Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

Yakov Ben Behora

What is this human being doing here?

Human beings, capable of ascending to a level higher than that of angels, are worthy of enjoying the shelter of the Clouds of Glory, clouds which offer supernatural protection. Being under these clouds is like taking shelter "under God's wings."


Rabbi Chaim Katz

heshvan 5755
1. A Cloudy Issue
2. "What is this human being doing here?"
3. Two Levels in Honoring God
4. Feeding the Angels
5. Worthy of Clouds of Glory

Clouds of Glory
Rabbi Yishmael taught: In reward for three [hospitable acts on the part of Abraham], they (the Children of Israel) merited three [rewards in the desert]. In reward for "cottage cheese and milk" (Genesis 18:8), they merited manna; in reward for "He stood over them as they ate under the tree" (ibid.), they merited the pillar of cloud. In reward for "Let some water be brought" (ibid. 4), they merited a well of water.

In the above Baraitha, the sages are teaching us that Abraham's hospitality toward the three angels disguised as strangers made itself felt generations later. They focus on three separate points.
Cottage cheese and milk are food items. In return for Abraham's offering these to his guests, the Children of Israel merited the manna, also a form of food.

In return for offering the strangers water, the Children of Israel too were blessed with a constant water supply in the desert - the well. The second of the three points, though, is different. The Clouds of Glory were spiritual, a "pillar of cloud." True, the manna was also a unique spiritual phenomenon, yet, in essence, the purpose of this miraculous food was to nourish the Jewish people in the desert.

From a physical-material point of view, Miriam's well possessed supernatural powers, yet they were a side benefit, of secondary importance. The primary purpose of the well was to provide drinking water for the Children of Israel. The clouds, though, were different. They were completely spiritual in nature. The sages relate that the "mixed multitude" (Erevrav) which joined the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt did not reside under the Clouds of Glory. In order to be sheltered by these clouds, one had to himself be of supernatural makeup. Furthermore, the sages say that these clouds used to discard the wicked Israelites from their midst. True, the clouds possessed practical physical advantages as well. They guarded and protected the Children of Israel. Yet, such advantages were side benefits. The Clouds of Glory were principally spiritual-supernatural.

This, then, is one aspect of the above Baraitha which deserves attention.
Also worthy of note is the fact that the Children of Israel merited the presence of these Clouds of Glory by virtue of the fact that Abraham "stood over them as they ate under the tree." Standing over guests, ready to help them with whatever they might need, is not hospitality in the sense that providing food and drink is. Rather, it is an additional touch beyond the literal requirement of the law, an "adornment of the commandment" to receive guests hospitably.

Another question: In return for food and drink the Children of Israel merited - measure for measure - food and drink. Yet, in what sense do these Divine clouds represent a measure for measure reward for Abraham's standing over his gusts?

"What is this human being doing here?"
In order to provide answers to the questions we have posed here, let us consider the words of the Talmud (Shabbat 88):
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said also: When Moses ascended to heaven, the ministering angels said to the Almighty, "Master of the Universe, what is this human being doing here amongst us?"
"He has come to receive the Torah," was the divine answer.
"What!" they responded. "Are you about to bestow upon frail man that cherished treasure that has been with you for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the creation of the world? 'What is mortal man that You are mindful of him, and the son of earth that You thus visit him? Confer Your glory upon the heavens (Psalms 8:2-5).'"

The Almighty then called upon Moses to refute their objection, whereupon Moses pleaded as follows:
"Master of the Universe, I fear lest they consume me with the fiery breath of their mouths."
Thereupon, God told Moses to take hold of the throne of His Divine Majesty and answer them.
Moses then said to him: "Master of the Universe, what is written in the Torah that you are about to give me?"
"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 20:2), God replied.
Moses then said to the Angels, "Did you go down to Egypt and serve Pharaoh? Of what use can the Torah be to you? Now, what else is written?
Answer: "You shall not have any other Gods before me" (ibid. 20:3).
"Are you living among the nations who practice idolatry, such that you need this commandment?"

