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Parashat Yitro 5774 — 01/15/2014

Parashat Yitro 5774 — 01/15/2014

They stood at the foot of [lit. “underneath”] the mountain. (Shemos 19:17)

Our Sages tell us: “This teaches us that [Hashem] suspended the mountain over their heads like a barrel and said to them, “If you will accept the Torah, good. if not, your burial place will be there” (Shabbos 88a).

   This ultimatum was given because the world’s continued existence depends on Torah, as the prophet says, Were it not for My Covenant, day and night, I would not have set into motion the laws of the heavens and the earth (Yirmiyahu 33:25). If the Jews would not agree to accept the Torah, the whole world would be destroyed and all would be buried underneath its ruins – and not just those who stood beneath the mountain suspended over their heads. This is why the Almighty did not tell the nation, ‘And if not, your burial place will be here (Po)’ No, the Almighty said, “Your burial place will be there (Sham)” – “any place you are.”  On the other hand, if the Jews would accept the Torah, it would keep the entire world in existence.’. (Chafetz Chaim)

Our tradition views Torah as the “blueprint of creation.”  “Gd looked into the Torah and created the world.”  This is difficult enough to understand by itself, but even taking it as a given, why does the existence of the world depend on our acceptance of the Torah?  One would think that the existence of the world is an objective fact, and that its structure somehow reflects the structure of Torah, as we have discussed in prior years.  On the other hand, our acceptance of Torah is a subjective thing, one would think – it has to do with our affirming our belief in certain principles and our commitment to living our lives in accordance with the rules specified in Torah.  If we didn’t affirm that belief, or make that commitment, why would Gd return the world to Tohu vaVohu?  After all, the world existed for almost 2500 years before Gd even offered us the Torah!  What difference does it make what we think anyway?!

This Midrash is obviously very deep and I don’t pretend to be able to understand it, let alone explain it.  But I would like to suggest some avenues of approach that I think may be useful.  There is another famous Rabbinic dictum, “Torah, Israel and the Holy One, blessed is He, are One.”  Now we can see how Gd and His Torah could be unified, at least on the transcendental level, as both are eternal and immutable.  But what about Israel?  Surely this statement can’t be referring to the people of Israel, warts and all, as we now find ourselves!  Like everything else though, there is a transcendental level of the Jewish people, which our tradition calls K’nesset Yisrael, the Community of Israel.

Now if Gd’s Unity is unlike the unities we know of in the realm of diversity, which are unities made up of parts, then saying that “Gd, Torah and Israel are One” does not mean that there is some unity that is composed of these three parts.  Rather I think that these three are, for lack of a better term, three aspects of the one Unity that is Gd.  The fact that we identify three aspects within the Unity, I believe, indicates that there is a sort of virtual relationship between them.  What is that relationship?  Perhaps we can glean an understanding by looking at the relationship between Gd, Torah and the actual people of Israel who stood at Mt. Sinai.  At Mt. Sinai Gd communicated with Israel – Gd was the Subject, or Speaker and Israel was the object, or listener.  The Torah was the link between them.

Based on this formulation, we can readily understand why, if Israel refused to accept the Torah at Mt. Sinai it would have been a disaster of cosmic proportions.  “Israel accepting Torah,” in this view, means nothing less than maintaining the internal, virtual structure of the infinite!  Now I think that the relationship between Gd, Torah and Knesset Yisrael, being wholly within the infinite, is beyond the possibility of disruption, just as the seabed is beyond the possibility of disruption by the waves on the surface.  Nonetheless, on the level of manifestation, where we live and make choices, it is possible that wrong choices will be made.  Apparently, even at Mt. Sinai, Gd felt it necessary to forestall the possibility of a wrong choice.  Maintaining the harmony of the relationship between Gd, Torah and Israel, on all levels, from the transcendent where it is pure virtual relationship, through the most manifest levels of flesh-and-blood human beings plowing and planting, is too important to be left to chance.  Hence Gd, as it were, “coerced” Israel into accepting the Torah.

Here is another angle.  Gd gave all of us free will.  We can act according to the dictates of Torah, which is to say according to Gd’s Will, or otherwise.  When we do act in accordance with Gd’s Will, we draw closer to Gd, and we begin to sense more and more the divinity in all things.  In a way then, Torah has become a means to make the relationship with Gd somewhat more of a two-way street, a way we have to communicate back to Gd our love and devotion.  But this requires that we, each one of us, accept Torah at every moment, as our directions for living our lives.  We see the profound significance of each and every thought, utterance and action – our behavior can create or damage the relationship between Gd and Israel, which is the most fundamental relationship in creation!

