When Moshe Ascended to Receive the Torah: A Talmudic Horror Story? by Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick


The following aggadic passage appears in Bavli Menahot 29b:

 Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav:

Scene I: When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy Blessed One tying crowns to the letters of the Torah. He said before him, “Master of the World, what is wanting in the Torah that this is necessary?” He answered, “There will arise a man at the end of many generations by the name of Akiva son of Yosef, who will expound on each jot and tittle heaps and heaps of laws.” He said before him: “Master of the World, permit me to see him.” He responded, “Turn to your back.”

Scene II: Moshe went and sat down behind eight rows of R. Akiva’s students [and listened to the shi`ur]. He couldn’t understand what they were saying and [,trying to understand,] he became exhausted. When they came to a certain law, R. Akiva’s students said to their master, “What is the source for this law?”  He answered them, “It is a law given unto Moshe at Sinai,” and Moshe’s mind settled down.

Scene III: Thereupon Moshe returned to the Holy Blessed One and said, Master of the Universe, You have such a man and you are giving the Torah through me?!” God replied, “Silence! This is My decree (lit., thus has the thought arisen in My mind).”

Scene IV: Then Moshe said, “Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, show me his reward’. God said, “Turn yourself around.” Moshe turned around and saw them weighing out R. Akiva’s flesh at the Roman market-stalls (to be sold as food for dogs). “Master of the Universe,” cried Moshe, “this is his Torah, and this is his reward?’ God replied, “Silence! This is My decree” (Bavli, Menahot 29b).

This tightly edited aggadah is like a play in four acts. Though it does not say so explicitly, the passage is an essay on how human beings find meaning. As we analyze the “essay” we will see how it gets this message across. Despite the sense at the narrative’s end that there are events for which human beings cannot find a meaning because they are God’s decree, this in fact not the aggadah’s final statement. Rather, this talmudic tale is a challenge to all of us to use the gift of our human reason as far as it can take us before accepting that we cannot discover the meaning of events, especially tragic ones, for our lives.

Scene I: Perush

According to the Talmudic narrative, when Moshe goes to receive the Torah he finds God tying crowns (Heb., tagin) to some of the letters in the Torah. He understands that, of course, God can do whatever He pleases, but he doesn’t understand why the letters are insufficient to communicate whatever meaning God intends them to. So, he asks God what added meaning the crowns provide, and God responds that someday R. Akiva will become a teacher in Israel and will interpret, doresh, every single jot (Heb., kotz, Eng., thorn) and create mounds and mounds (Heb., tilei tilim) of halakhah through his interpretations.

Note the change in the description of the additions from “tagin”, “crowns” to “kotz”, “thorn.” Here the story’s author, Rav, is signaling that a situation that starts off as magnificent will become painful.

Furthermore, we must be attentive to the word doresh. That is, when we engage in derashah are we reading our ideas and their meaning into the Torah’s text, or are we investigating the Torah itself to find out what it truly means? More globally, do we make meaning through the use of our own perceptions of reality, or does reality possess factual meaning independent of our perception of it? Whichever is the case, this aggadah is raising a profoundly philosophical question in its continuing essay on meaning.

Finally, note the phrase tilei tilim, “mounds and mounds,” and its similarity to taltalim, “curls.” This play on words will become important at the story’s end.

Scene II: Perush

Scene I ends with Moshe requesting to see R. Akiva, the man who interprets even the Torah’s crowned letters. God tells him to turn around—literally, “return backward.” This suggests another way we find meaning. Sometimes an event that seems without rhyme or reason at present becomes more clearly meaningful after time has passed. In this way history often makes some once incomprehensible event understandable and helps us to find its meaning.

According to the story’s narrator Moshe sits along with the least of R. Akiva’s students and tries to follow the halakhic discussion between R. Akiva and his students, but unfortunately understands nothing. He becomes exhausted trying to comprehend what is going on. Finally, R. Akiva mentions a point of law and his students ask him what the source for it is. He responds that it is halachah leMoshe MiSinai, a law given to Moshe at Sinai, which Moshe himself neither heard of or understood. Instead of calling R. Akiva liar, he calms down.

