"Rabbi Simai taught... At the moment the Jewish people answered, Na'aseh ViniShma (we will accept to fulfill and learn the Torah)' 600,000 angels descended and crowned each Jew with two crowns, one for Na'aseh and one for Nishma." (Talmud Tractate Shabbos 88A)
The commentaries have discussed profusely and in depth the greatness the Jewish people exhibited by committing themselves to fulfill the Torah even before they asked to hear and learn what it contained. We can appreciate the precious crown earned for such an unconditional commitment to submit totally to G-d's will with perfect faith. However, after such a total commitment what was the significance of "Nishma", "we will learn"? Wasn't this merely an inevitable sequel to the commitment? