Shavuos: Receiving the Torah

More than in our heart and in our soul, it’s in our DNA

By: Aron Ziegler

When the Jewish people stood at Har Sinai 3 331 years ago, we were asked if we would accept the Torah, and we famously responded “na’aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will understand”. In the Talmud, it is recorded that at this juncture Hashem held the mountain of Sinai over us and declared that we had better accept the Torah, or else.

The Torah says[1], “And Moshe brought the people forth out from the camp to meet Hashem and they stood at the lowest part of the mountain.” Rabbi Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says[2] that the verse is teaching us that actually the Jewish people stood beneath the mountain, and it is teaching us that Hashem overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah then good, but, if not, then right here will be your graves.” Rav Acha bar Ya’akov says that, from this story, we have a substantial caveat for our obligation to fulfil the Torah: We can claim that we were forced to accept the Torah, and it is, therefore, not legitimately binding.

What was achieved at Har Sinai?

So, what was actually achieved then at Har Sinai if we were compelled to accept the Torah?

Our acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai had the transformative effect of fusing the Torah into us. The entire Jewish nation was transformed into a Torah nation; we had Torah installed in our DNA. We could no longer live on in a healthy, fulfilled, or complete way without Torah. We were forever changed into Torah humans.[3] When Torah was downloaded into us, the Torah also became locked into us and the Torah can have no other home or setting in the world other than in us, the chosen Jewish people. Our very survival and existence is dependent on our attachment to Torah. If we do not accept the Torah then – “here” (in non-Torah existence of the future) will be our grave.

All other human beings remained humans with seven mitzvos through which they can directly serve under Hashem, but we became close to 100 times more potent and powerful. We are able to connect to Hashem through 613 mitzvos, including the overarching mitzvah of Torah study which is equal to all of them![4] If a non-Jew wishes to convert, he has to accept the validity and truth of all of the 613 mitzvos. If he refuses to accept even just one of the mitzvos, he has not fulfilled the requirement to be a 613-mitzvah Jew.[5] He will remain only a 7-Noachide mitzvah person.

Hands free

This idea, that we are a nation that lives through Torah, was already evident from an account recorded in the Torah before Har Sinai. The Jewish people camp in a place called Rephidim. We read[6], “Amalek came and battled with Yisrael in Rephidim.” Our sages interpret[7] this to mean that, “Amalek came to battle us because of Rephidim, because of Raphu Yedeihem – ‘They loosened their hands from the Torah’ and that’s why an enemy came upon them, for enemies only come because of loosening of hands from the Torah.” At that time, before the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai, we had already been given a few aspects of Torah at Marah with which we were supposed to be involved in studying.[8]

Why is neglect or abandonment of Torah described as “loosening the hands”? Surely it would be more accurate to describe it as “forgetting the Torah”? Rabbi Goldvicht of Yavneh explains[9] that man’s earthly activities and the practical physical life of man are symbolised by our hands and are described as works of the hands. The main spiritual purpose of man in this physical realm is to elevate and sanctify physical life as King David expresses in Psalms[10], “Lift up your hands in holiness.” When we, the Jewish people, are lax in fulfilling our spiritual purpose and, thereby, we bring about a diminishing of the sanctity and holiness in our physical lives by not grasping or by not practically implementing the Torah’s directives in our physical living, this is referred to as slackening of our hands, ie. severing our physical actions – our ‘hands’ – from their spiritual Torah life source.

Only when there is a space, a gap between our hands and Hashem’s Torah, can enemies such as Amalek get in and harm us; but, if we hold fast to the Torah – our life source, we remain connected to the tree of life.

This explains very well why, in the ensuing battle against Amalek that was led by Yehoshua, there is a great elaboration about how Moshe was going to be atop the hill and the staff of Hashem in his hand. “And it was that, when Moshe would raise his hand, then Yisrael would prevail, and, when he would lower his hand, then Amalek would prevail.” And in verse 12, “Moshe’s hands were heavy, and they took a stone and Moshe sat on it and Aharon and Chur supported his hands, one from one side and one from the (other) side…” Rashi comments there that Moshe’s hands became heavy because Moshe had been lax in the mitzvah.

