The basic question that troubled many of the Sages was: Does the Holy and Blessed One, whose very heavens cannot contain Him, reduce Himself in size to the dimensions of this world? Bound up with this question is another matter that is no less profound: what is the nature of G-d's revelation? Is it verbal communication? Is it the revelation of G-d's will alone?
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh discussed this very question. They both asked: "How is it that the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is manifest from the highest heavens, spoke with Moses in a bush?" According to R' Yehoshua, there was no alteration in the Divine essence here. The Shekhina (visible glory of G-d) is always with Israel and the theophany at the burning bush was not a unique event. Rabbi Eleazar, on the other hand, taught that the revelation at the burning bush was an exceptional event, arguing that: "G-d humbled Himself and spoke from the burning bush" (cf. Midrash Hagadol on Exodus).
It was a problem that continued to occupy the Sages. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi pondered it also. What is the revelation of the Shekhina all about? "Face to face the L-rd spoke with you" (Deuteronomy 5:4) - how can the Divine face be on the same level as the human face? One of two things is assumed: either the higher partner has become humbled, or the lower partner has become elevated. Which is it? The Scripture tells us: "The L-rd came down upon Mount Sinai" (Exodus 19:20). From this, we learn that the higher partner humbled Himself.
In the Seder Eliyahu Rabbah we read: "He descended from the abode of His radiant glory, from the highest heavens." Rabbi Meir elaborated: "The mystery of how G-d revealed and the people comprehended when the Torah was given is this: The Divine Glory descended on the Mountain. There is nothing astonishing about this. Did not G-d Himself say, 'I will go down with you to Egypt'? (Genesis 46:4). Do not be misled by those sowers of confusion who weigh with their deceitful reason the words of Torah that emanate from our blessed Creator and can only be properly grasped from His mouth. All the rest of their words and arguments which are ostensibly aimed at exalting G-d, are thus all for nought. Of them the Psalm says: "Who invoke you for intrigue and lift You up falsely" (Psalm 139:20). What then was the purpose of building a Tabernacle and a Temple here on earth in the design of the heavenly chariot, if not to provide a dwelling place for Him below such as the one He had on high? We, the believers, truly believe that G-d's glory came down on Mount Sinai, for the Torah itself testifies to that fact, and the 'Testimony of the L-rd is trustworthy' (Psalm 19:8)."
Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai taught that no fewer than ten descents of the Shekhinah are mentioned in the Torah, ten separate occasions on which the Shekhinah was said to descend to earth. He also maintained that from first creation the Shekhinah was present on earth, as it says, '[Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the L-rd moving about in the garden' (Genesis 3:8). The descent of the Shekhinah at the dedication of the Tabernacle was another one of ten such occurrences in history. The Sages also teach us that the Torah itself belongs to the heavenly realms.
The notion that G-d humbled Himself by descending to earth was also articulated by Rav Sha'ul:
"Who, being in the form of G-d, thought it not robbery to be equal with G-d: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the tree" (Philippians 2:6-8).
The concept also pervades the Gospel of John and highlights the role of the Shekhinah, the visible presence of G-d:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d. he same was in the beginning with G-d . . . and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [lit. tabernacled] among us, (and we beheld his glory [the Shekhinah], the glory [the Shekhinah] as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:1; 14).
In Hebrews we read:
"G-d, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory [the Shekhinah] and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . ." (Hebrews 1:1-3).
The idea of Torah min hashamayim, Torah from Heaven, is not foreign to Judaism. One of the basic lessons of the first Mishneh in Sanhedrin chapter 10 is that whoever denies Torah from heaven has no share in the world to come, and this includes more than just the ten utterances [i.e. the Ten Commandments]. Rabbi Akiva consistently held the view that the entire Torah, with all its details and minutiae, was from heaven - that is, it was given in full at the revelation at Sinai.
In a Midrash on Deuteronomy 14:7 it says:
'The following, which bring up the cud or have hooves which are cleft through' - Was Moses an expert hunter, that he should know all these species? This is a refutation of those who say, the Torah is not from heaven (cf. Sifre Zuta to Numbers15:31).
The Talmud also addresses this idea of Torah from Heaven:
- Our rabbis taught: "He has spurned the word of the L-rd" refers to one who says there is no Torah from heaven. Another interpretation: It refers to the Epicurean.
- An alternate tradition: "He has spurned the word of the Lord" refers to one who says the Torah is not from heaven. Even one who says, "All the Torah is from heaven except for this one verse, which Moses said on his own," spurns the word of the L-rd.
- Rabbi Ishmael says: this refers to idolatry. We have the teaching of the school of Rabbi Ishmael: "He has spurned the word of the L-rd" refers to the first utterance of the Ten Commandments.
The Sages also likened the people in Israel who said there was no Torah from heaven to the fool in Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 who said in His heart there is no G-d.
And so, the concept of the possibility of G-d and His Torah descending from heaven to earth in physical form is not a concept that is foreign to normative Judaism. These were concepts with which people of the Second Temple period would have been very familiar. The ten utterances were eternal and not distinguished from G-d Himself. They were believed to be His very essence, and yet these eternal, divine words were engraved on stones that were hewn from the earth. In fact, there is a tradition which tells that when Moses smashed the first set of tablets at Mount Sinai that the words inscribed thereon ascended back into heaven.
Bearing all of this in mind, Y'shua's words in John 6 are profoundly powerful:
Then Y'shua said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. "For the bread of G-d is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." (John 6:32-33)
[Remember, man does not live on bread alone, but on every WORD that proceeds from His mouth. Bread is a symbol for Torah, spiritual food].
"Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. "I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world." (John 6:49-51)
Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" When Y'shua knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, "Does this offend you? "What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? (John 6:60-62)
Be sure to note carefully Shimon Kefa's conclusion after this 'hard teaching':
Then Y'shua said to the twelve, "Do you also want to go away?" But Simon Peter answered Him, "L-rd, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. "Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Messiah, the Son of the living G-d." (John 6:67-69)
Just a short time later, at the Feast of Tabernacles, Y'shua would declare:
Then Y'shua cried out, as He taught in the temple, saying, "You both know Me, and you know where I am from; and I have not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know. "But I know Him, for I am from Him, and He sent Me." (John 7:28).
He is the Torah from heaven and Y'shua Himself contends that to deny this truth, means they are not unlike idolators who have no share in the world to come or fools who say in their heart, "There is no G-d." By contrast, Peter concluded that Y'shua had the words of eternal life and was the promised Messiah.
Just as Hashem sent the manna to our forefathers in the wilderness to test us, to see whether or not we would believe in Him and obey Him, so too did He send the Messiah, the living Torah, the true manna that came down from heaven, to make the same determination.
Does He have the words of eternal life or do we want to leave too without thoughtfully considering His claims?