…or can I?
Rabbi Dovid Samuels
“The entire world was created for this moment, when a mere mortal, flesh and blood, could create an atmosphere of G-dliness in the lowly physical world.”
“Hashem knew that there would come a time where the Jewish people found themselves in a situation where the world was telling us, ‘You can’t!’”
There’s a famous fable about a bunch of frogs that fell into a deep pit. With their friends hopping about outside the pit, those inside desperately tried to jump out, but the walls were so high! One by one, each frog had a turn jumping, and when he slipped back down, his ‘friends’ on the outside laughed at him. “Give up!” they yelled, “you’ll never do it!” And they were right, as each frog failed and lay exhausted at the bottom of the pit…until the last frog began jumping. He too failed on the first attempt and was met with a roar or taunts from the helpful spectators. But he tried again, and again, getting closer and closer to the top. Finally, his webbed foot grabbed a small protrusion at the edge of the pit, and he pulled himself out. His ‘friends’ were gob smacked. They asked him, “How did you do it?!” but he didn’t reply. He just hopped away. They followed behind him, calling, questioning…but he remained silent. This frog was deaf.
A human being can do far more than he himself is even capable of doing. Our hearts can beat, but we cannot make that happen. We can feel, but are we in complete control of those feelings? Sometimes yes, but not always. We spend vast amounts of time living in a reality that we have absolutely no control over. When they tell us we can’t do it, it’s actually true. We can’t. But yet, many times, we still do. The Sfas Emes was bothered about the mitzvah we have of loving Hashem. “How can a human being love the Infinite?” he asked. His answer: “If we are commanded to love Hashem, then that means that Hashem will make us able to do it. The problem,” he warns, “is that we do things to prevent the love from existing in our hearts.” There are really two questions here. One is: how can we achieve the impossible? But the other is: how do we even manage to accomplish that which is possible? The answer to both is: with Hashem’s help. Once we acknowledge that as being the answer to question two, then with the same answer can achieve the impossible in question one.
But what gives a Jew this idea that he can achieve the impossible? Well, it started in Egypt. The Jews survived the torture of Mitzrayim in a most miraculous way. We left a land of complete desire and decadence against all odds. No slave had ever fled Egypt before the mass exodus of the Jews. In less than two months we were standing at the most important event in the history of the entire universe: Kabolas HaTorah. The entire world was created for this moment, when a mere mortal, flesh and blood, could create an atmosphere of G-dliness in the lowly physical world. That the King of Kings was being lauded and served by those close to him was no big feat. But when those distant from His glory embarked on a career of ‘waving His flag’ and dedicating everything they do to His service; that’s something! And that is something that gives this world a reason to keep going.
But, what if we ignore this message? What if we have never connected to the Torah – to the world of the Infinite? To answer this, Hashem tells us, “You have seen what I did to Mitzrayim, and that I raised you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to me.” The Ohr HaChaim provides several explanations of the words “and I brought you to me”. For our purposes, we will learn his second explanation. Hashem is telling us, “I know that you have difficulties. I know that you have desires that lead you away from Me. But just know, that every time you fall, I will try to bring you back to Me. I will always love you, and will never reject you.” As the verse says, “If your exile will be at the edge of the heavens, from there, Hashem, your G-d, will gather you, and from there He will take you.” Hashem preluded the receiving of the Torah with this crucial message. A message for every single one of us. Hashem, by giving us the Torah, was giving us a long list of positive and negative commandments. It might very well be that we could stumble, chas v’shalom. Will that be the end of it all? This message was telling us that no, that would not be the end. Hashem gave us His Torah because he loves us, and He longs for us to always connect to Him through it. No matter where a Jew finds himself, the Torah is there. And when the whole world might look at him and say, “You can’t,” he will remember that he once received the Torah, for which the whole physical universe came into existence, so he most certainly can!