Our purpose in the world

Our function as a Jewish nation is to be host to Torah in this physical world. We are the nation that was chosen for this by Hashem. No others can fulfil this role. The Midrash tells[11] us, “If someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, you can believe him; but, if someone tells you that there is Torah among the nations, you should not believe him.” Only we, the Jewish people, were chosen and infused with Torah. If we infuse our lives with Torah, then we live up to our purpose and we are helped to continue with greater ease, progress, and promotion in our role as the nation chosen by Hashem. But, if we loosen our hands and relax our concentration of Torah infusion in our lives, then, as the second paragraph of the Shema Yisrael tells us, “the anger of Hashem will flare up against us…”, ie. it will be more and more difficult for us to live in this physical world when we don’t live Torah-guided lives.

Living beyond the physical realm

When we are connected through Hashem’s Torah to Hashem, we are beyond the reach of any physical powers. We become untouchable, as we are joined to a zone and realm beyond this physical world and anything inside it. Torah cannot be measured in earthly terms. Torah does not have a defined measure[12]; it is from a different dimension and it has no maximum or minimum quantity[13]. We are connected to Hashem and His Being on which no physical force can in any way, shape, or form have any effect. Hashem is The Source of all that exists, and His Torah is His blueprint for all of His creation.[14] This is what the events at Har Sinai achieved for us.

This is also symbolised by Shavuos being celebrated after seven weeks of seven days. The physical realm of heaven and earth was created with a structure of seven, as we read in the story of the seven days of Creation. There are, for example, seven colours of the rainbow, seven musical notes, six physical directions, and a seventh core position, etc. Beyond the range of science and wisdom of this world, we then enter the eighth week and the fiftieth day – a level that symbolises a realm beyond, higher, and pre-eminent to this world; a realm of immortality and infinity.

If we structure our physical lives (in this 7-dimensioned earthly life) in accordance with a higher Torah design (which is beyond the natural earthly design) – then we elevate ourselves and become connected to that realm and dimension that is beyond our physical limits, and we can connect to and draw on supernatural Divine elements even while we naturally appear to be physically confined to earthly life. When we received the Torah we were free from natural physical limitations. The sages tell us that we were even “free from foreign powers, free from the Angel of Death, and free from sufferings”.[15]

Bound in blood

When a Jew sins inadvertently, he can be said to have acted in a way that severs his physical behaviour in this earthly life from its originating spiritual purpose. At Har Sinai, Hashem made the Torah covenant with us on Shavuos and we entered into that covenant – a fusion of Hashem, His Torah, and Bnei Yisrael[16] – through the sprinkling of blood.[17] Moshe wrote all the words of Hashem and he arose early in the morning and he built an altar and twelve monuments… sacrifices were brought… and Moshe took half the blood of the sacrifices and sprinkled it on the altar (as a representative for Hashem in the covenant). Then Moshe takes the book of the covenant and he read it before the nation and they said, ‘All that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will understand.’ Then Moshe took the rest of the blood and he sprinkled it onto the people and he said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that Hashem has made with you…’”[18]

Our very lives, the blood that flows in our bodies where our souls connect to our physical beings[19], need to be saturated with as much infusion of Torah as we can manage. When we sin, we sever our life source, our neshama (the piece of G-d – the breath of Hashem which He breathed into our nostrils), from our worldly living actions; we have let go of the Torah component in our actions.

This is, perhaps, most succinctly explained by the Sefer HaChinuch[20], the anonymously authored Book of Mitzvah Education, regarding the mitzvah to study and teach Torah: “At the root of this mitzvah, it is known that through learning a person can come to know the ways of Hashem, Blessed be He, and without (learning) one cannot know and cannot understand and will be considered as though (he was) an animal (lacking connection to G-d)”.

