|Temple Beth Am Shavuot 2013|
So why not start with Moshe at his greatest leadership achievement: The Revelation at Sinai. Does Revelation occur through a process of centralized leadership or distributed leadership? Does it matter?
The narrative of Revelation doesn't begin with the 10 Commandments. Rather, with a non-Israelite who was not even present for the Revelation. Yitro.
Chapter 18 of Shmot/Exodus begins with Yitro arriving at the Israelite camp, at the mountain of God. He is immediately idetnfiied as a person of authority and leadership, a "priest of Midian". After Moshe welcomes his father-in-law graciously, along with his brother Aaron and all the elders (a leadership pow wow), Moshe goes back to work "judging" the people. Upon observing his son-in-law's exhausting day and night leading the people, he asks:
'What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself alone, and all the people stand around you from morning until evening?' (Exodus, 18:14)Moshe responds that he is doing his job. he tells them, "When the people come to ME to inquire about God, or matters between man and man, I tell them what I know to be the laws."
Yitro finds this model of leadership very unsatisfactory:
'The thing that you do is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; thou art not able to perform it yourself alone.'Yitro addresses both the needs of the leader and the people in criticizing this centralized model of leadership.
He suggests an alternative model, shifting Moshe's role to facilitator, educator and ultimate judge, while identifying which men of the people the leadership should be distributed to:
Be there for the people before God, and you bring the causes unto God. And you should teach them the statutes and the laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, that fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring to, but every small matter they shall judge themselves; so shall they make it easier for you and bear the burden with you. 23 If you should do this thing, and God command you to do so, then you shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace.'Yitro, through his great wisdom of experience, provides a model that addresses his concern for his son-in-law's well being, as well as that of the people. His model primary objective is not change the nature of the judgement, but to provide a systematic design for shifting the burden of leadership from one central figure to be dispersed amongst other able people. Moshe's leadership is still primary, but the burden is shared.
Moshe, acting as a good leader, listen to his father-in-law's advice and implements the model. Yitro, his working being done, and his wisdom shared, departs and goes back to his home, never to be heard from again.
2. Rashi vs. the Ramban
The medieval commentators, Rashi and Ramban present fundamentally different understandings of how to read and interpret biblical text. Their differences are not only rooted in their different approaches to how to analyze and interpret the text, but even a theological difference. This Yitro narrative provides a critical point of contention for them.
In his brilliant expose of the Yitro narrative, Menachem Liebtag explains that this moment in the text is a shift from narrative to instruction. He argues that:
we posit that to enhance our appreciation of Chumash, we must study not only the mitzvot, but also the manner of their presentation. This requires that we consistently pay attention to the 'structure' of the 'parshiot' in Chumash, as well as to their content.There is a considerable question about where the text adjust chronological progression of the narrative in order to support the communication of the mitzvot (commandments for connectedness). This is often referred to as popularly known as "ein mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah" (there is no chronological order in the Torah).
Leibtag explains the different positions of Rashi and Ramban:
Rashi, together with many other commentators (and numerous Midrashim), consistently holds that "ein mukdam u'm'uchar," while Ramban, amongst others, consistently argues that "yaish mukdam u'm'uchar," i.e. Chumash does follow chronological order.
However, Rashi's opinion, "ein mukdam u'm'uchar," should not be understood as some 'wildcard' answer that allows one to totally disregard the order in which Chumash is written. Rashi holds that the mitzvot in Chumash are organized by topic, i.e. thematically, and not necessarily in the actual chronological order in which God gave them to Moshe Rabbeinu. Therefore, whenever 'thematically convenient,' we find that Rashi will freely 'move' parshiot around.
Ramban argues time and time again that unless there is 'clear cut' proof that a certain parshia is out of order, one must always assume that the events as well as the mitzvot in Chumash are recorded in the same order as they occurred. For example, the commandment to build the Mishkan was given before "chet ha'egel" despite its thematic connection to that event! (See Ramban.
Even though this controversy of "mukdam u'm'uchar" relates primarily to 'parshiot' dealing with mitzvot, there are even instances when this controversy relates to the narrative itself.Yitro's arrival to the camp, and his role in transforming Moshe's leadership model, presents a prime case of confusion about chronological order. For how could Moshe be sitting in judgement about God's laws prior to having received them through the process of Revelation.
Three possibilities imerge.
- Ibn Ezra: Yitro's transformation of Moshe's leadership took place after Revelation (there is no chronological order in the Torah)
- Ramban: Yitro's transformation of Moshe's leadership took place before Revelation (arguing that without conclusive proof, the entire narrative took place when it is written
- Rashi: Yitro arrive before Revelation, stuck around for the fireworks, and then after Moshe returned with the second set of tablets transformed Moshe's model of leadership.
