Revelation and Forgetting: Moshe, Mediation, and the Beginning and End of Torah

There is a stark and striking difference between the absence of Moshe in the Passover Haggadah and the centrality of Moshe on Shavout. In the Haggadah the story of the exodus is told without Moshe, even as he was the story’s central character in scripture, and as the Israelites stand in preparation to receive the Torah on Shavout, Moshe stands at the center of the story, at once bringing them to the mountain and then, as told in Exodus 20:16, becoming the mediator between the divine voice and a traumatized people (Deuteronomy 5:22). Rabbinic and later literature on Shavuot include Moshe as the central figure.

In the tradition, Moshe is known as the “giver of the Law,” at once the individual who encounters God on Sinai, and also mediates between God and Israel. Rabbinic lore has it that there is a “Moshe in every generation,” that is one (at least) who can function as the reliable transmitter of divine will filtered through the tradition.

And yet, the sages are somewhat ambivalent about Moshe’s role in the story of revelation, suggesting by implication that there is a categorical distinction between revelation of Torah and Torah itself. This comes through in a stark fashion in a midrash in Song of Songs Raba:

רבי יודן בשם רבי יודא ב”ר סימון ורבי יהודה ורבי נחמיה ר’ יהודה אומר בשעה ששמעו ישראל אנכי ה’ אלהיך נתקע תלמוד תורה בלבם והיו למדים ולא היו משכחין באו אצל משה ואמרו משה רבינו תעשה את פרוזביון שליח בינותינו שנאמר דבר אתה עמנו ונשמעה ועתה למה נמות ומה הנייה יש באבדה שלנו חזרו להיות למדים ושוכחים אמרו מה משה בשר ודם עובר אף תלמודו עובר מיד חזרו באו להם אל משה אמרו לו משה רבינו לוואי יגלה לנו פעם שניה לוואי ישקני מנשיקות פיהו לוואי יתקע תלמוד תורה בלבנו כמות שהיה אמר להם אין זו עכשיו אבל לעתיד לבא הוא שנאמר (ירמיה לא) ונתתי את תורתי בקרבם ועל לבם אכתבנה רבי נחמיה אמר בשעה ששמעו ישראל לא יהיה לך נעקר מלבם יצר הרע באו אצל משה אמרו לו משה רבינו תעשה את פרוזביון שליח בינותינו שנאמר דבר אתה עמנו ונשמעה ועתה למה נמות ומה הנייה יש באבדה שלנו מיד חזר יצר הרע למקומו חזרו על משה ואמרו לו משה רבינו לוואי יגלה לנו פעם שני הלואי ישקני מנשיקות פיהו אמר להם אין זו עכשיו אבל לעתיד לבא הוא דכתיב (יחזקאל לו) והסירותי את לב האבן מבשרכם:

מדרש רבה שיר השירים – פרשה א פסקה טו

Rabbi Rabbi Yudan in the name of Rabbi Yuda bar Rabbi Simon, Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Neḥemia. Rabbi Yehuda says: At the moment that Israel heard: I am the Lord your God (Exodus 20:2), Torah study (talmud torah) was affixed (nitkan) in their heart, and they would study and would not forget. They came to Moses and said: ‘Moses our master, you become an intermediary between us, as it is stated: You speak to us and we will hear (Exodus 20:16), Now, why shall we die? (Deuteronomy 5:22). What benefit would there be in our demise?’ They reverted to studying and forgetting. They said: ‘Just as Moses is flesh and blood and transient, so, too, his teaching is transient.’ Immediately, they returned and came to Moses and said to him: ‘Moses our master, if only God would appear to us a second time. If only let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. If only Torah study will be affixed in our heart as it once was.’ He said to them: ‘This will not [happen] now, but [it will occur] in the future, as it is written: I will place My Torah within them and on their heart I will write it. (Jeremiah 31:32).

Rabbi Neḥemia said: At the moment that Israel heard: You shall not have [other gods before Me] (Exodus 20:3), the evil inclination was uprooted from their heart. They came to Moses and said: ‘Moses our master, you become an intermediary between us, as it is stated: Now, why shall we die? (Deuteronomy 5:22). What benefit would there be in our demise?’ Immediately, the evil inclination returned to its place. They returned and came to Moses and said to him: ‘Moses our master, if only He would appear to us a second time. If only “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”’ He said to them: ‘This will not [happen] now, but it [will occur] in the future, as it is written: I will remove the stone heart from your flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

There is a fascinating anxiety at play here, a desire for clarity, a fear of death, and a quest for mediation that renders the initial experience inoperative, even undesirable. On the one hand, the moment of revelation is a moment of full integration of Torah in Israel such they will not, in fact, cannot, forget it, because it becomes embedded (nitkan) in their very being. Israel becomes Torah incarnate. And yet there is something discomfiting about that embeddedness, the midrash juxtaposing the recognition of Torah as full incarnate in Israel (Exodus 20:16) and the fear of death (Deuteronomy 5:22). In one sense, this juxtaposition makes sense as it answers the question as to why Israel would request Mosaic mediation after the revelatory experience in Exodus 20:16. That is, why would Israel ask for Mosaic mediation once they received a direct encounter with the divine?

