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Partnering with G-d

As we consider the events and miracles of Exodus, I would like us to think about the notion of partnering with G-d. In order to appreciate this age-old concept, I have modified and excerpted from an article by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of the U.K., the full text of which can be found here.    

Jewish mystics distinguish between two types of Divine-human encounter - it/aruta de-l’eylah and it/aruta deletata, respectively “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by G-d, the second by mankind. An “awakening from above” is usually spectacular and supernatural. An “awakening from below” obviously has no such grandeur.

Another significant difference is that, an “awakening from above” may change nature, but it does not, in and of itself, change human nature. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming; but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below”, by contrast, leaves a permanent mark. Because human beings have taken the initiative, something in them changes.

In other words, an awakening from above temporarily transforms the external world; an awakening from below permanently transforms our internal world. The first changes the universe; the second changes us.

An example of this can be illustrated by considering the impact of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea on the Israelites. Before the Red Sea, the Israelites were commanded to do nothing: “Stand still and you will see the deliverance G-d will bring you today.. G-d will fight for you; you need only be still.” (14:13-14).

It is therefore not surprising that within three days after the division of the Sea, one of the greatest of all miracles, the Israelites began complaining again (no water, no food).

However, after the Israelites had to directly confront the Amalekites in battle (albeit with a little help from above) they never again complained when facing conflict. The first was mainly the result of an “awakening from above”, the second was mainly the result of an “awakening from below.”

Another example can be found by comparing G-d’s revelation at Mount Sinai to His revelation at the Tabernacle. The Torah speaks about the two revelations of “G-d’s glory” in almost identical terms: “The glory of G-d settled on Mount Sinai” - “…and the glory of G-d filled the Tabernacle”. However, the revelation at Mount Sinai was momentary, while that of the tabernacle (which later morphed into the Temple) was permanent. Seemingly the reason for the difference is, the revelation at Sinai was an “awakening from above”. It was initiated by G-d alone. By contrast, the tabernacle involved human labor. The Israelites made it; they prepared the structured space the Divine presence would eventually fill.

Based on this approach we can better understand how it was that forty days after the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites made a Golden Calf. But, after constructing the sanctuary, they made no more idols. There is a huge difference in the impact between the things that are done for us and the things we have a share in doing ourselves. The former change us for a moment, the latter for a lifetime.

There was one other difference between the first tablets and the second. According to tradition, when Moses was given the first tablets, he was given only Torah shebikhtav, the “written Torah”. At the time of the second tablets, he was given Torah she-be’al peh, the Oral Torah as well. The Written is the word of G-d, with no human contribution. The Oral Torah is a partnership – the word of G-d in collaboration with man.

This helps us understand why it was only after the second tablets, not the first, that “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai ….he was unaware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with G-d” (34:29).

Receiving the first tablets, Moses was passive. Therefore, nothing in him changed. For the second, he was active. He had a share in the making. He carved the stone on which the words were to be engraved. That is why he became a different person. His face shone.

In Judaism, the natural is greater than the supernatural in the sense that an “awakening from below” is more powerful in transforming us, and longer-lasting in its effects, than is an “awakening from above.” That was why the second tablets survived intact while the first did not. Divine intervention changes nature, but it is human initiative – our approach to G-d – that changes us.