We are privileged to be the people Gd chose to actualize the hidden, virtual reality that exists, so to speak, within Gd.  Along with that privilege comes the responsibility to live our lives in a way that really does the job we were assigned to do.  We need to strive with all our might to fulfill that responsibility.  Otherwise, there’s that mountain hanging there…

While we are on the subject of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, I came across the following statements in tractate Yoma that give some idea of the awesome nature of the Revelation.

At the very end of folio 4a and continuing onto the verso side, we read:

It was taught: Moshe ascended into a cloud and was covered by a cloud and was sanctified in a cloud, in order to receive the Torah for Israel in sanctity.  As it is stated: And the glory of fHashem rested upon Mt. Sinai [and the cloud covered him (Moses) for six days]. … R. Natan says, the verse only comes to purge the food and drink from [Moses’] intestines to make him like the minnistering angels.

Apparently there was some change in the actual structure of Moshe Rabbeinu’s body, some refinement to the point where it was almost non-material, or at least not in need of material sustenance.  This presumably prepared him to receive the Torah from Gd directly much more in its purity than anyone who still inhabited a “regular” body will ever be able to achieve.  I might note that there are similar stories in other traditions.

Further down on Yoma 4b:

They challenged: [it could have said] kol … lo, but it says kol elav.  Moses heard the Voice and all of Israel did not hear the Voice. [But elsewhere it says everyone heard it.]  This is not a difficulty – this verse refers to Mt. Sinai, while that verse refers to the Tent of Meeting.  And if you prefer say, there is no difficulty, This verse refers to calling while that verse refers to speaking.

Artscroll, (4b3, note  19) comments:

The verse in Numbers refers to the Mishkan, as the beginning of that verse reads: And when Moses arrived at the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the Voice etc.  Thus, the Gemara answers that from the time that the Mishkan was constructed an onward, at which point Gd began speaking to Moses from atop the Cover that was upon the Ark, the Voice was heard only by Moses and not by the rest of the Jewish nation.  At Sinai, however, it was heard by everyone (Rashi).

Apparently, when Gd chooses to speak with the people “out in the open” so to speak, then His Voice is accessible to all.  Once the channels of communication are more defined, bounded (e.g. “from within the Tent of Meeting”) then it takes a Moshe Rabbeinu to hear and respond appropriately.  Maybe the Voice is more powerful when it is flowing in a specific channel?

Shemoneh Esrei

Cause the shoot of David to sprout

And raise his glory through Your salvation,

For we hope for Your Salvation continually.

Blessed are You Hashem, Who makes the glory of salvation sprout.

Ya’aros D’vash writes: There is no need for lengthy commentary on these (this one and the one prior to it) b’rachot.  Suffice it to say that we must pray passionately to Gd for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of the Dvaidic dynasty, which represent the ideal of human perfection.

The offspring of the Davidic dynasty will of course be Mashiach, who will create a world where the pure spiritual bliss of the transcendent will be fully integrated into the material world.  It is one of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith (#12) that we believe that such a person will in fact come, and we are commanded to expect that he will come at any time.  Our Rabbis tell us that when we get to our personal day of judgment, one of the questions we will be asked will be, “Did you yearn for the Redemption?”

Now in an impoverished ghetto it’s easy to yearn for redemption!  In our affluent society, not so much.  We get smug and complacent and not only do we forget that we’re in both physical and spiritual exile from our “home,” we sometimes forget even that we are not the paragons of perfection we sometimes like to believe we are.  And as a contemporary poet wrote, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”  Yet the truth is, we personally and the affluent society we live in can all stand some serious improvement.  Fracking, GMOs, political corruption, inadequate or exhorbitantly expensive health care, on the social level.  Bad language, bad behavior, senseless hatred on the individual level.  We all have plenty of Redemption to yearn for!

This b’rachah goes along with the previous one, for Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Davidic monarchy (and therefore Mashiach) are all intertwined.  Indeed, I read that some among the Sephardim actually count these two b’rachot as one and thereby restore Shemoneh Esrei to its original meaning of 18.  Be that as it may, the two b’rachot clearly are related and refer to the Messianic Age, when Jerusalem, the Temple and the Davidic dynasty will all be restored to their pristine glory, forever.

Why is the Davidic dynasty significant?  There are probably thousands of reasons.  One that always resonates with me is that King David was a master of t’shuvah.  He was a great man, a great leader, a great poet and musician – a real Renaissance man 2000 years before the Renaissance.  But when he failed, he also had great failures.  The most obvious one was the incident with Bat-Sheva, which missed being full-fledged adultery by a whisker of a technicality.  When confronted by Nathan the prophet he humbly said, “I have sinned.”  David was a king who knew Who the real King was, and is.  King David was honest enough to recognize when he had strayed, and was strong enough to pull himself back onto the right path.  When we pray that Mashiach should come soon, we pray that these qualities of humility, honesty and strength – the components of personal integrity, should flourish in each one of us and in our society.