Who wants it more?
By: Rabbi Dovid Samuels
In his famous letter to the Jews of Yemen, guiding them how to remain steadfast and true to authentic Judaism, the Rambam reminds them of the obligation to always remember the event of the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. He also instructed them to raise their children with the knowledge of this great event, and to relate to all communities its greatness and importance. To somewhat fulfil this charge of the Rambam, and the Torah itself, let us study some aspects of this wonderful event from the teachings of Chazal and our commentators. How special this moment was, not only for the Jewish people, and the world, but for Hashem Himself. When we see how much desire there was in the build-up to it, we can feel the same enthusiasm ourselves for the chag of Shavuos which allows us to re-receive the Torah every year.
The slavery in Egypt served as a purification process for the Jewish people to be on the level to receive the Torah. While the Jews were suffering, Yisro [Moshe’s father-in-law] was in his home, in peace, and it was for this reason that he was not present at Matan Torah. Only those who had suffered were privy to this epic event. As soon as we left Egypt, we set our feet towards the mountain where we would serve Hashem. Without a thought of what we would eat on the way, or how we would be protected in a barren wasteland, we all showed complete faith in Hashem. With Egypt completely decimated of its inhabitants, there might have been a temptation to turn back and re-establish our own kingdom on its fertile and lucrative land. But no promise of earthly wealth could lure us away from our sole focus of meriting the Torah.
Wait a minute
As we left, Hashem protected us with clouds of glory, and we were desperate to reach our destination. But why did it take so long? Hashem had performed miracles in the past where vast distances were covered in a fraction of the time. It is true that in Egypt we slaved away in hard and brutal labour and most of our bodies were injured and maimed by the grotesque treatment. Certainly it was not fitting at such a spectacular event for the main participants to be broken and disfigured. But even this, Hashem could cure immediately. And this is, in fact, what He did just before we received the Torah. So, why the delay? Why couldn’t we receive the Torah immediately?
The answer is that we weren’t spiritually ready. Egypt was a pit of immorality and a spiritual vacuum. To climb up out of the 49th level of impurity and arrive at the zenith of holiness took time and hard work on our part. Only after seven weeks could we reach the lofty level of receiving the Torah. But why couldn’t we reach Har Sinai immediately, and just camp there while we prepare ourselves spiritually? The answer to this is because of the great desire that Hashem had for this event. Like a bride and groom at the chuppah, any delay at that point would be too great to bear. So too, Hashem was showing us that we were becoming His bride, and any delay at the chuppah (Har Sinai) would be too hard to handle. So we continued journeing, until the time was right.
But as we waited, we grew somewhat impatient. Since we were rescued from Egypt, we thirsted for this moment, and the wait was very difficult for us, so we started counting the days. Day one, day two. To this day, we also count seven weeks from the Exodus until the big day of Matan Torah. The men were counting, the women were counting, Moshe Rabbeinu was anxiously waiting, and when the month of Sivan finally came, even Hashem said, “The month that I have been longing for has arrived!”
But not only were the Jewish people and Hashem anxious for this moment; from the time the world was created Hashem made a condition with the entire creation that the existence of everything is dependent on the Jews receiving the Torah. Until that moment, the life of everything was resting in the balance. If the Jews were not up for the task, then the whole system would be reverted back to void and nothingness. The world was created for one thing: Jews receiving the Torah! And this would be the most joyous day – when everything finally has a purpose.
This great moment brought out emotions not only in man, but even in the heavens and the earth. It is the essential desire of everything in creation to become close to its Creator. But despite having been created at the same time, the heavens occupied a ‘closer’ position than the earth. Since the beginning of time, earth had personally felt this distance and envied the heavens. So too, when the upper waters were split from the lower waters, the lower waters mourned their inferior position. But at this great and auspicious moment, Hashem showed earth that He, indeed, would reside in the lower realms, as the Jews fulfil His will on earth, and build a palace in which He could reside. The Heavens felt a degree of pain that the holy Torah was taken from them and given over to those on earth, and the earth experienced an unprecedented ecstasy as it received the most powerful tool to come close to Hashem.
