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Shavuot 5760

Receiving Torah Like Children


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
R. Meir b"r Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld

1. You must remember this: Sinai
2. "Hakhel" - Assembling the Entire People Together
3. Mount Sinai - The Smallest of Mountains


You must remember this: Sinai
The Torah states: "Only take heed and watch yourself very carefully, so that you do not forget the things that your eyes saw. Do not let it leave your hearts, all the days of your lives. Teach your children and your children's children about the day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb. It was then that God said to me, "Congregate the people for me and I will let them hear My words. This will teach them to be in awe of Me as long as they live on earth, and they will also teach their children" (Deuteronomy 4:9,10).

In his classic Torah commentary Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, "the Ramban," remarks on this verse, saying: "[Scripture] repeated, and said, I only warn you exceedingly to heed and watch yourself very very much to remember from where the commandments originated, that you should not forget the Sinaitic Revelation, all of the things that your eyes saw there, the voices and the torches, His glory and His greatness and His words that you heard there from the midst of the fire, and make known all of the things that your eyes saw at that great revelation to your children and your children's children forever. [Scripture went on to] explain the reason that God performed this revelation: in order to teach you to be in awe of Him as long as you live, and to also teach your children for all generations. So, do as it says [here] and do not forget it. Behold, before mentioning the Ten Commandments which were said there, [Scripture] warned through a negative commandment that we forget nothing of that revelation, and that we not allow it to depart from our hearts forever. [Scripture] also commanded us with a positive commandment that we make known to all of our offspring from generation to generation, all that was seen and heard there."

We find, then, that the Torah warned us through a negative commandment not to forget the revelation at Mount Sinai. The Ramban accordingly counted this among those negative commandments that Maimonides, the "Rambam," forgot to record in his classic "Book of Commandments." The Ramban, though, does not make any mention of the positive commandment to remember the revelation at Sinai. It is possible that he considered this obligation included in the commandment to study Torah. For, the passage states, "Teach your children and your children's children about the day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb..." and the Talmud learns from here, "Anyone that teaches his son's son Torah is seen as having received Torah at Mount Sinai." If so, one must teach his children in such a way that they believe that they are receiving it from Mount Sinai, and this obligation is part of the commandment to study Torah.

Included in the commandment to remember what transpired at Mount Sinai is the obligation to envision in ones thoughts what that great event was like, as the Ramban says, "all of the things that your eyes saw there, the voices and the torches, His glory and His greatness and His words that you heard there from the midst of the fire, and make known all of the things that your eyes saw at that great revelation." Therefore we must dwell upon this event, and upon the sort of spiritual preparation which the Jews underwent then, in order that we too be capable of preparing our own souls as they did then, as the Ramban explains, "[Scripture went on to] explain the reason that God performed this revelation: in order to teach you to be in awe of Him as long as you live, and to also teach your children for all generations. So, do as it says [here] and do not forget it."

"Hakhel" - Assembling the Entire People Together

It appears possible to learn the obligation to remember Sinai from a different commandment - the commandment of "Hakhel," to assemble the entire people to hear the Torah read. The Torah states: "And Moses then gave them the following commandment: 'At the end of each seven years, at a fixed time on the festival of Succoth, after the year of release, when all Israel comes to present themselves before God your Lord, in the place that He will choose, you must read this Torah before all Israel, so that they will be able to hear it. You must gather the people, the men, women, children, and proselytes from your settlements, and let them hear it. They will thus learn to be in awe of God your Lord, carefully keeping all the words of this Torah. Their children who do not know, will listen and learn to be in awe of God your Lord, as long as you live in the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy" (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).

This commandment is comparable to the Sinaitic Revelation which also took the form of an assembly, as it states, "...the day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb. It was then that God said to me, 'Congregate the people for me and I will let them hear My words...'" This can also be understood from the words of Rambam, (Laws of the Hagiga Offering, 3:6): "Proselytes who are not familiar must direct their hearts and pay attention to hear with fear, reverence, joy, and trembling, like the day on which it was given on Mount Sinai. Even great scholars who know the entire Torah must listen with extremely great concentration, and one who cannot hear must [at least] direct his heart to this reading, for the Scriptures established [this public reading] in order to strengthen the true law, and one should see himself as if he is now being commanded, and hearing it from the Almighty, for the king [who reads from the Torah before the assembly] is a messenger whose purpose it is to make the words of God heard."

