate to give the Torah to the people on earth.
Immediately, each and every one of the angels became an admirer of Moses and passed something to him, as it is stated: “You ascended on high, you took a captive, you took gifts on account of man, and even among the rebellious also that the Lord God might dwell there” (Psalms 68:19). The meaning of the verse is: In reward for the fact that they called you man, you are not an angel and the Torah is applicable to you, you took gifts from the angels. And even the Angel of Death gave him something, as Moses told Aaron how to stop the plague, as it is stated: “And he placed the incense, and he atoned for the people” (Numbers 17:12). And the verse says: “And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” (Numbers 17:13). If it were not that the Angel of Death told him this remedy, would he have known it?
A Major Question
While an enthralling Talmudic passage, an enormous question looms large. Moshe Rabbeinu was obviously correct. What were the angels even thinking when they challenged the right of Am Yisrael to the Torah?
Three Classic Answers
The classic commentators share a range of answers, of which we share three of the most popular. First, the Dubner Maggid offers, as he was wont to do, a parable to resolve the problem. A larger Kehilla sought a beloved rabbi serving a small Jewish community to serve as its Rav. After receiving permission from the smaller group, the larger one hired the beloved rabbi. On the appointed day, representatives from the new community came to accompany the rabbi to his new post, at which point, the small town leaders howled in protest. The new group asked why they were upset. After all, they granted permission for them to hire the rabbi. The small-town leaders answered that we recognize that we must let our rabbi go, but how can one let such a wonderful rabbi quietly leave without a complaint!
Similarly, explains the Dubner Maggid, the malachim knew that the Torah belonged with Am Yisrael, but they complained out of respect and love for the Torah.
Another answer is based on the rule of Bar Metzra, the abutting neighbor (Bava Metzia 108 with Rashi). The abutter has the first right to purchase the property his immediate neighbor is about to sell, if the seller (i.e., the neighbor) and potential buyer (i.e., who is not an abutter) have an equal need for the property.
The malachim, according to this approach, claimed the right to the Torah since they are “the abutter” in heaven. Moshe Rabbeinu responded that the intended purchaser (Am Yisrael) has a greater need for the Torah, thereby overriding the abutter’s right to purchase.
A third approach is based on the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the chachamim regarding the Tannur Shel Achnai (Bava Metzia 59b). The malachim reflect the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer that the authority to decide Torah law rests in heaven. Moshe Rabbeinu, though, follows the chachamim’s view that “lo baShamayim hee,” that the right to determine Torah law rests upon Israel’s sages.
Two New Approaches
Yisroel compares the malachim to one who purchases sefarim to adorn his home but does not learn from them. Our Gemara teaches that if one has sefarim in his home, he must learn from them! In a broader sense, the Gemara also teaches that Hashem giving us the Torah demands that we observe it. If we, God forbid, neglect the Torah, it might as well have remained with the malachim.
Binyamin boldly compares the malachim to Titus of Gittin 56b, who argues that it is impossible to observe the Torah. The malachim believe that we do not deserve the Torah since we will imperfectly follow it. Moshe Rabbeinu responds that Hashem intends the Torah for imperfect beings with weaknesses which the Torah helps them overcome.
The Greatness of Am Yisrael
However one understands this intriguing Talmudic passage, the Gemara communicates the potential greatness of Am Yisrael. Moshe Rabbeinu, in our story, touches the Kisei HaKavod (divine throne), unlike the malachim. While the malachim are flawless beings, Am Yisrael has the potential to exceed them. The Torah is the blueprint for us to reach levels even higher than the angels! overcoming our weaknesses and strictly adhering to the Torah is the stuff of greatness. That is why we, not the Malachim, need and deserve the Torah!
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.