I would suggest that Moshe calms down because he begins to understand that R. Akiva is in the same line of tradition that he is. Just as he answered questions and legislated for the desert generation, so R. Akiva is answering questions and legislating for his generation. Halachah leMoshe MiSinai here means the process of producing halachic decisions and norms according to the needs of each generation. This process began at Sinai and is carried on by the Sages of each generation in the tradition that began with Moshe Rabbeinu.

Scene III: Perush

The reason for this harsh response is not because there is no meaning to God’s choice of Moshe and that it is a matter of whim. Rather, God’s response is given to what is essentially a “klutz kash’ye”—a question without merit. If Moshe was able to become calm because he realized that R. Akiva was doing for his generation what Moshe himself did for his, he should have realized that he was the appropriate person to deliver the Torah to his generation. R. Akiva, had he been chosen in Moshe’s place, would have been as baffled by the needs and questions of the desert generation as Moshe was in R. Akiva’s beit midrash. In short, Moshe is the right man for his moment.In scene III of the aggadah Moshe wonders why God is choosing him to be the one who delivers the Torah to Israel. It seems clear to him that if he couldn’t understand R. Akiva’s Torah then R. Akiva must be a greater Sage. God, who politely answered Moshe’s questions and granted him all of his wishes now turns harsh. In response to Moshe’s question, God answers, “Silence! This is My decree (lit., thus has the thought arisen in My mind).”

God does not respond nicely to Moshe’s question because it was a question Moshe could have answered by himself. “Silence! This is My decree (lit., thus has the thought arisen in My mind)” was God’s challenge to Moshe to be dissatisfied with the statement of “Because” as the answer to “I said so.” But instead of seeking the meaning of his being chosen, Moshe docilely accepts God’s decree.

Scene IV: Perush

In this last scene of what becomes a tragedy, Moshe asks to see R. Akiva’s reward for his brilliance in Torah learning. He is shown R. Akiva’s flesh, reduced to dog food by his body have been combed with iron combs at his martyrdom, being sold in the Roman marketplaces. He exclaims in horror, “This is Torah and this is its reward?!” And God replies, “Silence! This is My decree (lit., thus has the thought arisen in My mind).”

That repetition indicates, as it did the first time, that Moshe does not understand R. Akiva’s martyrdom and sees it as an act of injustice on God’s part. But the story is about meaning that is meaningful, not about capitulating to the belief that what seems to be unfair tragedy is not meaningful.

God’s response is again a challenge to Moshe to properly understand the meaning of R. Akiva’s death. God’s real answer is, “You have asked the wrong party when you ask Me. If you want to know if this is the proper reward for R. Akiva’s Torah learning, you should have asked him.”

What would R. Akiva answered?

One of his answers we know: When his students asked him how he could smile under the torment he was receiving at his martyrdom R. Akiva replied, "All my life I waited to fulfill ‘with all your soul’—even if He takes your soul,’ and now that the opportunity has arisen, will I not fulfill this commandment?” He then recited Shema, holding the word echad long enough to die saying it (Bavli Berakhot 61b). His death was not viewed by him as an act of injustice on God’s part or a matter of God’s rejection, but rather as a person of ultimate faith he perceived the event of his own horrendous martyrdom as an opportunity to do what he wanted to do most during his life: to observe Torah and mitzvot.

An unspoken answer hinted at in this aggadah relies on the play on words between “tilei tilim”, “mounds and mounds” and “taltalim”, “curls”. In Shir HaShirim, the female lover describes her Beloved’s hair as “his locks are curled (Heb., taltalim), black as a raven (Heb., oreiv)” (Shir Hashirim 5:11), and the midrash, Shir Hashirim Rabbah (Parashah 5), interprets this thusly: “Even things that seem limited (i.e. of no consequence) in the Torah produce mounds and mounds (of teachings.) And who preserves these teachings? Those who rise early and stay late (Heb., ma’arivin, a play on oreiv) [in the beit midrash].”

The connection between the love relation between the lovers in Shir Hashirim and the creation of mounds and mounds of Torah teachings speaks volumes about how R. Akiva experienced the intense pleasure of learning Torah, which he enjoyed for eighty years of his life. If one had asked him, “R. Akiva, you are dying such a horrible death. Is this the proper reward for your Torah study?” given who he was, his response likely would have been, “Nothing in my life could properly repay God for the pleasure I had in my life studying Torah. If these few moments of pain are the price I must pay for all that pleasure, the pleasure was worth it.”

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