To achieve atonement, we need to re-infuse our life-blood with connection to Hashem. This we achieve by bringing a sacrifice whose blood is sprinkled on the altar of Hashem. Before the sacrifice is offered, the owner presses with his hands onto the head of the animal, the same hands that he severed from their source of Torah life-blood by acting in a way contrary to the Torah’s wishes. He symbolically infuses from his own mind, his awareness, and intention through his hands pressing it into the ‘empty’ head of the animal [beheima – is made up of the words ‘bah-mah’ – ‘what is in it’ (ie. it is empty)]. When the blood of the sacrifice in which he has with his hands re-infused with a holy intention is put on Hashem’s holy altar he recommits to his life’s role of having his hands holding fast to the directives of Hashem’s Torah and recommitting to the covenant made at Har Sinai when half the blood was put on the altar and the other half sprinkled on the Bnei Yisrael.

The Torah is our life

The Gemara[21] tells us that the wicked kingdom of Rome decreed that Jews should not be involved in the study of Torah. Pappus Ben Yehuda came and found Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah (with them). He said to him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the authorities?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “I’ll give you a parable as to what the situation is compared: a fox was walking by a river and saw fish scurrying from place to place within the river. The fox said to them, ‘Why are you fleeing?’ They said back to the fox, ‘Because of the nets that humans bring on us.’ The fox replied to them, ‘If you wish, why don’t you come up onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’ The fish said to him, ‘Are you the one about whom they say that you are the smartest of animals? You’re not wise; you’re foolish! If in the place that we live (in the water) we have cause for fear, then in the environment of our death (out of water) how much more so!”

“The same applies to us, continued Rabbi Akiva. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said[22], ‘For it is your life and the lengthening of your days’, we have such danger (eg. governmental threats), then certainly if we would abandon or neglect the study of Torah – how much more so would we be certain to die.”

“Behold the life-blood of the covenant entered into at Har Sinai.”[23] It’s inside us – that is who and what we are and who and what we are meant to be. We all begin our lives as young children, immature, not knowing and realising what we are. A young child might imitate a dog, monkey, bird, or other animal in play – thinking that it’s fun to imagine himself as such and it might seem cute. If, however, when we are older, after our human life-blood develops us into human form, we still think of ourselves as an ape or other beast, it’s no longer cute, but pitifully sad and disturbing. The ugly duckling, initially mistaken in its youth for a duckling, was not a duckling at all. When it later grew into a most elegant swan and its true identity was revealed, it no longer behaved like a duck, but like the noble, graceful swan that it was.

So too – our beings, if matured well, can be G-d-like! We can infuse G-dliness into our life-blood and into all our handiwork in this physical world. Our Jewish tradition tells us that this is who we actually are. We can step into our role as Hashem’s children; that is our DNA. We may be yet unwilling to grow into this role, we may even be in denial and afraid of it, but this is who we were born to be, and we are charged to endeavour, each in accordance with his individual abilities, to make progress in growing and activating our true identities as best as we can responsibly manage. Our fully developed selves are G-d-like beings, children of Hashem.

At Sinai, we entered in a covenant with Hashem. As Hashem’s chosen people, as His children, if we think ourselves as 7-Noachide-mitzvah humans, then we underachieve and cut ourselves almost 100 times shorter than our actual potential. But, if we realise that Hashem is our Father and we are infused with a special Jewish soul that runs in our veins and that our DNA is Hashem’s Torah, then we can live up to our actual maturity and we can willingly don the roles of Hashem’s children and Hashem’s contractors in His world.

  1. Shemos 19:17
  2. Shabbos 88a
  3. See how this is expressed by Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi in Birchas Mordech, Moadei Hashem, Purim page 233
  4. Mishna Peah 1:1
  5. Bechoros 30b
  6. In verse 17:8
  7. Mechilta 17:8
  8. Shemos 15:25 with Rashi
  9. Asuphas Ma’arachos, Purim 11
  10. 134:2
  11. Eicha Rabbah 2:13
  12. Peah 1:1
  13. Gra on Peah 1:1
  14. Bereishis Rabbah 1:1
  15. Shemos Rabbah 41:7, as quoted in Kli Yakar, Shemos 32:16
  16. See Zohar 3. 73a
  17. Rashi on Shemos 24:6
  18. Shemos 24:3-8
  19. Devarim 12:23; Also see Vayikra 17:11 and Derech Hashem 3.1.2
  20. Mitzvah 419
  21. Berachos 61b
  22. Devarim 30:20
  23. Shemos 24:8

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