Parashat Yitro 5781
by Meir Sendor
In Torah tradition angels are understood to be messengers facilitating God’s Will in the world. But they also have their own divine service of praise to perform – to sing. There are a number of aggadot and midrashim that refer to angels singing, for instance: the angel who wrestled all night with Yaakov Avinu asks to be released when the sun rises, to return to heaven to sing (Hullin 91a); and God prevents the angels from singing on the morning of the splitting of Yam Suf, in recognition that some of God’s creatures are drowning (Megillah 10b). In the Tana”kh the key verse alluding to angel song is in Job:
איוב פרק לח
(ז) בְּרָן־יַ֭חַד כּ֣וֹכְבֵי בֹ֑קֶר וַ֝יָּרִ֗יעוּ כָּל־בְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים:
When the morning stars sang together and all the angels burst into song.
So why do angels sing?
This week’s parashah features the greatest collective experience of divine revelation – the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The experience was so overwhelming for Am Yisrael that they couldn’t fully handle it:
שמות פרק כ
(טו) וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק:
(טז) וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה דַּבֵּר־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְנִשְׁמָ֑עָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּ֛נוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים פֶּן־נָמֽוּת:
And the whole nation saw the voices and the flames and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking, and they trembled and stood from afar. And they said to Moshe: speak with us, please, and we will listen, but let not God speak with us lest we die.
The experience of divine revelation can be dangerous to our existence. When Moshe asks for a personal revelation of God’s Glory after the sin of the golden calf, God responds:
שמות פרק לג פסוק כ
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי:
He said: you cannot see My Face, for a human being cannot see Me and live.
So HaShem suggests that He will set Moshe in a cleft of a rock and cover him with His Hand until He passes by, as it were:
שמות פרק לג פסוק כג
וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ:
And I will remove my Hand and you will see My Back, but My Face shall not be seen.
Whatever the experiential reality behind the anthropomorphic metaphors, this, too, is an acknowledgment that we cannot perceive God directly – the experience is overwhelming, and dangerous to our lives. In the cautionary account of the four great Rabbis who entered Pardes, it says that Ben Azzai “peeked and died” and Ben Zoma “peeked and went insane.” They both tried to turn their attention to God directly and were harmed by the attempt (Hagigah 14b).
Several Jewish thinkers compare the challenge of trying to know God to the difficulty of looking at the sun on a sunny day. In the Talmud tractate Hullin (59b-60a), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah responds to one of a series of challenges on religious topics posed to him by the emperor Hadrian:
Caesar said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah “I want to see your God.” He said “you cannot see Him.” [Caesar] said to him “indeed, show Him to me.” He went and stood him before the sun in the season of Tammuz, saying to him “look at it.” [Caesar] said “I can’t.” He said to him “the sun, which is one of the servants that stand before the Holy One, blessed be He, and you say you cannot look at it – the divine Presence, is it not all the more so?”
The emperor’s insistent request to see the unperceivable, incorporeal God of the Jews has a contentious edge to it, a test of Jewish wisdom. Rabbi Yehoshua dares the emperor to look straight at the physical sun at the height of summer, and from his admission of failure draws what appears, on the surface, to be a loose argument a fortiori: that God, for Whom the sun is just one of His creations, is even more impossible to see. His point is rhetorical rather than strictly logical, but Rabbi Yehoshua is not merely parrying the emperor with a straw argument. He gives the emperor the direct experience of trying to perceive something that overpowers perception, then applies this experience to the attempt to perceive God. Aristotle, admired by Hadrian, had also used the sun in a similar analogy in the Metaphysics (2:1): “as bat’s eyes are to the blaze of day, so are men’s intellects to that which is most evident.” Aristotle applies the analogy to all phenomena or principles that are so obvious that the human mind has difficulty appreciating them. It could very well be that Rabbi Yehoshua, brilliant sage and cultured diplomat, knew Aristotle’s epigram and figured the emperor knew it, which would make his demonstration especially persuasive to the emperor. The human mind cannot perceive God because God is hiding in plain sight, overwhelmingly evident.