So why does this matter.
1) Attempt to keep the chronological order, then deal with each problematic detail individually.
2) Keep the chronological order up until the first detail that is problematic. At that point, explain why the narrative records details that happen later.
3) Change the chronological order, and then explain the thematic reason why the Torah places the 'parshia' in this specific location.
3. Preparing for Sinai.
In Chapter 19 of Shemot/Exodus, God, Moshe and the Israelites proceed through a process of creating a convental agreement that results in God's Revelation, but only after a precise process of preparation and boundary setting. Many people presume this process presents a model of unilateral decision making by Moshe on God's behalf, however upon a close reading of the text, it is clearly anything but. Rather, the chapter presents a model of collaborative decision making in which God, through God's agent, Moshe, engages in a back and forth with the Israelites to affirm their agreement first to become "You shall be my own treasure, from among all people; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.", but only if the Israelites agree to "listen unto My voice indeed, and guard My covenant." (Exodus 19:5-6)
I find these two verses to be the keys to understanding the relationship between God and the People of Israel (for all eternity) and our very mission as a Jewish people. Upon the Israelites acceptance of thi primary covenantal directive, God offers to, "'I will come down to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever." (Exodus 19:9)
From this we see a slight alteration from what most people expectations of God's intentions for Revelation. This verse clearly paints God's intentions for Revelation as not an event for the people to become connected with God, but rather to validate Moshe's leadership. The people will hear God speak TO Moshe, so that they will believe Moshe forever.
This text provides the basis for Menachem Leibtag brilliant commentary on the Revelation at Sinai.
Leibtag recognizes that :
It appears from this pasuk (verse) that God plans to use Moshe Rabbeinu as an intermediary to convey His laws to Bnei Yisrael, consistent with Moshe's role as liaison until this time. Nonetheless, God insists that the people 'overhear' His communion with Moshe, so that they truly believe that these laws originate from God, not Moshe.Why? Leibtag finds a hint in that the after Moshe reports God's intentions to the people, it does not continue with the people's agreement and Moshe reporting back to God, but rather, "And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, rand be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai."
WHOA. Big Shift. Instead of God talking to Moshe, now suddenly God will speak directly with the people, in their own sight, but only after a period of preparation.
WHAT HAPPENED? Leibtag argues that unlike many people's assumptions that this process was unidirectional, quite the opposite, the people had a say. There was an original Plan A that God directed Moshe to offer the people after they accepted the Covenant of Sinai, and the people wanted Plan B.
As we noted earlier, 19:9 implies that Moshe will act as an intermediary; from now on, we refer to this as Plan A. 19:11, however, implies that Bnei Yisrael themselves will see God; from now on, we refer to this as Plan B.
According to Leibtag the key to understanding what the purpose of Revelation was all about is understanding that the text provides a blueprint to God's model of engagement with the People through his facilitator, Moshe. A singular plan shifts to a secondary plan, motivated by the people's wills and desires for a more direct relationship with God than was originally intended. This text provides insight that Exodues 19:5-6 is the key texts we should all be honoring in our daily lives, while Revelation was the carrot that the Israelites wanted a bigger bite of.
4. What happened?
Things never go as planned in Biblical text, especially when we want more than we can chew. Unlike God's original intention of speaking to Moshe and having the Israelites be exposed secondarily, Revelation begins with God, "And God spoke all these words saying"...we all know what comes next..the 10 Utterances (Asseret Hadibrot).
However, immediately upon listing these utterances, the verse reads, "And all the people perceived thunder and lightning, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off." Did the people have this Revelation before or after God spoke?
What was their response, "And they said unto Moses: 'Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.' And Moses said unto the people: 'Fear not; for God is come to prove you, and that His fear may be before you, that ye sin not.' And the people stood afar off; but Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was."
Leibtag explains the sequence as follows:
This short narrative provides us with a perfect explanation for why God chooses to revert from Plan B back to Plan A. The reason is quite simple - the people were frightened and overwhelmed by this intense experience of "hitgalut," and they therefore 'change their minds.'So maybe Plan B wasn't so perfect. Leibtag summarizes his analysis:
To summarize, in chapter 19, it was unclear whether or not Bnei Yisrael would hear the Dibrot according to Plan A (as God originally had planned) or at the higher level of Plan B (as Bnei Yisrael requested). Later, in chapter 20, the Torah describes how Bnei Yisrael were frightened and requested to revert back to Plan A. Ramban claims that this story took place before Matan Torah, and thus the people heard all ten commandments through Moshe (Plan A). Rashi maintains that this story took place during the Dibrot; hence the first two Dibrot were transmitted according to Plan B, while the remainder were heard according to Plan A.