“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 sits and removes them from his heart.”
Last week we discussed the significance of the verse in Deuteronomy, as quoted by our mishna. We were warned not to forget the experience of the Revelation at Sinai, in which G-d appeared before the Children of Israel and granted them the Torah. As we explained, the true significance of this episode was not in the theatrics or the fiery display of G-d’s might. It was in the simple fact that G-d revealed Himself to an entire nation. Henceforth, no future generation would be able to cast serious doubt on G-d’s existence. He had revealed His Presence — literally, and to millions of individuals, and their descendants ever after would know the story of G-d and His nation.
As we pointed out further, this stands in stark contrast to all the world’s other religions. No other religion claims — or really can claim — that G-d did anything more than reveal Himself to a few prophets, or that a wonder-worker performed a miracle before a very few witnesses. Our G-d, however, “proved Himself” in front of the entire nation. And He really could not leave belief in Him to anything more precarious. Religion cannot all hinge on our trusting a single prophet, no matter how impressive his claims (and certainly not ones who were not even accepted by their contemporaries and who only later became popularized). Frankly, we would really expect an all-powerful G-d to do a better job than that if He really wanted us to believe in Him.
All of this begs a question — a fundamental one which I’m sure many of my readers are already asking. True, at one point in our history G-d was very “open” with us. He revealed Himself and performed vivid and majestic miracles before our eyes. And the memory of it has never entirely left us; our mitzvos (commandments) and holidays commemorate it in a great number of ways. But why is this left to our collective national memory alone? It gave our religion a fantastic jump-start, but that was literally millennia ago. What about today? If G-d expended so much effort courting the belief of our ancestors, why does He leave us (as well as all of mankind) in such darkness today? Sure, it’s very hard to believe the story of the Exodus was concocted out of thin air, but thousands of years are thousands of years. Where are we left today?
Likewise, here is a common question — I’m sure many of us have asked ourselves (whether consciously or not): “Why can’t G-d give me a sign? I’d like to believe in Him; I think He exists, but I don’t really know. Why can’t G-d remove my own doubts — not just those of my ancestors? Why did they have it so much easier? Of course they would serve G-d! They knew! But I live in a different time and place, plagued with doubts and confusion. Why not a miracle for me — just a small one would do (like my term paper magically falling from heaven) — and then I’ll believe in G-d too!”
(For that matter, why doesn’t G-d just do a repeat of Mount Sinai — so we can all at least watch the rerun? (Wouldn’t the commercial ads bring in just as much as they do during the Super Bowl? (Well, maybe don’t answer that one.)))
This is a good question to raise (if I say so myself), and it brings us to a related — and equally critical — fundamental. Our hypothetical questioner above assumed that if he would witness a miracle he would serve G-d wholeheartedly — exactly as did his ancestors in the desert so many years ago. Now, hold on a second there! Anyone who has even the most rudimentary knowledge of the Bible knows that it was hardly so simple. A good number of our ancestors — the very ones who saw G-d on Mt. Sinai — were gleefully dancing around a golden calf forty days later (or at least quietly acquiescing to the grisly affair). Forty days later! We were complaining that after thousands of years an undeniable fact of history can begin to get stale. But how in the world could people who literally saw G-d deny Him after such a short time? And of all things to dance around a hunk of lifeless metal, like some primitive, barbaric culture! Didn’t at least they know who G-d really was? How did G-d’s revealing Himself backfire so?
(Needless to say, any commentator who has ever taken pen (or quill, or word processor) in hand has interpreted this sin to be infinitely more subtle and lofty then some primitive totem-pole idolatry. But still, much needs to be explained. How could they slip so far so fast? It’s almost as if they were in a hurry to run from something!)
The reason is that as necessary as G-d revealing Himself to mankind was, as important as it was to dispel our doubts about G-d’s reality, it created a very difficult — and potentially disastrous — situation at the time.
Let us for a moment go back to the basics. G-d created the world so that man would serve Him and earn eternal reward. We would have to overcome challenges and temptations and make ourselves more spiritual and godlike. (A gross simplification, but it will have to do for now…) In order that the world provide a fair arena for spiritual growth, G-d had to make evil tempting and attractive. Humankind would be equally drawn towards wickedness as towards goodness and spirituality. Thus, our choice of good over evil would be meaningful. When both are equally tempting — we could easily go either way — and we choose good, we have accomplished. Our actions reflect a conscious decision on our part to move closer to G-d. We were given free will, and we exercised it properly. Our good choice would thus be a part of our growth and development. It would be us.
Now, to fashion a world allowing such challenge and growth, G-d had to “hide” Himself. If we were to see G-d — or if He would reveal Himself in a manner which would suddenly and drastically alter our perception of the world — we would no longer have free will. We would be forced to serve G-d: the path of evil would no longer truly be viable. We would know that an all-powerful G-d is watching over our every move and demanding our utter obedience. We would be forced. The awareness of G-d would be an oppressive and inescapable reality.
Even further, our abstention from sin would no longer be meaningful. It would not stem from our heightened awareness of the virtue of good. It would not be the result of a growing and maturing process. It would stem from fear: from a terrorizing awareness that an awesome, infinite Being is watching our every move. We would be left with no room for challenge and personal growth. Our service of G-d would be slavish and obedient; it would certainly not be “us”.
Or, perhaps, we would do what some in the Sinaitic generation did: rebel against a G-d they knew existed. They knew about G-d quite well — too well. He was a reality they could never escape nor ignore. And so, they openly rebelled against a closeness they could not deny yet knew they could not live with.
(Many of you may note the resemblance to our discussion of a few weeks ago — why great scientists are sometimes ardent atheists. Surprisingly, seeing G-d up close is a very dangerous thing.)
For this reason, G-d very rarely violates the laws of nature — even though theoretically, these laws mean absolutely nothing to Him. G-d allows the world to appear as operating through chance, as if of its own momentum. This is because G-d will simply not reveal Himself for any generation or individual who wants a little inspiration (or who wants to get his term paper done). G-d’s guiding and often intervening hand is evident only to the most perceptive among us. If G-d were to openly demonstrate His control — for Him to strike with lightning any time a person sins — His Presence would become overly obvious and man’s free choice would be compromised. Rather, G-d reveals Himself — by way of prophecy or miracles — only to people for whom G-d’s existence is such a reality already that seeing G-d would in no way alter their perception of the world. (Based in part on a thought I read years back in Tales out of Shul, by R. Emanuel Feldman.)
Finally, R. Dostai in our Mishna extends the theme of Deuteronomy. It is not sufficient to simply remember that G-d appeared before us. We cannot remember that G-d exists and stop right there. The experience of Sinai was not only one of revelation; it was one of forging an eternal covenant between G-d and Israel. And that covenant was sealed with the Torah. Our memory of the Revelation today takes the form of our acceptance of G-d’s Torah — and of our unique mission to the world as outlined in it. Our mission today is to study: to understand G-d’s wisdom and to serve as a light and beacon unto the nations of the world. Our reaction to Sinai must be to study, to understand, and to remember.
Thus, in the final analysis, G-d did appear to us once in our history. He knew it was necessary for Him to demonstrate the reality of His existence to man that one time. We as a nation — and as messengers to the world — had to know without the slightest shadow of doubt that G-d exists. But He could never again repeat that dangerous performance — at least not until the world would again be ready at the time of the Messiah. We can never again have G-d reveal Himself so openly, not unless we first prepare ourselves for such an encounter. Nevertheless, the knowledge is there — not in our faces, but in Israel’s collective memory — and to a degree that we can live with it. It is now up to us to grow into it.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.