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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nasso-Shavuous: Judgment and reckoning
From the exodus to the splitting of the Sea, the Jewish people had experienced G'd as a Mighty warrior. At Mount Sinai G'd revealed Himself as a compassionate elder Who empathized with their suffering in Egypt. G'd revealed Himself with sapphire brickwork to demonstrate that the Jewish people were constantly on His mind. G'd is our merciful and compassionate Father, but at the same time He is our King, Who sits in strict judgment and watches every act we perform. There is a dual relationship of love and awe between G'd and His chosen nation. What is the meaning of the double expression of judgment and reckoning? If we stray from the paths of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we are not only judged for our wrongdoings, but we have to give reckoning for not living up to our great potential. No other event in the history affected mankind as much as the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. It is time to renew our bond with the One Who gave us the commandments with love and awe.
Mighty warrior and compassionate elder
As we have entered the last week of the counting of the Omer, we are approaching the Festival of Shavuous, when we celebrate and commemorate the revelation at Mount Sinai. On that occasion, G'd gave the Jewish people the Ten Commandments and said, (Shemos 20:2) "I am HASHEM your G'd, that has taken you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." Rashi quotes the Mechilta that explains why it was necessary for G'd to introduce Himself as the One Who had taken them out from Egypt. At the exodus, right through to the splitting of the Red Sea, the Jewish people had experienced G'd as a Mighty warrior, fighting the Egyptians. However, at Mount Sinai G'd revealed Himself as a compassionate elder Who empathized with their suffering in Egypt.
When mention this in the Shabbos morning song, known as Baruch HASHEM Yom Yom. As it says, "In their distress He is in distress throughout oppression and slavery. With bricks of sapphire He showed them the strength of His love, and He revealed Himself to bring them up from the depths of the pit and dungeon." G'd showed this brick of sapphire to the Jewish people at the revelation at Sinai (see Shemos 24:10). It was beneath G'd all through the slavery in Egypt, as a reminder of the suffering of the Jewish people. The commentaries add that G'd revealed Himself with this sapphire brickwork to the prophets in Egypt to demonstrate that, even during the exile, the Jewish people were constantly on His mind.
G'd is One
Says the Mechilta, G'd wanted to ensure that no one should make a mistake and think that there are dual powers, one of strength and one of compassion. In order to make this crystal clear G'd said "I am the One Who you see now as a compassionate elder and it is I Who you saw as a strong warrior at the time of the exodus."
Father and King
This is how our relationship with G'd has been ever since. On the one hand, He is our merciful and compassionate Father, but at the same time He is our King, Who sits in strict judgment and watches every act we perform, as the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:1) says: "Know before Whom you have to give judgment and reckoning, before the King of Kings." This dual relationship was established at Mount Sinai. At the same time as G'd revealed Himself as a compassionate, caring Father, the actual revelation was an awesome experience. This is vividly described in the Torah. It says (Shemos 20:15-17): "And the entire people saw the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain. The people saw and they trembled and they stood from afar. And they said to Moses, 'You speak to us and we shall listen, and G'd shall not speak to us that we shall not die.' And Moses said to the people, 'Do not fear, for G'd has come to elevate you. And so that the awe of Him shall be on your faces, so that you shall not sin.'"
Love and awe
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 5:5; see also Rambam's commentary on Pirkei Avos 1:3) teaches the importance of this dual relationship of love and awe between G'd and His chosen nation. The Talmud says, "Do out of love and do out of awe, for the one who loves does not hate, and the one who is in awe does not slack." G'd knows that if we would only serve Him out of love it could eventually come to a situation where we would slack in our observance. We would come to rationalize that our loving Father would let us get away with it. G'd therefore established that there should be a parallel relationship of awe. On the other hand, G'd was well aware that if we only served Him out of awe and fear, sooner or later we would hate what we had to do. In the Torah we find a fine balance between these two approaches. There are many examples of G'd's love for the Jewish people, promising an abundance of blessings and incentives to fulfill the commandments. But G'd never allows us to forget the dire consequences if we transgress His commandments. This is a constant reminder how we will have to stand in judgment and reckoning for every act we do, as the above-noted Mishnah teaches.
Judgment and reckoning
The commentaries on the Mishnah ask, what is the meaning of this double expression of judgment and reckoning? We may be able to explain it by analyzing one of the paragraphs in this week's portion. The Torah teaches the laws of the Sotah, a woman who has behaved in a fashion that gives her husband reason to suspect adultery. The Torah instructs that her husband shall take her to the kohein and bring along an offering. As it says (Bamidbar 5:15) "And the husband shall bring his wife to the kohein and he shall bring her offering for her, a tenth of an eifah of barley flour. He shall not pour oil over it and shall not put frankincense on it." Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma (3) why one should not put frankincense on this offering, as is otherwise the custom. This is because our Matriarchs are described in Shir HaShirim (4:6) as "heights of frankincense", and this woman did not follow in the path of our Matriarchs.
Our sages here teach us an amazing insight. If a Jewish woman falls so low and commits adultery, she is not only reproached for her actual sin, but she is reproached for not following in the footsteps of the Matriarchs. Rabbi Chaim of Valozhin explains that as descendants of our great Patriarchs and Matriarchs we have been put on a special path. These great men and women have paved the way for us to emulate them with relative ease. If we stray from their paths, we are not only judged for our wrongdoings, but we have to give reckoning for not living up to our great potential. This is what the Mishnah teaches: Everything we do, and everything we refrain from doing, will be scrutinized by the Heavenly court.
Most special moment
On the first Shavuous after the exodus from Egypt, G'd revealed Himself to the entire Jewish people, an event that reverberated throughout the whole world. The entire universe stood still as G'd said "I am HASHEM your G'd" to the Jewish people. Everyone sensed that this was a most special moment. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 710) relates how the gentile nations sent delegations to their prophet Bilam to investigate what was happening. They were concerned that maybe G'd was bringing another flood or other calamity upon the world. Bilam put them at ease and told them that G'd was giving a hidden treasure to His nation. At that moment they said (Tehillim 29:11): "G'd will give strength to His people. G'd will bless them with peace." No other event in the history affected mankind as much as the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. At that special moment the Jewish people were chosen to be the light onto the nations to live according to the instructions G'd gave them through Moses.
Renew our bond
As we celebrate this Festival, it is time to renew our bond with the One Who gave us these commandments with love and awe. At the same time, we must pass the commandments on to our children and teach them their relevance. They are not a relic of the past, but very much a practical guide how to live in the present. If we transmit the commandments in this way, we will ensure our children's future as proud members of the Jewish community.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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