Maimonides uses the sun analogy in a similar way in his Guide of the Perplexed (1:59):
All people, those of the past and those of the present, affirm clearly that God, may He be exalted, cannot be apprehended by the intellects, and that none but He Himself can apprehend what He is, and that apprehension of Him consists in the inability to attain the ultimate term in apprehending Him. Thus all the philosophers say: we are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He is manifest, just as the sun is hidden to the eyes that are too weak to apprehend.
The point of the sun analogy, and all the cautionary statements about trying to know God in Torah and rabbinic tradition, is that God, Infinite, Eternal, Incorporeal, cannot be an object of attention or cognition. The difficulty of getting a real sense of God is not due to divine remoteness or concealment. Rather, it’s that God’s Presence is so obvious, so all pervasive, so absolute that it overwhelms the accustomed modes of human cognition. Bright sunlight pressures us to look away. In comparing God’s Presence to sunlight, the implication is that on a cognitive level, God’s Presence also exerts a kind of pressure against direct knowing. The hardest thing for human consciousness to grasp is absolute reality. We look away from it all the time and can’t bear to apprehend it directly.
Yet according to Maimonides, the most fundamental mitzvah of the Torah, the first of the Ten Commandments revealed in this week’s parashah, is to know God – not to believe vaguely or even passionately in God, but to know God (Yesodei HaTorah 1:1). Belief is just to pretend we know something when we don’t really know it – a mental posture that inclines towards illusion. But how do we fulfill this mitzvah, to know what we cannot know?
Rabbi Yaakov Leiner suggests that we fulfill the mitzvah to know God not by making God into an idea or an object of thought, but by using our own full being as an indicator of God’s Presence. We find ourselves gifted with the ability to act, speak and think. Everything we are, everything we do, say and think is empowered by God at every moment. We know God by expressing His gifts with our whole being in the world. (Beit Yaakov, Yitro, 90).
תהלים פרק קד
(לג) אָשִׁ֣ירָה לַיקֹוָ֣ק בְּחַיָּ֑י אֲזַמְּרָ֖ה לֵאלֹהַ֣י בְּעוֹדִֽי:
I will sing to HaShem with my life, I will sing to my God with all my being.
Maimonides says that the purpose of working hard to know God as best we can is then to act in ways that imitate and accurately express God’s qualities and God’s Will, according to the prophecy of Yirmiyahu:
ירמיהו פרק ט פסוק כג
כִּ֣י אִם־בְּזֹ֞את יִתְהַלֵּ֣ל הַמִּתְהַלֵּ֗ל הַשְׂכֵּל֘ וְיָדֹ֣עַ אוֹתִי֒ כִּ֚י אֲנִ֣י יְקֹוָ֔ק עֹ֥שֶׂה חֶ֛סֶד מִשְׁפָּ֥ט וּצְדָקָ֖ה בָּאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־ בְאֵ֥לֶּה חָפַ֖צְתִּי נְאֻם־יְקֹוָֽק:
Let he who praises praise this: to intuit and know Me, that I am HaShem, doing love, judgment and righteousness in the earth, for in these I delight, says HaShem.
We express God’s Will in the world by doing His mitzvot, but we can only really do His mitzvot correctly to the extent to which we know Him.
The haftarah for this week’s parashah parallels the revelation at Sinai: it’s Yeshayahu’s vision of HaShem surrounded by the angels singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is HaShem of Hosts, filling all the earth is His Glory (Is. 6:6).”
Angels, according to our Tradition, have a more immediate sense of God’s Presence. We humans are overwhelmed by God just by our relatively limited sense of His absolute Presence that we can feel empowering our whole being. We can only imagine that when angels really feel the Glory of God coursing through them, Holy, Holy, Holy, all they can do is sing with all their might.