Moses continues to bring one example after another, driving the message through that the Torah is not for the angels.

When one reads this excerpt and considers the words of the angels at the outset, one is puzzled. Did they not anticipate Moses' claim? Were they not aware of the fact that these things are written in the Torah? And if they did know, what novel point was Moses making in his claim before them? What's more, why are the angels so protective when it comes to the Torah? Even if we assume that they themselves wish to enjoy the Torah, why should the angels object to sharing it with man?

The answer is that what we have here is a very fundamental debate. The angels are aware that if the Almighty gives the Torah to the Jewish people down below in the earthly realm, it is not just an issue of a few more people fulfilling the Torah. Rather, the Jewish people will become exclusive owners of the Torah. It was not given to us merely so that we might fulfill its commandments, rather, we become its "owners" in a sense. Torah is not just a book, a written law. It embodies a living oral tradition as well. Keeping the Torah implies, among other things, acting according to the dictates of human intellect and reason - we decide. In the words of R. Yehoshua in his famous debate with he R. Eliezer, "It (the Torah) is not in the heavens!" The moment the Torah descended to our world, it was no longer in the heavens. This is the significance of the Torah's being given to the People of Israel, and the angels, understanding this, opposed such a step.

Two Levels in Honoring God
There is another Midrash that calls for clarification (Shemot Rabba 28):
"'And Moses went up to God' ...At that moment the angels attempted to strike at Moses our Teacher. The Almighty made the features of Moses' face resemble those of Abraham our Father. Then He said to the angels, are you not ashamed of yourselves? Is not this the man in whose home you ate as guests."

They wanted to attack Moses, and we already understand why. Yet the continuation of the Midrash is not clear: "Is not this the man in whose home you ate as guests?" Indeed, we ate there, but how is this related to the issue at hand?

The Mishna (Avot) teaches that everything God created, he created for the sake of his own honor. Everything in existence, in both the sub-lunar and heavenly realms, was created for the purpose of bestowing honor upon the Almighty.
There are two principal ascending degrees in the publicizing of God's glory. We say in our prayers, "We will sanctify Your name on earth just as they sanctify Your name in heaven." We sanctify down below, and "they" sanctify up above. There is honor which God receives from below, by humankind, and there is honor which God receives from above, from the angels on high. The sages explain that that the angels stand in one place, stationary, because they face no struggles. They are static, neither advancing nor regressing. Honor bestowed by an angel is of the highest kind, and nothing can compare to it. When we say that "We will sanctify Your name on earth..." we mean that we will sanctify His name in the same manner that the angels do. The "above" realm is perfect because, there, everything is pure. There is no evil and no waste on high, for there is no evil inclination there. This is one type of honor.

Yet, there is another type of reverence for God. There is that honor which the Almighty desires receiving from all-too-human beings, imperfect and tainted man. God desires receiving praise from the very lowest of levels. Such honor calls for a serious and arduous struggle. This is a different and unique type of honor.

When the angels say to the Almighty, "Confer Your glory upon the heavens. What is mortal man that You are mindful of him?" They are in fact inquiring: Do You really intend to bestow your Torah upon corporeal man, stained by the filth of transgression. We deserve to be the sole proprietors of the Torah for we are sinless. To this Moses responds: "Did you go down to Egypt?" There is nothing impressive about being pure when one resides on high. The entire objective of Torah is transition - struggling and prevailing. The real test lies in leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah. "Did you serve Pharaoh?" To escape Pharaoh's tutelage and accept the yoke of heaven at Mount Sinai after having fallen to the lowest level of impurity is a near impossible task. Yet we did it. The main objective of the Torah is to rise up from the most mundane level and to reach the highest of heights. "From the deepest of pits to the highest of mountains," in the words of the sages. Such an objective is irrelevant to angelic existence, for they are static by nature. It was in this manner that Moses answered Pharaoh.

