The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (88b) tells that when Moshe went up to the heavens to receive the Torah, he did not, shall we say, have an easy time. Instead of having the “red carpet” rolled out for him and receiving a warm welcome, he received a fierce argument. The angels vehemently protested G-d’s decision to give the Torah to human beings. They argued that the Torah was a “Hemda Genuza” — a precious treasure that had been with G-d in the heavens ever since the time of creation. Why, they asked, should it be given to lowly humans? They insisted that its rightful place was in the heavens. In the end, of course, Moshe successfully resisted this challenge, and G-d gave us the Torah.
The very last time I was privileged to hear Hacham Ovadia Yosef ZTL speak, during a trip to Israel in the final year before his passing, he offered a beautiful explanation of this story.
There is a law in Halacha called “Bar Mesra,” which establishes that a person who sells real estate must offer the right of first refusal to his neighbor. Thus, for example, if a person is selling his home, before putting it on the market, he must offer the property to his neighbor. Only if the neighbor is not interested in purchasing the property, or if the neighbor is unwilling to pay the market price for the property, may the homeowner put the house up for sale. The reason for this Halacha is that the land has special value to the neighbor. He can, if he so desires, combine the two properties into one large property. Given the unique benefits that the property offers to the neighbor, the Sages enacted this law requiring a seller to offer his neighbor the right of first refusal.
On this basis, Hacham Ovadia explained the angels’ claim. Before G-d went ahead and “sold” the Torah to Beneh Yisrael, the angels insisted on exercising their right of first refusal. As they reside in the heavens, they felt entitled to lay claim to the Torah, and to prevent G-d from offering it to human beings far away on Earth.
But if this is the case, then why were the angels mistaken? If they had a legitimate Halachic argument for why the Torah should remain with them, why did they lose their case?
Hacham Ovadia answered that there is an important exception to the rule of “Bar Mesra.” Namely, if the seller’s son is interested in the property, then, according to the ruling of the Rif (Rabbi Yishak of Fez, Morocco, 1013-1103), the son must be given precedence, even over the neighbor. Meaning, if both the neighbor and the son want to purchase the property and are prepared to pay the market value, the son is given precedence.
This easily explains why the angels were wrong. Although the angels were the Torah’s “neighbors,” as they resided in the heavens, Beneh Yisrael are the Almighty’s children, as Moshe Rabbenu proclaims in the Book of Debarim (14:1), “You are the children of Hashem your G-d.” Therefore, we are given the right of the first refusal, so-to-speak, and we were given the Torah in spite of the angels’ opposition.
When we celebrate our receiving the Torah on Shabuot, we celebrate the fact that the Torah belongs to us, that we, as the Almighty’s children, are its rightful owners.
Adopted from the class of Rabbi Eli Mansour