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Beit Midrash Series Parashat Hashavua

Putting the Season in Perspective – part II

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We finished last week’s piece on the period between Pesach and Shavuot (the day we received the Torah) with a strong question: How could Chazal say that one who is involved in Torah study is a uniquely free man if the Torah requires us to be disciplined and limits many activities that might interest us?

The giving of the Torah was a powerful one-time event, when the Heavens and earth drew amazingly close together. Rabbi Yossi said that the Shechina (Divine Presence) never came down to the ground and Moshe and Eliyahu did not go up to the Heavens. P’sukim seem to contradict these claims, as Hashem came down on Sinai (Shemot 19:20) and Moshe went up to Hashem (ibid. 19:3). The gemara answers that there were still 10 tefachim between them.

Moshe and Eliyahu were very unique people, who shared distinctions. They both refrained from eating and drinking for 40 days, had a Divine encounter at Har Chorev, and showed that it is possible to break free from the shackles of time and place by finding the point of encounter between Heaven and earth.

However, neither one of them made it fully to the other side – to the Heavens. Absolute freedom is found in the Heavens, and Bnei Yisrael experienced absolute enslavement in Egypt. When Moshe ascended Har Sinai and the Shechina descended, he came just short of absolute freedom. The entire nation was in some ways on the cusp of touching that point of freedom.

Chazal tell us that at the time of the revelation, "the souls of Israel flew off" when they saw Hashem’s glory and heard his "voice," as it is normally impossible to survive such an encounter (see Devarim 5:22). It was as is described in Shir Hashirim, "My spirit left as he spoke" (5:6). Their souls were returned only after "the Torah asked for mercy" on their behalf (Shemot Rabba 29:4).

What does it mean that "the Torah asked for mercy"? Torah study is that which gives life to those who partake in it. This is the closest we can come to actually going up to the Heavens. This is the secret of the "path to the Tree of Life." The more one is connected to Torah the more he eats from the Tree of Life. The freedom to live as free men is not just a result of the Exodus but of receiving the Torah.

The preparations for the Exodus began with brit mila. This mitzva represents the idea of putting up boundaries to combat the strongest urges in the physical world, which keep people grounded and unable to reach for the sky. The boundaries that the Torah places allow one to return to the wonderful moment of receiving the Torah, when the ground and Heaven were close.

Rashi and the Ramban disagree as to what it means to "be holy" (Vayikra 19:2). Rashi says it is to distance oneself from illicit relations. He views sanctity as starting from brit mila. The Ramban says it is to emulate Hashem, who is the source of holiness and separation from the physical world. He focuses on connecting to Hashem as happened at Sinai.

We are now in the period between Pesach, with its Korban Pesach and related brit mila, and between the holiday of the giving of the Torah. We are elevated through the count. We pray that we will be an ever-increasingly "free nation in our Land."
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