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Man beats God

When humans do as the biblical Moses did, audacious in his wrestling the Torah from the Divine for the sake of mankind

For a brief period when I was a teenager, the definition of Jewish pride was the professional wrestler Goldberg. After all, in the ’80s, even goyim changed their names to wrestle, and Jews changed their names just to tell jokes. But a new era was dawning, and amidst all the faux reality and showmanship, it was nice to have some honesty.

Truth be told, the Jewish wrestling tradition goes back to The Beginning, the Book of Genesis. The very name Israel is given to Jacob, “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have prevailed” (32:28). And in this case, the men’s division was late to the game, since Jacob’s beloved Rachel says a decade before, “With wrestlings of God I have wrestled with my sister, yea, I have prevailed” (30:8), giving the name Naphtali — My Wrestling.

Nevertheless, these examples seem a bit high-minded. Rachel and her sister Leah grapple with God metaphorically, and Jacob’s battle is with an angel (as Hosea 12:5 states) in the form of a man. The Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5) presents a much more literal grappling with God, explaining how it was that the First Tablets, with the Ten Commandments on them, came to be shattered by Moses.

You did well to shatter them” — Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: “The tablets were six handbreadths long and three wide. Moses grasped two handbreadths’ worth and the Holy One grasped two handbreadths’ worth and there were two handbreadths left in the middle. Once Israel did what they did, the Holy One tried to snatch them away from Moses, but Moses was stronger and snatched them from God. This is the meaning of the biblical praise at the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 34:12), ‘and all his strong arm’ — Let there be peace upon him whose arm was stronger than mine!”

According to Rabbi Jonathan, there is a literal tug-of-war over the Torah, and Moses beats God. (Doubtless if he were around today, this rabbi would have his ordination revoked for such heresy.) So what is Moses’ plan here? Does he hope to abscond to a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Heaven? Is he going to upload the Tablets and make them open-source? Is he going to mass-produce generic versions of the Commandments?

No, Moses just wants to shatter them. Why? Because Tablets shattered by human hands can be replaced by human hands, as indeed happens shortly. On the other hand, if God snatches the Tablets back and takes them back to Heaven, who knows whether the Torah will ever return to man?

Indeed, it seems that by snatching the Tablets back, God is giving Moses the opportunity to walk away: no harm, no foul. After all, the Israelites, dancing around the Golden Calf at the time, are presumably not ready for the Torah’s challenges. So why not just let God take His magnum opus back? Perhaps a later generation will be prepared for this awesome opportunity.

But Moses passes the test. He does not relent; he wrestles with God and pulls the Tablets from His grip. Audacious, awe-inspiring — and acclaimed by God Himself, in the very last verse of that very Torah.

And herein lies the contradiction of this weekend, opening the unique Jewish hybrid of Ramadan and Lent known as The Three Weeks, leading up to Tisha b’Av. This period is inaugurated by the 17th of Tammuz, but this year, we will not fast on that date, because it falls out tomorrow, on Shabbat. Before we fast on Sunday and remember the tragedy of the Tablets being broken, we have a day to savor Moses’ audacity and the hope it grants us.

What must Moses have felt in his Tablet tug-of-war, stepping into the ring with God Himself? This is what I could not stop thinking about at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance yesterday.

(Credit: Y. Bloch, Liberty Bell Park, Jerusalem, 21 July 2016)

 We feel God tugging, trying to snatch away the Torah, as it were. We may imagine the divine words: “You’re not ready for this! Your society is riven by discord and hate. The words of this Torah are used as a crown to magnify one group and a spade to bury another! It belongs in Heaven, until you all are worthy.”

But we must not give up. We must hold on for dear life, snatching the Torah back, keeping it down on earth as a living document. And if we shatter it, we can mend it. We’ve been doing that for more than 3,000 years. And we will continue, with trepidation, but tenacity, until we hear those words from God Himself: “You did well to shatter them.”

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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