January 24th-25th, 2003
22 Shevat, 5763
NOTE: I am happy to say that I arrived back, Baruch
Hashem, from a wonderful (and exhausting) trip to Israel late on Thursday
night. In the next few weeks, I hope to write about some of the things I
experienced there. Now, however, I can think of little but SLEEP…
Below is a revised version of a Savannah Kollel Insights sheet from the
archives. Good Shabbos!
THE SPECTACLE OF SINAI
"On the third day when it was morning, there was
thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of
the shofar was very powerful, and the entire people that was in the camp
shuddered...All of Mount Sinai was smoking because Hashem had descended
upon it in the fire; its smoke ascended like the smoke of the furnace, and
the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly." (Chapter 19: 16, 18; Artscroll
From the Torah's account, we learn that the Revelation at Mt. Sinai was a
pretty darn frightening affair: fire and smoke rising, the earth quaking,
and the blast of a shofar waxing louder and louder.
The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) goes even further in telling of the
extraordinary nature of the Revelation at Sinai. It explains that when the
Torah writes (a bit later in the parsha), "The entire people saw the
thunder...," it is meant to be taken quite literally! At Mt. Sinai, the
Jews saw what was usually heard; they had what is termed a "synesthetic"
experience. (No, they weren’t dropping some pre-historic acid. The Lord
G-d Himself is the ultimate mind-expander!)
But wait, the excitement and wonder of Sinai don’t stop there either. In
the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), Moshe tells the Jewish people, "You
have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is the G-d! There is none
beside Him." (4, 35) Rashi once more quotes a rabbinic teaching to explain
what it means that the Jews were "shown in order to know." "When the Holy
One, Blessed be He, gave the Torah, He opened for them the seven heavens;
and just as He split the upper [regions], so He split the lower, and they
saw that He was alone."
In other words, the Children of Israel were shown at Sinai a glimpse of
the inner mechanism of the entire universe--from subatomic particles to
black holes and beyond, presumably. The curtain was drawn back for an
instant, so that the Jewish people would unmistakably perceive and know
that Hashem, the One and only G-d, is the sole Ruler of the entirety of
this vast Creation!
With due respect to Lord of the Rings (and Harry Potter), then, we must
conclude that Hashem Himself (as displayed in this very parsha of Yisro)
takes the all-time Oscar for special effects.
Why did the giving of the Torah have to be such a production?
Consider. If each of the roughly three million individuals present had
merely heard a soft voice whispering in his or her ear, "This is your
Creator talking," wouldn’t that have been enough of an attention grabber?
Even more so if it had been followed, say, by a choice embarrassing detail
from his or her life that ONLY the Master of the World could have known! I
mean, did they (or we) really need this whole spectacle of fire and smoke
and all the rest?
I'm sure there are many different answers to this question. I will mention
two that I came across.
Rabbi Elie Munk, zt'l, in The Call of the Torah, writes that we needed to
see Hashem's absolute control over all elements of Creation so that we
could be sure of two things. First, no other force or presumed "divinity"
could hold a candle to the G-d of Israel, Who showed Himself at Sinai to
be absolute master of the universe. Second (and this is a more subtle
point), "…no other truth could exist besides His." In short, Hashem needed
to "strut His stuff" in order to impress upon the Jews that there is no
reality besides Him (in the heavens above, or on the earth below), and no
other absolute truth besides the eternal Torah (which represents His
A heavenly whisper just would not have been enough to convey all this. But
the mind-blowing prophetic experience of Sinai, in all its supernatural
splendor, was enough.
A more extended answer to our question is offered by Rabbi Yerucham
Levovitz, zt'l, great 20th century Torah thinker and educator, in Da'as
Chochmah U'Mussar (Volume 5, 163-166). He explains that the fire and smoke
at Sinai were not meant to be merely a stirring backdrop to the 10
Commandments, or even a proof of Hashem's Sovereignty--which had anyway
been clearly demonstrated through the 10 plagues and the splitting of the
Rather, the supernatural phenomena at Sinai illustrated the quintessential
nature of Torah itself! Every single word of Torah shakes all of Creation
with its awesome spiritual power, and opens the "seven heavens" to reveal
to the person who learns it sincerely that There is none beside Him. At
the Red Sea, it is true that the Children of Israel experienced a high
level of prophecy: a common serving maid saw more than Ezekiel the
prophet, our Sages tell us. And yet, it did not begin to approach the
loftiness of Sinai, where we saw the King Himself, as it were.
This is the uniqueness of Torah study, which enables us to "see the King,"
and through which we can cling to Him to a greater extent than through any
other experience (or mitzvah) on this earth.
In other words, Hashem was simply (!) teaching Torah--and its nature--to
the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai. There had to be fire and smoke, awe and
trembling--for that is the spiritual essence of Torah, which is termed an
aish dos (a fiery law). Indeed, the Talmud tells of a great sage whose
Torah learning would create actual flames around him, and another whose
study had the power to sizzle birds flying overhead. (Gosh, if I could do
that, those Hebrew school kids might start to pay attention.)
Rabbi Levovitz concludes by quoting the teaching from Ethics of the
Fathers: "If there isn't wisdom, there isn't awe [of G-d], and if there
isn't awe, there isn't wisdom." They are meant to go together, Torah and
yirah (awe)…or, more precisely, they are one and the same.
In its purest form, Torah study should always recapture (or recreate) some
of the awe of Sinai.
Even if you or I will never sizzle birds, we can all at least try to study
Torah with more passion, more love, and more awe…so that its wisdom (and
purifying essence) can enter more deeply into our lives and our souls.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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