Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Giving of the Torah
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

The Revelation at Sinai Through Hassidic Eyes

Before the Giving of the Torah man exerted himself in an attempt to come close to God, yet, despite all of his efforts, he remained far removed; from the Giving of the Torah onward, the road is open to reaching God.


Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsaltz)

After the miraculous Exodus from Egypt and Splitting of the Sea, after the many trials and tribulations of the wilderness, trials which shaped the Children of Israel and caused them to become like "one body with one heart" - after all of these things, the moment arrives for the Giving of the Torah. After the sounds, the thunder, and the blowing of the ram’s horn, the Almighty reveals Himself to His people. He then proceeds to state the Ten Commandments to the entire Nation of Israel.

In light of the above course of events there is room for some astonishment: What was the purpose of all of these preparations? All of the miraculous revelations? Was the aim of all this the revelation of the Ten Commandments to the world? On the face of things, all of these commandments - faith in God, honoring parents, "Thou shall not murder," or "Thou shall not commit incest" - could have been arrived at through logical analysis and human inquiry. They are the pillars of human morality in all places and times. This being the case, what was so earth-shaking or extraordinary about the Revelation at Sinai?
It is possible to approach the question of the essential purpose of the giving of the Torah from a different direction:

It is well known that the patriarch Abraham observed all of the commandments of the Torah even before God revealed the Torah to man. It is thus written, "He observed my warnings, commandments, laws, and teachings." We see, then, that the Forefathers were able to arrive at the Torah and all of its details on their own before the Divine Revelation at Mount Siani. This being so, what important definitive change took place in the world with the Giving of the Torah and in its wake?

The Desire for Divinity
Every Jew carries within him a Godly element - a divine spark of light in his innermost recesses of his soul, the deepest and most hidden core of his spiritual being. Indeed, it is rare that a person merits recognizing the divine inner essence of his soul; it is rare that a person is capable of looking beyond the curtains which veil and alter the divine presence which speaks to him from within. The core, however, is ever present. And because this inner point of man, this "Holy of Holies" in his soul, is part of God Himself, man is driven, whether he realizes it or not, toward Divinity.

There are various ways in which man arrives at the realization that he in fact wishes to create a bond with God. Some arrive at this via observation and deep thought about themselves and the world at large. Others are brought to this conclusion by events and trials in life. Still, others, who might have otherwise remained indifferent to Judaism and God throughout their lives, suddenly, in a moment of crises, are forced to decide where they stand. At this point, the full force of that divine core makes itself known.

There are various kinds of observation and analysis which bring people to consciousness of, and a desire to approach, the divine. Some reach this state as a result of considering the enormity of God in the universe that He created, by discerning the acts of God in creation and His abundant radiance and goodness. All of these things bring the soul to an general feeling of wonder, and, then, to a fuller recognition of the inner desire to approach God. Others arrive at this desire by considering the fantastic history of the Jewish people, the kindness which God has shown us since our Exodus from Egypt until the present day, the unmatched uniqueness of the Jewish people.

Another manner in which man’s inner longing for closeness to God is awakened is by observing one’s own life and soul. It is thus written, "Through my flesh I see God" (Job 15:26). A person discerns God’s presence in his very own life and feelings. This concept is given expression by the verse "He is your sole means of survival" (Deuteronomy 30:20) - the accurate recognition of the strong sense that God is life itself, the life behind life. Not only is He the soul which permeates all of existence, he is the life of my very own soul. This feeling recalls the Zohar’s interpretation of the verse, "My soul, I long for you in the night." According to the Zohar, this is man’s cry to God: You, who are actually my soul, the true source of my life, it is you that I long for in the night - the night-time of the universe, the darkness of existence.

These thoughts, then, awaken and "uncover" man’s desire to approach and attach himself to the Almighty, and to be with Him always.

Man’s desire to be close to the Almighty, when it reaches a state of recognition, causes one to embark on a search and trial in an attempt to approach God. When a person’s drive to be close to God is clear to him, even where he reaches the conclusion that his search for God is the primary goal of his life, not everything is clear. At that time, one feels the full weight of the question which all who search for God - from angels on high or man down below - are bound to ask themselves: "Where is the place of His Honor?"

The first path perused by one who desires and searches for God is the path of elevation - an attempt to rise above the boundaries and confines of the material world toward the boundless, the spiritual, the metaphysical. The searcher believes that by freeing himself from the many physical appetites which infest his life, by establishing a clearer recognition of spiritual matters, he will naturally become closer to God. The body, the physical, material feelings and drives - all of these things appear to constitute the major obstacles. Digging deeper, a person senses that his very concentration on personal desires and wants is that which chiefly hinders his ability to attach himself to God.

Because of this, one who searches for God turns to spiritualism and attempts to deepen his inherent sensitivity for the divine; he tries to reach a level of love for God, a feeling of devotion and attachment. Obviously, it is possible to reach peaks of complete self-negation as a result of the awakening of this great love, amidst a storm of desire to get close to God.