On our way to Har Sinai, the Jews experienced disagreements and quarrelling, but as soon as we reached our destination, we experienced absolute unity. Like at a wedding, where the joy blurs any disparities and overpowers any disputes, the euphoria at this moment erased any differences amongst the Jewish people. We were all unified in our sole desire to receive the Torah of Hashem, and nothing could get in the way of that.
A Man among Angels
Upon our arrival at Har Sinai, a cloud enveloped the mountain, concealing the Divine presence. The next day, Moshe Rabbeinu did what no one before or after has ever been allowed to do: he entered the realm of the heavens. To allow us some idea of what happened next, Chazal provide a wonderous description. A cloud wrapped around Moshe and carried him upwards. As he rose, he encountered an angel who questioned how an earthling could be rising to the heavens. He answered: “I have come to receive the Torah for the Jews!” Upon uttering the holy name of Hashem, taught to him at the burning bush, the angel departed from him, allowing him free passage. His next encounter was with an even mightier angel, who let out two streaks of fire as it spoke. At this point, Hashem intervened and personally rebuked the angel. The angel responded that he was unaware that Moshe was traveling with the permission of Hashem, and he walked in front of Moshe like a student escorting his teacher.
They reached another angel, even greater, who resides close to the inner chamber of Hashem. He is the angel who fashions crowns for Hashem out of the prayers of the Jewish people. Moshe’s accompanying angel had to depart at this point, for he was not allowed to travel any higher, due to the presence of this mightier angel. Moshe cried to Hashem for help, and He answered him, aiding Moshe in passing beyond the angel. This continued, with Hashem helping Moshe past myriad angels who threatened him, and Moshe saw what absolute power and might existed in the heavenly realms, all threatening to consume him, but all totally subservient to Hashem, the King.
Moshe had to defend himself against the angels who claimed that the Torah should remain in its pristine form in the heavens, and not suffer the degradation of being handed over to those on earth. After Hashem allowed Moshe to hold onto His holy throne, Moshe responded to their claims, and they were shown that even though the Jewish people were human beings, this event would transform them into something greater than angels. Through the Torah we could elevate ourselves to the point of holiness where we can hold onto Hashem’s throne while still walking on earth like men; something the angels could not do. The entire kingdom of heaven moved aside for this great and spectacular moment of Matan Torah.
The time had arrived, but there was yet another concern. If the Jews are given the Torah, there would be jealousy amongst the nations of the world. So Hashem pre-empted their claims against our legitimacy and offered the Torah to each one of them. They all asked, “What’s written in it?” and when they were told certain mitzvahs, they refused the offer. “Do not kill”, “do not steal”, every nation saw a clause in the Torah with which they could not comply. Hashem showed each nation the mitzvah which would be hardest for them. By doing this, Hashem was assuring us that there is nothing in the Torah which is too hard for a Jew to fulfil.
How, then, can we understand Hashem threatening us to receive the Torah by holding the mountain over our heads? Why didn’t he do the same for the other nations. The answer to this is due to the intrinsic nature of the Jewish people. Forcing someone to do something is only worth anything if the person wants to do it innately. If not, the duress will compromise the legitimacy of the action, rendering it void. By forcing us to accept, Hashem showed us the purity of our deep desire to do the Will of our Creator; a special gift handed down to us from our forefathers. The other nations had no such inheritance, so a forced acceptance would have been worthless.
In preparing the people for this momentous moment, Moshe Rabbeinu feared that their might be those amongst us who might also back out at the last moment from fear, so he called to the elders. They surely would accept the task willingly, and then they could convince their family members and friends to follow suit. But we all understood Moshe’s concern, and we refused to give the elders any time to answer independently of the rest of the people. Instead, we all proclaimed, as one, “Na’aseh v’nishma!” – “We will do, and we will listen!” We knew how perfect the Will of Hashem was, and we pledged to fulfil every detail of the Torah, before even knowing what it entailed.
The celebration took place, and the world had reached a new era. When we see how precious this event was for the Jewish people, the entire world, and for Hashem Himself, we realise how truly privileged we are to have the fruits of this great occasion – the Holy Torah, the symbol of love between Hashem and His chosen people – with us to this day, for us to treasure; to fulfil, learn, safeguard, and hand this holy gift over to our children.
- Devorim 4:9-10 ↑