Feeding the Angels
This, though, is not enough. The Midrash on Parashat VaYera asks: "By virtue of what did the Children of Israel receive manna in the wilderness? - By virtue of Abraham's saying to Sarah: 'Knead [the flour] and make rolls!'" (Genesis 18:6). Careful examination of the wording of the Midrash reveals that special emphasis is being placed upon the act of preparation; the Midrash does not answer, "By virtue of Sarah's serving them the rolls." This observation underscores the importance of human effort and preparation - not the result.

The sages of the Talmud discuss the meaning of the verse, "The bread of Abirim did man eat" (Psalm 78:25). According to a plane understanding of this verse, we are being taught that God fed the Children of Israel bread while they were in the wilderness. R. Akiva and R. Yishmael disagreed over the meaning of the expression "bread of Abirim." According to R. Akiva it is bread that the ministering angels eat, for the ministering angels are also called "Abirim."

R. Yishmael, though, says: "Go tell Rabbi Akiva that he is mistaken - for do angels eat bread? Behold it is written [regarding Moses when he went up to receive the Torah] (Deuteronomy 9:9): 'I did not eat food, neither did I drink water'" He therefore explains that bread of Abirim is bread which is completely absorbed by the organs ("Ebarim") of the body, leaving no refuse. At any rate, according to both opinions, the manna was not your ordinary bread; it was a supernatural kind of bread.
Abraham said to Sarah: "Knead [the flour] and make rolls!" and, by virtue of this act, the Children of Israel merited manna. Sarah fed the angels with these rolls. This was no easy task, for angels need supernatural "Abirim bread." Hence, the Israelites merited this same spiritual bread in the wilderness.

Worthy of Clouds of Glory
Yet, one hears something even more profound here. Let us bring another Midrash in order to explain.
Initially the Torah tells us, "He saw three strangers (i.e., angels in disguise) standing a short distance him from (lit., "above him"). The peculiar wording of the verse indicates that the angels were on a higher level than Abraham. Yet, later, it is written, "and he stood over them..." The sages of the Midrash explain in the following manner: "Before holding out their hands, they were above him; after holding out their hands, he was above them." This is what we've been saying. So long as he had not served them, they stood over him. The angels are above man, greater then him, as the verse says, "What is mortal man that You are mindful of him, and the son of earth that You thus visit him? Confer Your glory upon the heavens." Yet, after Abraham serves his guests, he is greater than they. What had he done in the meantime? He had asked of Sarah to "knead [the flour] and make rolls!" - that very same act by virtue of which the Children of Israel merited manna in the wilderness, an act that can be performed by human beings alone.

Let us now return to the Midrash in the book of Exodus. When the ministering angels attempted to assault Moses so that he not receive the Torah, the Almighty made the features of Moses' face resemble those of Abraham our Father. Then He said to the angels, "Are you not ashamed of yourselves? Is not this the man in whose home you ate as guests." God was insinuating, "Are you in fact superior to him? Have you forgotten that you descended to earth and enjoyed his hospitality? Just what sort of bread do angels eat? - Abirim bread. And who prepared this bread for you? - Abraham and Sarah."

The very same person toward whom the words "What is mortal man that You are mindful of him" were directed, is capable of preparing food fit for angels.
Earlier we asked: Where is the measure for measure payment in the Clouds of Glory. Now we can provide an answer. Human beings who are capable of ascending to a level higher than that of angels are, in turn, worthy of enjoying the shelter of the Clouds of Glory, clouds which offer supernatural protection. Being under these clouds is like taking shelter "under God's own wings."
Some biblical verses quoted in this article were taken from R. Aryeh Kaplan's "The Living Torah."
In translating sections of the Talmud, reference was made to "Legends of the Talmud," Rabbi S. H. Glick

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