GOD IN HUMAN TERMS
The verse states that Moshe brought the response of the nation back to God. Rashi, Shemot 19:8, based on the Mechilta, queries the need for Moshe to report to God with the response of the people; doesn’t the Almighty already know what they said? The purpose of the verse, thus, must be to teach us derech eretz,1 proper behaviour and manners, for it is correct for a messenger to complete his task and return with an answer. Thus, even though God obviously already knew what the people had said, Moshe returned to Hashem with the answer for that is, inherently, proper behaviour for a messenger.2
From these words, it would seem that there are two ways to view human behaviour. One is from the perspective of the pragmatic; one’s actions are a means to an end. From this perspective, the reason for a messenger to report would be framed within the parameters of what is necessary. Given that the one who initiated the matter should eventually be informed of what transpired, it would seem to be a required task of a messenger to report. If this person who appointed the messenger, though, already knows what happened, there would seem to be no need for the messenger to report.
Rashi, however, is informing us of a second perspective built upon a concept of ideal behaviour; an action is, thus, defined by its own inherent value. Within this perspective, a messenger should report on what occurred -- for that is also part of the commitment that he undertook when he accepted the task of being a messenger. Reporting is part of a job well-done and our goal should always be to meet our duties in the best possible manner. As such, even though God already knew all that Moshe would tell, from the standpoint of Moshe Rabbeinu, in fully meeting his duty as a messenger, it was proper for him to report even though God already knew what he would say. This is Moshe’s lesson to us regarding duty.
The words of Rashi, Bereishit 1:26, however, immediately come to mind. In commenting upon the use of the plural “let us” in regard to the creation of Man, Rashi states that God, in meeting the demand to teach derech eretz, was willing to assume the risk that heretics could also refer to the use of this plural to challenge our concept of the perfect, monotheistic, unity of Hashem.3 A similar consideration would also seem to be applicable to this verse. Various individuals within the secular, ‘scholarly’ community often attempt to maintain that Biblical Judaism, especially its early forms, was actually closer to other ancient pagan religions than most people generally want to recognize – and quote verses such as this one to substantiate their claim. After all, they contend, if Moshe had to report to God with the response of the nation, does this not show God is not all-powerful, able to already have known what the people said? To such individuals the answer presented by Rashi is seen as simple apologetics, an attempt to explain the text in a way that would protect one’s theory even though it ‘obviously’ is a stretch. The greater necessity is, thus, not simply to explain the verse in keeping within the basic parameters of Torah thought but to also explain why this understanding is not apologetics but is even exemplary of and loyal to the very purpose, structure and intent of the text.
Rashi in Bereishit actually attempts to substantiate his explanation in this manner. He points to the very next verse4 and its use of the singular in connection to God, obviously showing that such a simple understanding of God as reflecting a plural nature based upon the text in one verse is clearly problematic. Verses must be read within the greater context. Yes, it may be true that a specific verse may be read in a manner that would seem to imply the validity of a heretical concept. God, though, is willing to take this chance in the interest of a specific lesson that can be learned through this particular formulation of the verse; the greater context, in any event, clearly indicates the problems with this heretical explanation. If apologetics exist, they are actually stated by the heretics attempting to read the verse in a manner that would support their views (although this reading is clearly outside of the greater context of the Torah text).
Such an argument, however, it would seem could not be made in connection to the verse with Moshe. In the very next verse, the same issue actually again arises;5 Moshe tells God what He already knows. The fact is that throughout Torah we have cases of human beings undertaking actions in connection to God that only seem to have an explanation within a context of God effectively not knowing. Even the master rationalist, Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 1:65 applies such a perspective in explaining the language of Moshe when he asks God how to respond when the Jewish People ask for His Name.6 Moshe framed his question in terms of the Name, although he was concerned about much more; yet, voicing his true apprehension would have been reprehensible. Didn’t God already know what Moshe was thinking? Moshe nevertheless, had to be concerned about how he voiced his question; it still demanded the necessary respect.
Ultimately, the answer must lie in the full context of understanding Rashi’s words in Bereishit. It is not simply that God presented this verse in this fashion to teach us a lesson, in this case derech eretz. Rashi is actually describing the entire context of Torah and the fact that heretics may misunderstand a specific verse or message is a price that must be met in achieving this essential purpose of Torah. The Torah ultimately is an instruction book. Its purpose is to direct us how to live. Its focus, as such, is on our behaviour – not history, not theology, not science. It is within this context that it also presents God – and to know how to behave, sometimes we have to approach Hashem almost in human terms. The heretic, though, will not appreciate this for he precisely perceives the text as a work of history, theology, scientific understanding. He will thus be mistaken but simply because he could be misled, God could not deviate from His real purpose in giving us the Torah: how to live. To paraphrase Rashi, the very purpose of the text is to teach us derech eretz. What can we do if someone develops ridiculous conclusions because he thinks he is reading a work on a different topic? Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Derech Eretz is found translated in three different ways within the Torah literature: (1) livelihood or vocation, (2) secular studies, (3) proper behaviour somewhat connected to a natural morality. Much debate ensues in that not everyone even agrees with the validity of these three possible translations let alone the specific meaning of the term in a given situation.
2 See, further, Torah Temima, Shemot 19:8, note 13. It should perhaps be noted that Ramban only understands this verse as stating that Moshe returned but not necessarily that he reported. Of significance to us, though, Ramban still also describes, in explaining the word voyaged in the next verse, Moshe as informing God that which, obviously, He already knew.
3 My understanding is, in fact, that Christians, for example, do refer to this verse as a proof of the trinity.
4 Bereishit 1:27.
5 Shemot 19:9.6 Shemot 3:13.
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© 2010 NISHMA