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Preparing for Shavuos
Realize You Need the Torah!
And you shall count from the next day after Shabbos, from the day that you brought the Omer of the wave offering; seven complete weeks; … And you shall proclaim on the same day, that it may be a holy gathering to you; you shall do no labor in it; it shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations. (Vayikra 23:15,21)
Everyone knows that the holiday of Shavuos celebrates Kabbolas Hatorah. This is explicit in our nusach of davening: yom matan Toraseinu - the day of the Giving of the Torah. It is the day when Klal Yisroel officially became a nation and embarked on their holy mission. Such an important event should have been immortalized in the most pronounced fashion. Instead, the Torah gives us merely a cryptic possuk obliquely telling us to keep this day holy and refrain from work. The significance of all the other holidays (except for Rosh Hashana being the Day of Judgment) are spelled out explicitly. Why is the celebration of Kabbolas HaTorah kept hidden? The Kli Yakar explains that Hashem didn't want to limit celebrating Matan Torah to any specific day. A person should look at every day of the whole year as if he received Torah from Sinai today. The Chazal (Eruvin 54b) compare Torah to a mother nursing her baby. As long as the baby nurses, he constantly finds new taste in the milk and continues enjoying it. So too the Torah. As long as one learns Torah he finds a new enjoyment in it each day. Therefore one should look at each day as if today is a new Kabbolas HaTorah; he's receiving a new Torah fresh today. It isn't proper to confine the Giving of the Torah to one day. Therefore Chazal (Sifre Va'Eschanan 6:6) instruct us that Torah should be constantly new in our eyes. Not like something old which a person loathes. Every time a person studies Torah it can be very enjoyable: he can find some new insight and a novel innovation. Therefore the day of Matan Torah was not specified with more than a hint that we bring a new meal offering, to hint to us that the Torah is a new offering every day.
Based on a recorded shiur by Moreinu v'Rabbeinu Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l
When Moshe ascended into Heaven, said the angels before the Holy One, blessed be He, "Lord of the Universe! What has one born of a woman to do among us?"
The Lord answered: "He came to receive the Torah."Said the angels again: "Would You give a precious thing that You have preserved since nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the creation of the world to a being of flesh and blood? (It is written [Tehillim 8:5]): What is the mortal, that You consider him? and the son of man, that You think of him?" Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moshe: "Give them an answer!" Answered Moshe before the Lord: "I am afraid they will burn me up with the vapor from their mouths." Hakadosh Baruch Hu said to him, "Grasp My Throne of Glory and answer them." … "Lord of the Universe! What is written in the Torah, which You gave me? 'I am the Lord, your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt'" [Shmos 20:2]. Moshe then said to the angels: Were you in Egypt? Have you served Pharaoh? Of what use can the Torah be unto you? Further, what is written in the Torah [ibid. 3]: "You shall have no other gods before me." Are you among the nations that worship idols? And furthermore, what is written in the Torah? [ibid. 8]: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." Do you do any labor on the week-days? [Ibid. 7]: "You shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Are you merchants, that you must swear? [Ibid. 13]: "Honor your father and your mother." Have you fathers and mothers to honor? [Ibid. 12]: "You shall not kill," etc. Is there any jealousy among you? Do you have a yetzer ho-ra?"
Then the angels confessed and praised the Holy One, blessed be He, as it is written [Tehillim 8:10]: "O Eternal One, our Lord, how excellent is Your name on all the earth!" but the ending of the (earlier) verse [ibid. 2], "You who have set Your majesty above the heavens," is not cited in this verse. Then every one of the angels befriended Moshe and each of them disclosed some secret to him, as it is written [Tehillim 18:19]: "You ascended on high, lead away captives, receive gifts among men," which means that because at first the angels called Moshe one born of a woman (man), they afterwards gave him gifts, and even the Angel of Death disclosed a mystery to him, as it is written [Bemidbar 7:12,13]: "And he put on the incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living." Now if the Angel of Death had not disclosed to Moshe this secret, how could he have imparted it to Aaron? (Shabbos 86b)
It appears from this gemara that Moshe Rabbeinu was in a deep danger when he went up to receive the Torah. Hakadosh Baruch Hu had to protect him from the wrath of the angels. The Heavenly beings wanted to know why the Torah was being given to lowly mortals. They demanded an answer. So Hashem told Moshe to answer them. The Maharal and others ask the obvious question, why couldn't Hashem Himself answer them. Why did He want Moshe to answer? Why did the Ribono Shel Olam put Moshe into danger and then have to come up with ways to protect him? He should have answered the angels straight away before it became dangerous to Moshe Rabbeinu.
