For the Greater Good / Parashat Yitro

Rabbi Nachman seems to hint at a personal parallel - between himself and Moses. Although a tzadik sacrifices himself on the altar of the freedom granted his community, he is rewarded with a higher freedom; to intervene in, and change, God's words.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

As part of the preparations Moses makes prior to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, he is commanded by God, "Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments" (Exodus 19:10 ). Three days, not two. However, Moses instructs his people thus: "Be ready against the third day; come not near a woman" (Exod. 19:15 ). This is one of three cases in the Torah where the sages say that "Moses acts on his own and God sanctions his decision" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, p. 87a ).

The context for the rather surprising degree of freedom that Moses exercises here is explained by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in his innovative reading of earlier verses in the Book of Exodus. There, God asks Moses to tell the people that if they fully comply with his commandments, he will make them "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6 ). Moses obediently conveys this message: "And all the people answered together, and said: 'All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.' And Moses reported the words of the people unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Moses: 'Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and may also believe thee forever.' And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord" (Exod. 19:8-9 ).

The nation says initially that it will do what God has said and Moses passes on their response. Then, God prepares Moses for what is to come - when the Almighty will reveal himself to him and bestow the Ten Commandments upon him and the entire nation. But a seemingly unrelated verse emerges here: What exactly are the "words of the people" that Moses transmits to God in the second time, after reporting their first response to him?

Rabbi Nachman proposes that these passages be read in a different manner, one that explains what Moses transmits to God the second time. According to Rabbi Nachman's suggestion, the words "And all the people answered together, and said: 'All that the Lord hath spoken we will do'" should be seen as a complaint. The people's acceptance of God's bidding is self-understood, the great rabbi explains. There is no possibility of disobeying because the command was uttered by God himself and directed at his people (Likutei Moharan, section 190 ). If there is no choice to rebel against God's will, compliance with God's commandments is in essence a sterile act. What the Children of Israel are actually demanding is free will, the freedom to choose.

Rabbi Nachman goes on to explain that God's next declaration - "Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee" - as a solution to this dilemma. God will speak solely with Moses (that is why, argues Rabbi Nachman, the Ten Commandments are addressed to the people in the second person singular: "I am the Lord thy God" [Exod. 20:2] ), but the nation will stand on the sidelines, as it were, not hearing the divine words directly. In that way, the people will be able to decide whether to obey them.

This seems to be a good solution, but Moses then presents God with the same argument that the nation gave just moments before: "And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord." This time Moses applies the argument to himself personally, saying to God: "You have corrected things for them, but you have not corrected them for me. Whereas they will now have the possibility of being able to choose whether to obey your commandments, the possibility that I can choose whether to obey them is nullified because I will hear the Ten Commandments as a direct command."

Instead of responding to Moses' claims, God commands him to sanctify the people "today and tomorrow." The leader of the nation decides, however, to command the people, "Be ready against the third day" - that is, to sanctify themselves over a period of three days; thereafter God "sanctions his decision." The option granted to Moses does not entail the ability to choose whether to comply with God's words, but rather the possibility of adding something to those words.

Rabbi Nachman thus distinguishes between two categories of freedom. The first is the kind of freedom the Children of Israel demand: to stand on the sidelines, hear the commandments in an objective manner and make a decision about whether to obey them. Nonetheless, there has be some kind of link joining God and the people - a link that cannot enjoy the freedom of choice which the Israelites have, and that link is Moses. He is the "sacrifice" that God places on the altar of freedom that was granted to the people. To reward Moses for his sacrifice, God grants him another, second sort of freedom: to alter the details of God's directive.

Rabbi Nachman devotes a great deal of attention to the question of the relationship and differences between the tzadik - the saintly man, and his followers. The sage apparently sees the relationship between Moses and his people as being parallel to that of the tzadik and his disciples. Also, Rabbi Nachman seems to hint at a personal parallel - between himself and Moses. Although a tzadik sacrifices himself on the altar of the freedom granted his community, he is rewarded with a higher, more personal sort of freedom: the freedom to intervene in, and even change, God's words.

However, Rabbi Nachman goes one step further. He suggests that the partial compensation offered to Moses for his loss of freedom opens up new possibilities for him, and that ultimately the initial freedom taken away from him is restored: "Moses' freedom to choose whether to accept the Torah was dependent on his ability to change the Torah. In truth, the Torah could be granted only if the people prepared themselves for three days. Had Moses not stipulated the necessity of a third day, the people would have been unable to receive it. Although God told Moses the people would need two days, Moses understood what God wanted and decided that the people should be able to receive the Torah. Thus, Moses added the extra day, to facilitate this. Moses' freedom to choose embodied the freedom to add a third day on his own initiative" (Likutei Moharan ).

Therefore, God tells Moses to spend two days in preparing the people and thereby gives him the option of adding a third. Had Moses not exercised the option of making a choice, and had not added a day - there would have been no possibility of the people receiving the Torah. That event is the result of Moses' decision to exercise his own personal, internal freedom.

Thus, in fact, God grants Moses the option of making a choice between two things initially - an option that was taken away from him because he alone heard the Ten Commandments directly. Thanks to his capacity for feeling "at home" with the Torah and his ability to reshape it, Moses enables it to be presented to his people. This is a subtle point relating to the dynamic nature of the Torah: Apparently, it can be granted only if it is altered. Whereas Moses' decision not to intervene in, and not to change, the Torah would, in effect, have been tantamount to a decision not to accept it altogether - the decision to exploit the freedom God gives him to change the Torah is what allows it to be bestowed upon the nation at Mount Sinai.

"Moses on Mount Sinai," by Jean-Leon Gerome (c.1895-1900).