Thursday, February 16, 2006

Was there Fire or Darkness at Sinai?

Rambam in Moreh 2:30 points out two contradictory verses. In Devorim 4:36 the people heard God's words from inside the fire and in Devorim 5:20 they heard it from the darkness! Was it fire or darkness? The verses 4:11 -12 read as follows:

"And you came forward and stood at the bottom of the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire to the heart of heavens - darkness, cloud and dense fog. And God spoke to you from the midst of the fire. The sound of words you did hear but no image did you see except the sound."

The word image is "Temunah" in Hebrew. Rambam in 1:3 explains that Temunah is an equivocal word sometimes meaning a physical image and the prooftext is this verse (to be exact, the same word in verse 15) but could also be used for a true notion grasped by the intellect and the prooftext is when Hashem says to Aron and Miriam about Moshe "Utemunas Hashem Yabit" and the Figure of God shall he look upon. Interestingly at the burning bush when Moshe hid his face because he was afraid to look at God, the Rabbis say that it is because Moshe did not let his first impressions take hold in his mind that he eventually was able to apprehend the true notion of God - Utemunas Hashem Yabit! Here again when the notion is God, Moshe sees fire . ( Of course the burning bush was a vision not real, being that a Mala'ach spoke to Moshe. Whenever Mala'ach is involved it is a prophetic vision - Moreh 2:42). Rambam tells us that the meaning of fire/darkness is something that is transparent. It is the equivalent of a molecule that when excited becomes fire and when left alone is darkness.(My understanding in Rambam 2:30 where Rambam uses an Aristoteleian idea of light, which I translated into contemporary parlance). The picture one gets is that the voice came out of a void. We already discussed in an earlier post that the Kol - voice, is an allegory for Divine intuition ( not exactly but close enough). In other words as the people were trying to assimilate the teachings about God that Moshe had taught them since his first introduction to them, further intensified over the last three days, they had a prophetic experience somewhat similar to Moshe, enough for each of them to understand what Moshe must be experiencing. The risk was enormous for they could easily succumb to anthropomorphism, being novices in metaphysical speculation. However as long as they were aware of Choshech, Onon Vearofel - the darkness, the clouds and the fog- that the transcendent God can only be apprehended as someone looking through a cloud or a fog, they were safe. The Onon, Choshech and Arofel (cloud,darkness and fog) are metaphors for how humans apprehend the Deity. When we try to develop an internal image of an abstract concept, we use our past experience as a basis. If I want to understand the radius of a circle I picture a circle in my mind. It is very difficult, in fact impossible, for us humans to apprehend a completely transcendental Being because there is nothing in our experience that we can hang our hat on. That difficulty is described metaphorically as a curtain (mossoch), as clouds, fog and darkness - (Moreh 3:9). Staying with the problem, accepting that we cannot cut through it, is crucial and necessary.

When we search for God we have to keep in mind that we will never really apprehend Him. We can only get a glimpse in our minds but whenever we think we know, we can be sure we are on the wrong path. That is why Anochi and Lo yhyeh Lecho are connected. It is only when one has a correct concept of Anochi , knows God from his deeds, he took us out of Mitzraym, not trying to comprehend His essence, that we can properly divest ourselves from idolatry.

That in my mind is one of the teachings the Torah is giving us by the way it retells Ma'amad Har Sinai. When we read these stories of Ma'amad Har Sinai the focus should be on the teaching not the historical facts. Rambam at the end of Moreh 1:5 where he discusses the meaning of seeing as it is told in the Torah e.g. Vayru'u es Elohei Ysroel (Shemos 24:10) that it does not mean a sensual perception but a mental apprehension, he ends "If however an individual of insufficient capacity should not wish to reach the rank to which we desire him to ascend (note the language! One has to wish not to reach!) and should he consider that all the words concerning this subject are indicative of sensual perception of created lights - be they angels or something else - why, there is no harm in him thinking this. Lets hope that we are not among those who wish to stay unenlightened. Good Shabbos.


  1. >the focus should be on the teaching not the historical facts.

    If Har Sinai did not happen, then what is the basis for accepting anything in the Torah?

  2. >If Har Sinai did not happen, then what is the basis for accepting anything in the Torah?

    I never said it did not happen. It had to happen otherwise we would not be here. However too much emphasis has been put on the details of when and where rather than how it is told and why is told that way. When and where is irrelevant, how it is told is the crux of the matter. That is Rambam's comment. There a few more such comments in the Moreh.

  3. >It had to happen

    How do you know it happened?

  4. You would not be here to talk to me if it did not. We would have gone the way of Amon, moav, Mitzraim etc... The bog question is what happened and the inquiry into that is an important religious undertaking. that is why bwe have Shavuos - zman matan toreseinu,- that why we keep mitzvos and that is the meaning of "Zochor es yom asher omadeto lifnei hashem elokecho bechorev beyom hakohol".

  5. That's your idea of "it had to happen?" Hinduism is ~4000 years old, older even than Yahwism; does that mean there has to be many gods?

    You're 50% kiruv clown and %50 apikorus. And 100% disappointment.

  6. >You're 50% kiruv clown and %50 apikorus. And 100% disappointment.

    I will accept the apikorus part but I am insulted about the kiruv clown part. I do not condone the kiruv movement especially the way it is practiced.

    The disappointment well - sorry.

    To the point. Yes Hinduism is around for 4000 years, idolatry is even older and is still flourishing. Look at Christianity how it brought idolatry back into Judaism because it could not live without it. I don't profess to know what happened at Sinai, all I know that something happened at a time in our history where a whole nation accepted to live according to certain rules laid down by the Torah. That process evolved into what we are now, a persecuted and homeless(until very recently) people with exceptional influence on the thought proscess of the whole world. Judaism is at the center of many theological discourses whether pro or con. Even you, Mis Nagid, struggle with it 24/7. Why can't you just drop it and go comment at other blogs? It is therefore working on you too. I want to understand why it is doing that? Why does it have such a hold on me, on you and half of humanity? I therefore believe that Sinai or some such experience happened. There is more to it but it would be a whole book.

  7. "I am insulted about the kiruv clown part."

    Tough, you deserved it. Don't you know that your "It has to be true because we're still around" is 100% pure kiruv clownery?

    "I do not condone the kiruv movement especially the way it is practiced. "

    Then why are you cribbing from their playbook?

    "Yes Hinduism is around for 4000 years, idolatry is even older and is still flourishing."

    Yet you claimed just two comments up that longevity is proof of divine seal. By that logic, Hinduism is divine, more so than even the most generous definition of Judaism.

    "Even you, Mis Nagid, struggle with it 24/7."

    Struggle with it theologically? You're grossly mistaken.

    "Why can't you just drop it and go comment at other blogs?"

    Because the people who need help recovering from frumkeit are here.

    "It is therefore working on you too."

    You consider being an atheist having it "work on me too?" Interesting.

    "Why does it have such a hold on me, on you and half of humanity?"

    I'm doing my part to help break the spell. How about you?

    "I therefore believe that Sinai or some such experience happened."

    Total non-sequitur. There's no therefore.

  8. Mis-nagid
    IMHO I think its clear you really should go back to haunt GH website.
    this site isnt about challenging skeptics.
    its about teaching yiddishkeit.