While the fear of death in Deuteronomy 5:22 is never made clear, that is, why were they afraid of death after revelation, one would think the embeddedness of Torah would be a prescription for the fullness of life? And as the midrash relates, the request for mediation has tragic consequences Israel did not predict: forgetting. I say tragic because in the midrash the Israelites clearly viewed their request as an error. And it is really this forgetting that is the beginning of Torah, because forgetting Torah is the only way to attain it, but by forgetting it, they never attain it. Torah is only Torah when it can be forgotten and yet the forgetting is the Torah unfulfilled. It seems Israel knows this and thus they return to Moshe and ask “we know what we did by asking you to mediate, can we go back to unmediated revelation,” to which Moshe says, “No, you have made a choice, revelation will only return in the future. Now there is just forgetting. That is, there is just Torah.”

Here R. Shmuel Bornstein of Sochochow (1855-1926) in his Hasidic work Shem M’Shmuel offers a few incisive reflections.

It is written in Psalms, With the word of God the heavens were formed… (Psalms 33:6). So too when we read I am the Lord your God (at Sinai) Israel was elevated to the point where God’s name should apply to them (shyekareh Ha-Shem shemo  aleyhem) and they were made new creatures who were attached (devekim) to God. And it says, “there is no forgetting before your Seat of Glory.” Thus they did not, could not, forget. And when it was proclaimed [at Sinai],  “you will have no other gods before me” their evil inclination was removed from them, as we read in tractate Shabbat 105b, “You should not have a strange god (‘el zar). What is a strange god in the body a person (gufo shel adam)? This is the evil inclination.”

And when this was said by God, it immediately came to be because divine speech is itself an act. Thus, at that moment [when God spoke at revelation] they had no evil inclination. However, when Israel then said, You [Moses] speak to us and we will hear they wanted more through mediation, and through this mediator what they got was only knowledge but no longer “speech that is itself action.” Therefore, now they learned [Torah] and forgot it and the evil inclination returned to its original place. What remained was only “commandment” and no longer “speech that is itself action.” (Shem M’Shmuel Numbers, p. 43).

The Talmud elsewhere teaches that the evil inclination returned to Israel when they worshipped the golden calf. But Bornstein suggests this happens earlier, at the moment when Israel asks Moshe for mediation. In that instant, in that asking, the Torah as incarnate in the bodies of Israel was diminished by the re-entry of the evil inclination that will always situate itself between Torah and one’s ability to enact it. Thus the unity of speech and act (With the word of God the heavens were formed) that is indicative of divine speech and, as well, part of Israel after hearing the unmediated divine word (thus they could not forget), is undone via mediation whereby they hear divine words through Moshe who himself is vulnerable to transgression (“‘Just as Moses is flesh and blood and transient, so, too, his teaching is transient.”). What Israel loses is revelation. What they gain is Torah.

For Bornstein to not forget is to be divine, and this when Israel heard divine speech which itself is an “act,” they became “new (divine) creatures. What he does not say is this new (divine) creature seems to be a retrieval of the patriarchs and matriarchs who tradition suggests internalized Torah before it was given, that is, the intuited divine will without being commanded. This is discussed in various Hasidic texts, for example, in Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi. Thus, the patriarchs and matriarchs did not need “commandment” as command implies being directed to act outside one’s one understanding of how to act. To be commanded means to have an evil inclination. Hence command and forgetting are somewhat intertwined. We are commanded precisely because we forget. What mediation produces is command, and command necessitates forgetting (if you never forget you needn’t be commanded of anything).

What our midrash then suggests is that Israel regrets their decision precisely because they have introduced forgetting into revelation. They approach Moshe and ask for a second chance. But the mere fact that they ask Moshe speaks to their deficiency. They created Moshe as mediator and then asked him to undo what they themselves created. The midrash can only conclude using Jermiah and Ezekiel that one day their wish will be granted, but not now. Now all there is, is Torah, no longer the Torah of God that they relinquished in their inability to withstand the trauma of Sinai, but rather the Torah of Moshe, of command, a Torah that is, by definition, forgotten.

There is one more distinction between Torah as that which is, by definition, forgotten, and the total erasure of Torah, an anxiety that runs deep in rabbinic literature. “Torah will not be forgotten in Israel,” the sages say, but that Torah that will not be forgotten, is always forgotten as forgetting accompanies it; that is what makes it Torah. In this sense, the theophany at Sinai is an unfulfilled event, in some way, a tragic event, a missed opportunity for humanity to be transformed into the pre-Sinai human condition of not forgetting. Torah is not the product of revelation, but its undoing. Israel received Torah because it could not bear revelation.

If we aspire to what Jeremiah and Ezekiel promise, we aspire for the forgetting of the Torah of Moshe in order to realize the Torah of God. Shavout, then, marks the moment where forgetting is forgotten (“divine speech is an act”) and is then immediately reconstituted (“you Moshe, speak and we will hear”). A theophany of missed opportunity. As opposed to the Haggadah where Moshe is absent, on Shavuot he is central. But his centrality as mediator undermines revelation, and gives us Torah. The covenant forged at Sinai produces forgetting, and thus the covenant remains unfulfilled, hence we need to be commanded, again and again.

Sometimes, as the Psalmist famously said, it is a time to act for God, for they are desecrating your Torah. (Psalms 119:126). As Zalman Schachter-Shalomi translated it in his 1975 Fragments of a Future Scroll, based on the provocative translation of Mordechai Jospeh of Izbica, he writes, “There is a time to act for God, by putting aside the Torah.” If we refuse to forget Torah, we may never reach the place where we won’t forget Torah. But first we must receive it. And as the prophets themselves attest, aspire to reach beyond it. Or, perhaps, receive it unmediated.


Shaul Magid is Visiting Professor of Modern Judaism at Harvard Divinity School, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue. His latest book is The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance.



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