There is an interesting custom on the night of Shavuos. Yeshivas, shuls, and study halls all over the world fill up with Jews who spend the whole night learning Hashem’s holy Torah. Simply, it is a sign of our love for Him, to mimic (in some small way) His great love for us. It might make more sense to get a good night’s sleep and approach the next day with a little bit more energy, but when you’re in love you sometimes do things that don’t make that much sense. We throw sensibility to the wind (a little) and showcase our love for Hashem and His Torah. But what is the deeper reason for this custom? The Magen Avrohom tells us that the Midrash teaches that the Jews slept in a bit on the morning of Kabolas Torah. For this reason, we ‘rectify’ this by staying up all night in anticipation of receiving the Torah. This is a perplexing Midrash, and many elucidations are given, but one fascinating explanation is that of the Arugas Habosem. He warns us that we might make a terrible mistake in thinking that the Torah, and all that it offers, is reserved only for those on a lofty spiritual level. The Rosh Yeshivas, with their unbelievable knowledge – sure, they can tap in to the infinite through the Torah. The Tzaddikim, with their purity – they definitely stand a chance. The Kabbalists – I’m sure they can find a mystical way to succeed. But me? I can’t! To denounce this claim, the Arugas Habosem enlightens us to why the Jews were asleep on that big day. Hashem knew that there would come a time where the Jewish people found themselves in a situation where the world was telling us, “You can’t!” He knew that we would unfortunately be repeating that message to ourselves. For this reason he placed a slumber over the Jewish people just before they received the Torah. For sure, they had mighty ideas of preparing themselves physically and spiritually for what was about to happen. Imagine the anguish of the Jews when they realised that instead of preparing, they had fallen asleep! But why did Hashem do this? He did this, so that no one could ever make the claim that the Jews in that generation only received the Torah because of their lofty level, but Jews on a lower level have no business with the Torah. Not so. Hashem removed their final opportunity for preparation in order to teach all of us, to this day, that you can access the Torah on whatever level you might find yourself.
When we received the Torah, we weren’t simply receiving a set of laws. Something much greater was happening to every single one of us. Our bodies and souls were being primed for a limitless existence. In truth, had we not sinned with the golden calf, we would have experienced a life without death, without forgetting; constantly connected to the Source of everything, without barriers. That is what Torah is to the Jewish people. It is more than a book of laws, of morality. It is more than the book of our survival. It is the gift that the Creator of heaven and earth gave to His beloved people to allow them to connect themselves to Him, in every time, in every situation. By learning and following the Torah, we have access to the infinite, to limitlessness, to eternity. We have the answer to the shouts of “you can’t!” And the fact that the Torah instructs us to celebrate this great day for all future generations means that every single year (and even every day, to a lesser degree) we have the ability to relive and recharge ourselves with the same life-changing ambition that was experienced way back at Har Sinai. This is the time of year when we all have a new opportunity to connect with the Infinite and escape our own limitations.
The Torah tells us how Yisro heard and came to the Jewish people. Everyone hears things, but few act on the calling. Hashem is sending messages to us all the time, to re-establish and to strengthen the connection that we can have with Him through His Torah. Every Rosh Hashanah the shofar blasts are calling to us to wake up and return to Him. Of course we fall asleep, but waking up is a crucial part of life, and should be done throughout the day, not only in the mornings. There is not a situation in life that the Torah doesn’t guide and direct us. The Torah is there for us, offering us the opportunity to rise above ourselves, and to become part of an eternal reality. The Sfas Emes told us that loving the Infinite One is possible, and He has given us the way. “For I have given you a good acquisition; do not forsake my Torah.”
The verse in Yirmiyahu says, “My love for you is eternal.” That doesn’t just mean that Hashem loves us forever. It means that His love for us allows us to connect to Him in a way that raises us above all limitations. While it’s true that by ourselves we cannot achieve anything, a Jew must not listen to that voice saying, “You can’t.” After receiving the Torah, with Hashem’s help, you can! And when the outside observers are amazed at how the Jewish people have survived such a tumultuous history and maintain their religious fervour, we simply look into the Torah and read: “And you who cleave to Hashem your G-d are all alive today.” How could we not endure, when we were the ones given the Torah.
- Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) was the Av Beis Din in Ger, Poland, and the head of the Gerrer Chassidim. ↑
- Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 494 ↑
- Rabbi Moshe Greenwald (1853-1910) was the rabbi of Chust, Hungary, and the progenitor of the Pupa Chasidic dynasty. ↑
- Mishlei 4:2 ↑
- Yirmiyahu 31:3 ↑
- Devarim 4:4 ↑