“Rabbi Dostai ben (son of) Yannai said in the name of Rabbi Meir (mai-eer): Anyone who forgets anything from his Torah study, Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul, as the verse says, ‘Only take heed and guard yourself well, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw’ (Deuteronomy 4:9). One might think this applies even if his studies were too difficult for him? The verse therefore continues, ‘and lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life.’ Thus, one does not bear the guilt for his soul unless he actively removes them from his heart.”
This mishna warns us to be careful not to forget our Torah study, going so far as to say one who does so endangers his soul. R. Dostai bases his statement on a verse in Deuteronomy, spoken by Moses: “Only take heed and guard yourself well, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw.” This verse is actually referring to the experience of the Revelation at Mount Sinai. In the next verse Moses proceeds to identify that which we must not forget: “The day which you stood before the L-rd your G-d at Horeb when the L-rd said to me, ‘Gather the nation before Me and I will make them hear My words….'” (Horeb is another name for Sinai — see Talmud Shabbos 89b.)
The Torah then proceeds to explain why it is so essential that we remember the experience of Sinai: “…in order that they will learn to fear Me all the days that they are alive on the earth, and they will teach their children.” And the Torah warns us further (4:15-16): “And you shall be very careful with your souls, for you did not see any image on the day G-d spoke to you at Horeb from the fire. Lest you become corrupted and make for yourselves a graven idol in the likeness of any image…”
Never imagine that G-d can be conceived in physical terms or can be conceptualized by the human mind. Creating a physical representation of G-d — even for the very understandable reason of wanting a god man can relate to — cheapens the notion of an infinite and omniscient G-d. All of a sudden god is no longer an absolute: an infinite Deity demanding absolute standards of truth and morality. Instead, god is physical and finite, perhaps even malleable, with a flesh-and-blood counterpart. We “understand” our god; we relate to him on our own terms and fashion him in our own image. God conceptualized into a form the human mind can fathom is no longer an absolute Being before whom man must submit. He is finite and delimited — and absolute truth becomes relativistic religion, held up to man’s flawed and limited comprehension.
The passages above state that the reason for the Revelation at Sinai was primarily in order that we remember just whom G-d is: that He exists, and that He has no physical form. To banish all possible doubt from our minds (just in case the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea were not enough), G-d literally appeared before the entire nation at this one point in our history — and we were given some remote comprehension of His reality.
(As an important aside, “seeing” G-d is a greater-than-life encounter — one which cannot be “faked” or misunderstood. Being in the presence of G-d is a far “truer” experience than our experiences in the physical world. Likewise, a fundamental principle of Judaism is that one who experiences prophecy knows it is genuine. And this, in a sense, is precisely what happened to the nation.)
When we consider this logically, this is practically the most compelling proofs of G-d’s existence. G-d appeared before a nation of roughly three million. Those three million people would — and did — tell their children after of this earth-shattering event (as the Torah instructed them), and the memory of G-d’s reality would be perpetuated.
In fact, to my knowledge, no other religion has ever even attempted such a fantastic claim. All of them boil down to believing a single prophet who claimed to have experienced visions from G-d, or a wonder-worker who allegedly performed miracles before at most a few disciples. And let’s face it: You can invent a claim that one or ten or twenty people witnessed a miraculous event. But you cannot concoct a story that three million people saw something — unless perhaps all three million agree to go along with it. (And considering how difficult it is to get two Jews to agree on anything, 3,000,000 is, shall we say, astronomically unlikely.) 😉
The inescapable conclusion, then, is that all other religions ask for a heavy dose of faith, of taking the words of a single prophet at face value. Our G-d does not ask for that much faith — and He would not be so naive as to ask for it either — certainly not of today’s sophisticated man but not even of our distant ancestors. If G-d really wanted us to believe in Him, He would not hinge it all on our belief in a single prophet or well-concealed miracle. (“Believe in me or you’ll be damned to Hell, but I’m only going to prove my existence to a select few.”) Belief in G-d is too fundamental to be left to faith, hearsay or a few magic tricks.
In fact, the Torah does not place very much weight on miracles: “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer, and he gives you a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder comes true… saying let us go after other gods… do not listen to the words of that prophet… For the L-rd is testing you to know if you love the L-rd your G-d with all your hearts and all your souls” (Deut. 13:2-4). Don’t believe in wonder-workers and soothsayers. Magicians have always been around; the natural world has a few nifty tricks up its sleeve as well. There are all sorts of weird and inexplicable experiences in this world, and all sorts of ways of going on a perceived spiritual “high”. Imagine a prophet of old employing hallucinogenic herbs to gain a following. Miracles are very flimsy proof of an all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of absolute standards of morality.
Keep in mind, for that matter, that G-d felt it necessary to reveal Himself to us after we had witnessed the plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the sea. Miracles are not the final answer (see the first section of the Kuzari which discusses this at length). For true adherence to Him, G-d could do nothing short of revealing Himself to the entire nation — and to quash agnosticism once and for all.
Another point to consider. Because of all the above, no one — and I mean no one — denied most of the major aspects of Judaism for many centuries after the Sinaitic event. The first record we have of formal schisms within Judaism is close to the period of the Mishna (such as the Sadducees), roughly 1000 years later! (See our class on 1:3.)
Even then, the doubters denied only the Oral Law — the explanation and elaboration of Scripture as handed down orally by Moses. For no one at that time could have ever gotten away with the claim that the Written Torah was not authentic. Such a claim would have been regarded as patently absurd; it would have been laughed off the stage of history. We all knew there was a Torah. All of us without exception were told it by our parents. (And honestly, parents do no lie or make up stories when they talk to their children about such serious life issues.) Jews have literally been told by their parents — and their parents by their parents etc. — in an unbroken chain since the Revelation, over 3300 years ago.
(And if you so much as know you’re Jewish today, chances are that chain lasted in your family until at least the beginning of the 19th Century — well over three millennia. And pardon my sermonizing, but it would be a pity for it to sever totally after having lasted so long.)
Along these lines, even Christianity and Islam never attempted to deny the basic facts of Jewish history. Sure, the forefathers existed. Just that G-d really chose our ancestor — Ishmael — over Isaac. Or that G-d made a new covenant on top of the old one. (One which quickly dispensed with much of what the “old” one stood for. And likewise, those who denied the Oral Torah were left with a written one full of inspiring and poetic — but basically content-free — prose.) But to deny there ever was a nation which was miraculously taken from bondage in Egypt? It is all an unfounded or a wildly exaggerated story? To claim the Jews never even were G-d’s chosen people? To the take Scripture itself head on? It would take many centuries for agnosticism to venture that far.
For better or worse, we are still at the tip of the iceberg on this one. We’ll continue this discussion G-d willing next week.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.