Rambam's words, "...in order to strengthen the true law," is no doubt intended to have us remember the revelation at Mount Sinai, which is a foundation of our faith. The great scholar added, "...and one should see himself as if he is now being commanded, and hearing it from the Almighty," for a Jew must imagine that the Sinaitic Revelation is taking place at this very moment, and that he is being commanded by God Himself.

In order to understand what sort of preparation of the soul is needed for the Hakhel - being, as it is, like the revelation at Sinai - let us take note of the words of the Talmud:
It once happened that Rabbi Yochanan ben Broka and Rabbi Elazar ben Hamsa went to greet Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki'in. [Rabbi Yehoshua] said to them, "What novel idea did you hear in the Beit Midrash (study hall) today?" They answered, saying, "We are your disciples, and we drink of your water." He replied, "All the same, every Beit Midrash has its own unique ideas. Who was expounding this Sabbath?" - It was Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria's - "Concerning what subject was today's discussion?" They answered, "The subject of Hakhel." "And what did he expound?" "'Assemble the people - men, women, and children' (Deuteronomy 31). Men come to learn, Women to hear, but why do the children come? In order to give reward to the ones who bring them." He [Rabbi Yehoshua] said to them, "You had a precious pearl in your possession which you attempted to hide from me!" (Hagiga 3a).

Yet, in the Jerusalem Talmud we find a different version of this conversation. The Talmud retracts what it has said, that the men came to learn, and the women to hear. Rather, all came like children who desire taking part in event though they do not understand that which is said there. Those present only desired to be there and to belong. This same concept can be discerned in the words of the Rambam, that even if one does not understand the Torah reading, or cannot hear it, one should direct one's heart to hear - as he writes: "Proselytes who are not familiar must direct their hearts and pay attention to hear with fear, reverence, joy, and trembling, like the day on which it was given on Mount Sinai. Even great scholars who know the entire Torah must listen with extremely great concentration, and one who cannot hear must [at least] direct his heart to this reading."

According to the above, it is understandable why Rabbi Yehoshua was so moved by this elucidation. Concerning him the Mishna teaches, "Rabbi Yehoshua, blessed is she, who bore you," for his mother would bring him to synagogues and study halls while he was still a child in order that his ears absorb words of Torah. It is for this reason that he grew in Torah, and merited becoming one of the great Jewish Torah scholars.
This is how the Jewish people came to Mount Sinai, like a child that wants to absorb the words despite the fact that he does not understand them, as it is written: "We will perform and we will hear." We will perform all that we are commanded even though the things have not yet been heard.

Mount Sinai - The Smallest of Mountains
The Midrash relates:
This one says "I have been called Tabor Mountain, and it is only fitting that the Divine Presence rest upon me for I am the highest of all the mountains, and the waters of the Flood did not fall upon me." Another says, "I have been called Carmel Mountain and it is only fitting that the Divine Presence rest upon me, for I am in the middle, and upon me the crossed the ocean." The Almighty responded, saying, "Both of you have been deemed undeserving before me because of your great height. You are both disqualified." They said to Him, "Could You, God, be prejudice? Are You depriving us of our reward?" The Almighty said to them, "Since you exerted yourselves before Me trying to gain My honor, I will pay you your due reward. I gave Mount Tabor Israel's salvation in the days of Debora, as it says, 'Go and gather your men to Mount Tabor' (Judges 4:6). And at Mount Carmel I gave salvation to Elijah, as it says, 'Gather the prophets together at Mount Carmel' (First Kings 18:20)." All of the mountains began to thunder and falter, as it says "The mountains melted from before the Lord" (Judges 5:5) The Almighty said "...You are all proud mountains... I desire Mount Sinai alone for he is more humble than all of you, as it says, 'I dwell on high and in a holy place, yet with he that has a repentant and humble spirit" (Isaiah 57:15).

Mount Sinai's greatness lies in the fact that it is smaller than the rest of the mountains. Smallness symbolizes humility, like the child who comes to study without any conceit, rather, with innocent desire to hear the word of God.
The Talmud relates: What is the meaning of the verse: "And from the desert they went to Matana" (Numbers 21)? Answer: When a man makes himself like a desert - unconfined to all - the Torah is given to him as a gift, as it says: "from the desert they went to Matana" [the word "Matana" means gift in Hebrew].
Through humility, it is possible to merit Torah.

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Torah quotes taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "The Living Torah"


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