We have thus far dealt with the first approach to getting close to God. At this point, however, some criticism must be expressed. The question arises: Is the inner awakening and emotion felt by the adherents of this approach really the result of a closeness to the divine?

Deeper consideration brings one to the conclusion that whatever we are capable of grasping about God through our own efforts does not even approach a true level of understanding. Whatever we manage to feel through our bodies or with our senses, the brilliant light which sustains our own world and the tens of thousands of spiritual worlds beyond - all of this is no more than a reflection of a light which has already been subject to a long process of filtration. God Himself, though, for whom we so eagerly search, is much more lofty and distant than all of our sensations and feelings, and reaching Him it is beyond the capacity of the mind. Not only can our human mind not attain God, the concept of mind itself is unable to grasp God in any way, for God is transcendent, "Kadosh" - i.e., He is separate and distinct from all. He is the Infinite.

It follows that all human efforts to come close to God are, by their very nature, destined to fail. For how can a human being, limited and imperfect by its very nature, overstep his defined boundries? How can a human, even in his greatest heights of spiritual uplift, make contact with that which in not amenable to human touch, the holy and supernal God? Experiences which are built upon man’s spiritual elevation through love and fear of God, upon distancing oneself from this material world of ours, do not put man closer to God. The individual that follows this path believes that divinity resides in the spiritual realm and therefore makes an effort to detach himself from the material world and to attain a level of spirituality and nullification of natural sensation. Yet, in truth, the Almighty is exalted and elevated beyond all of this. Even the most refined state of spirituality is like the lowest level of physicality in light of God‘s greatness. It is like nothing in comparison to God’s unbounded greatness.

It follows that even if a person climbs to the highest plane that he is capable of reaching (and man is in fact capable of reaching a level even higher than that of the angels) he will continue to be far-removed from God. The infinite space which necessarily separates between finite man who even in his most elevated moments remains limited, and the Almighty, who is boundless and infinite, cannot be bridged by man. Despite all of his human efforts, he is not capable of truly getting close to the Almighty.

The path to God, then, appears to be untraversable. No man, no matter how great, is capable of getting around all of the blockades and boundaries which come with being human in order to reach divinity itself, the true essence beyond it all. The thirst and desire of man’s divine inner core pushes him to ascend toward God, but there is no way for us to achieve this on our own.

Communication with the Infinite
This, then, is the significance of the Giving of the Torah.
Because we are only human and we are therefore unable to reach the realm of the Divine through our own efforts, the Almighty Himself, in His abounding kindness and goodness and in order to achieve the original goal of Creation, lowers Himself to meet us.

God’s revealed himself to us by Giving the Torah at Mount Sinai. This Torah, though, is not merely a practical plan outlining how we ourselves should act. In giving us the Torah God "adorned Himself" in the Torah and its commandments. It represented a "revelation" of the manner in which we unite with God when we fulfill the commandments. By fulfilling a commandment one is not merely carrying out an order. The commandment encapsulates some inner, deeper, more fundamental content. It derives from the Hebrew word "Tzivtah" which means "to be together" - together with God.

God "descended upon Mount Sinai," and, in so doing, "lowered," as it were, His essence and being - His lofty indefinable essence was lowered to the well-defined and limited boundaries of the Torah which he presented us. And because the Torah is an expression of God’s supernal will, because it is His wisdom and will, it represents for us much more than just "Torah from Heaven." The Giving of the Torah meant lowering it to the level of man, bringing the most lofty of things - "Torah which is Heaven" - to the plane of human beings and their mental capacity.

There is therefore an essential difference between a commandment as it appears outwardly to the human intellect, and the inner essence of the commandment as a divine order and a means for creating a bond between man and God.

The "Thou shall not kill" of human morality is a commendable law and a very high attainment for mankind, but even if this imperative be understood in the most refined and spiritual manner possible (not as a utilitarian measure aimed at attaining some sort of benefit, and not even for the purpose of providing a just foundation for human society) it remains a human achievement, curbed by the nature and essence of man - a human peak, which all the same does not supersede its human arena. The "Thou shall not kill’ of the Torah, on the other hand, when revealed at Mount Sinai as one of the Ten Commandments, is a divine exhortation. It is part of the bond which God, a separate, sublime and unknowable being, creates with us.

This commandment is what allows for bringing about a marriage between the limited and the limitless, and it is the ultimate vessel for comprehending the Infinite. The world before the Giving of the Torah is a world in which man exerts himself in an attempt to come close to God, yet, despite all of his efforts, remains far removed; from the moment of the Giving of the Torah onward, the road is open to reaching God. The Almighty Himself descends and reveals himself via the Torah. He presents us with the path, the possibility of overcoming the restrictions which come with the very fact of his being "only human," in order to approach and cling to God.

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