Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Knowing God (Ki Tissa)

The Torah Text

Ki Tissa begins with God giving Moses instructions atop Mount Sinai. Exodus 31:18 reads, “When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.”

Some have pointed out that God’s speech and gift of the tablets hardly took forty days and forty nights, prompting the question, What else did Moses do up on that mountaintop?

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

ויתן. ריקי מוח יתמהו מה עשה משה בהר ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה. ולא ידעו אם יעמוד שם עם השם כמספר הזה. וכפל כפלו שנים. לא יוכל לדעת חלק מאלף ממעשי השם ודרכיו וסוד כל המצות שצוהו כי יחשבו כי המעשה העיקר. ואיננו רק הלבב והמעשה והלבב והלשון להרגיל. וכן כתוב בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו וקדמונינו אמרו רחמנא לבא בעי. ושרש כל המצות עד שיאהב את השם בכל נפשו וידבק בו וזה לא יהיה שלם אם לא יכיר מעשי השם בעליונים ובשפלים וידע דרכיו. וככה אמר הנביא כי אם בזאת יתהלל המתהלל השכל וידוע אותי. אז יתברר לו כי השם עושה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ ולא יוכל לדעת השם אם לא ידע נפשו ונשמתו וגופו. כי כל מי שלא ידע מהות נפשו חכמת מה לו. והנה משה שהתנבא ארבעים שנה במדבר ועמד בסודות רבות שגלה לו השם בהר סיני והוא אמר לפני מותו אתה החלות להראות את עבדך את גדלך והנה
עתה החל והראה לו גדולת השם. וזהו אמת כי לגדולתו אין חקר

AND GOD GAVE. Empty heads ask, “What did Moses do on the mount for forty days and forty nights?” They do not know that if Moses spent this number and double its double in years with God, he would barely know one part of a thousand of God’s work and ways and the secret of all the precepts which God commanded him. They think that deeds are most important. This is not so. What is important is heart together with deed. Heart and tongue train a person [to observe the commandments]]. We thus read, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it (Deuteronomy 30:14). Our ancients said, “God desires the heart” (B. Sanhedrin 6b).

Loving God and cleaving to the Lord with all of one’s soul is the basis of the commandments. This cannot be completely accomplished if a person does not know the ways of the Lord and is not acquainted with God’s work in the upper and lower worlds. The prophet thus states, But let those who glory, glory in this: That they understand and know Me (Jeremiah 9:23). It will then become clear to a person that God exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness in the earth (ibid.).

A person cannot know God if they do not know their own spirit, soul, and body. For of what use is a person’s wisdom to them if they do not know the makeup of their soul?

Now Moses, who prophesied in the desert for forty years and was party to many secrets which God revealed to him on Mount Sinai, said before his death, O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness (Deuteronomy 3:24). Thus it was only then that Moses began to understand God’s greatness and that the Lord’s greatness was shown to him. This is truth, for God’s greatness is unsearchable (Psalms 145:3).

Reflections for the Path

I find this teaching a beautiful meditation on the spiritual life. Even Moses, who qualifies as one of the sages of human history who gained an elevated awareness of the divine, felt he had barely begun to understand by the time he reached the end of his life. We are here to learn – but not necessarily to learn everything.

Additionally, we are here to learn – and we will know that we are learning God, so to speak, when we realize the essential place of mercy, justice, and righteousness in our world. If our understanding of our God makes us meaner and more selfish, it isn’t God we are understanding.

Finally, I appreciate that Abraham ibn Ezra emphasizes that we cannot really begin to know the divine and transcendent without first beginning to know our own minds and bodies. Self-awareness is a key to greater spiritual growth and ethical action.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.