The question is also on the angels. They knew what was written in the Torah. The Torah is full of commandments and prohibitions which are relevant only for a physical mortal, not spiritual beings. So they knew that the Torah wasn't for them. If so, why did they want the Torah? The Maharal answers that the Malachim wanted to know the inner secrets of the Torah. True, the mitzvos of the Torah are irrelevant to Heavenly beings. But every mitzvah has deep hidden inner meanings, secrets of the fabric of the Universe. This is what they wanted.
So now we have to understand, what was the answer? How did Moshe Rabbeinu refute them? The answer is that the underlying purpose in the Ribono Shel Olam giving His creatures the Torah was, "I created the yetzer ho-ra, I created the Torah the antidote" (Kiddushin 30b). True, the Torah elevates a person. When he learns, he becomes a different sort of person. Every mitzvah raises him up higher and imparts a kedusha (as is apparent from the bracha before each mitzvah: "… Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos…"). And everyone knows that the sanctity of the Torah is greater than all the mitzvos: "Talmud Torah is equal to all of them." However this wasn't Hashem's intention in giving the Torah to Mankind. Hashem wanted to give Torah in order to fight the yetzer ho-ra: "I created the yetzer ho-ra, I created the Torah the antidote."
"[He is] the God Whose way is perfect; the word of the Lord is refined; He is a shield to all who trust in Him." (Tehillim 18:31). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba Lech Lecha 44:1) reflects on the use of the word tzerufa in that possuk. Tzerufa means to purify or refine. The Medrash states, "The Torah was only given to refine Mankind. Does it matter to Hakadosh Baruch Hu whether one slaughters an animal at the neck or chops off its head? Rather, mitzvos were only given to purify people." This Midrash is teaching us a basic principle about the Holy Torah. Really the Torah and the Mitzvos have no reason. Rather, they were given to refine Man; through the Torah Man is given the opportunity to lift himself out of whatever situation he finds himself and be raised to a higher level. But not simply raising oneself. He is refined and purified. The question is what exactly is this refinement?
The Maharal cites the Rambam who questions what does it mean that the Torah and Mitzvos have no reason? Certainly there is a reason behind each Mitzvah. The Rambam explains that the Ribono Shel Olam definitely had very deep reasons behind each and every Mitzvah, in general. However, the details have no reason, and there could have been a different set of details. In the example of the Midrash, shechita definitely has a reason behind it. But does it matter to Hashem whether the details of shechita requires shechting of the throat or the back of the neck? Rather the details of shechita were for our sake, to test us if we will follow the commandments precisely. Thus the details of the mitzvos were given not for any intrinsic importance; we need the mitzvah in this form to refine us.
The Ramban, on the other hand, argues this cannot be. Every mitzvah is an expression of the deep wisdom of the Ribono Shel Olam and every detail is filled with Divine wisdom. What the Midrash means is that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has no need for the mitzvos. He is perfect. Mitzvos are for us to refine us. Each mitzvah in general and in its fine details has great purpose in refining Mankind to acquire good middos, mercy and compassion.
The Maharal questions this perush of the Ramban. Look at all the hundreds of different mitzvos and you will find only a minority of them that relate to refinement of middos. Most Mitzvos have nothing to do with character traits, and so there must be some other reason hidden within them. Rather, the Maharal explains that the mitzvos refine Man, not by teaching him good character, but by imparting in him a special Kedusha which is inherent within each and every mitzvah. The "refinement" mentioned in the Midrash means to purify Man by bringing him closer to Hashem and sanctifying him. The question in the Midrash, "what difference does it make," means simply, what difference does it make to Hashem. He is Kodosh, He is holy, He is perfection. He needs no mitzvos. Mitzvos are for our sake. This is the pshat in our nusach of bracha before each mitzvah: "Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos…" Mitzvos endow holiness, kedusha.
And so the Maharal explains that the ultimate purpose of mitzvos is to raise Man up from his attachment to the physical of this world, and sanctify him to become attached to the spiritual. With this we can understand Moshe Rabbeinu's retort to the Malachim. Do you have a yetzer ho-ra? Do you need to be refined by the Torah? You have no need for the Torah except as an intellectual endeavor to understand the hidden secrets of the Universe lying within. But that wasn't the purpose Torah was created for. Torah was created to refine Man by conquering his yetzer ho-ra.
Now we can understand why Hakadosh Baruch Hu told Moshe to answer the Angels. Moshe Rabbeinu himself had to give them the answer, because before he could receive the Torah he had to show that he understood why it was so important for him (and Klal Yisroel) to receive the Torah. Moshe himself had to realize that without Torah he is in a tremendous danger; he can have no guarantee that he will be able to retain his exalted status. If Hakadosh Baruch Hu had answered the malachim that they have no need of the Torah, the malachim would have replied that Man also has no need of the Torah, they won't appreciate it and so won't use it properly. Why bother giving to them? They'll just misuse it. Therefore, Hakadosh Baruch Hu told Moshe, you answer them. Moshe had to tell the Malachim, you have no need of the Torah, you have no yetzer ho-ra; we have a yetzer ho-ra and so we need the Torah. Without the Torah a person can sink to the worst. He can become a murderer and even worse. And because I understand this, I need the Torah and won't misuse it.
This Motzai Shabbos is Lag B'Omer, the yahrtzeit of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, one of the 5 talmidim of Rebbi Akiva. It is befitting to study a piece of gemara which reveals how deeply Rebbe Shimon understood the significance of the Torah similarly to Moshe Rabbeinu.
The gemara (Pesachim 112a) describes a conversation between Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and his rebbe Rebbe Akiva. It was at the time of the Roman oppressions and teaching Torah was a crime punishable by death. R. Akiva had just been arrested and was in jail awaiting execution. R. Shimon came to visit R. Akiva and demanded, "Rebbe, teach me Torah." R. Akiva refused. (He apparently didn't want to put R. Shimon in danger.) "Rebbe, if you don't teach me Torah, I'm going to hand you over to the Roman authorities." (Even though he was already incarcerated in prison, R. Shimon threatened to increase the severity of the charges - Maharsha.) R. Akiva responded, "My son, believe me. More than the calf wants to suckle, the mother wants to nurse." R. Shimon answered him, "And who is in danger (from not suckling)? Isn't it the calf?" So R. Akiva taught him Torah. What chutzpa! If his rebbe refuses his demand, he's going to snitch on him? Being a moser is the most despicable crime a Jew can commit. Rav Zeidel answered that we didn't understand what R. Shimon said. He meant, Rebbe, teach me Torah. Because if you don't I'm going to sink to the lowest levels and become an informer. I'm not asking a favor from you. Without Torah even the greatest Tanna is in danger. Therefore Rebbe I implore you, teach me Torah, because Torah is the core of a Yid. This is the importance of Kabbolas HaTorah. We have to realize, that the more a person studies Torah, it's not just a matter of knowing more, of becoming a greater talmid chochom. Without the Torah his very life is threatened. The Mesillas Yesharim illustrates this with a moshol. Imagine a blind man. Every time he steps into the street he's in danger. He may be hit by a car. But at least the car has a driver and they probably will see him. Moreover, he's on firm ground, there usually aren't any holes in the pavement. But if he's walking on the docks by the river one wrong step and he's a goner. This is Man's situation in this world. He's like a blind man walking along the river bank. If one realizes this, then every little tiny matter has the potential to lead to … who knows where.
In these days leading up to Shavuos, the holiday of Kabbolas HaTorah we have to daven to the Ribono Shel Olam for Siyata d'Shmaya. There's a yetzer ho-ra waiting in ambush for us. He doesn't rest, he doesn't sleep. And Chazal tell us (Kiddushin 30b) that without Divine assistance, there's no way a mortal can conquer a malach, you have no chance. Torah is our only hope. Without the Torah, a person can sink to the lowest levels. With the Torah a Jew is protected and elevated to the highest peaks.
A yungerman who was close to Rav Shach, zt"l, came to inform him that his wife had recently given birth to their first son.
Rav Shach's response was totally unexpected. "Nu, and what does the baby do already?"
This question confused him, not knowing how to answer the Gadol Hador.
Rav Shach gently pressed him for an answer, "What is the baby doing already? Does he smile?"
"Yes," answered the confused yungerman.
Rav Shach continued, "And do you enjoy this? Are you happy when he smiles at you?"
"Of course," answered the father, struggling to understand what the Rosh Yeshiva was driving at.
Rav Shach finally got to the point. "Your baby's smile and your enjoyment it creates is representative of our generation. Previously, in earlier generations, when the streets of the Jewish quarter were filled with Torah and avodas Hashem, one had to work very hard in order to please Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He had to learn a lot of Torah and pursue mitzvos with an exceptional fervor. Now, however, in our lowly generation, so lacking moral fiber, there is hardly any Torah among the Jewish people. Each small action, each line of Torah studied, each davening, each act of chessed, gives pleasure to the Shechina. Just like the happiness your baby's simple smile gives you."
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop ? Lakewood).
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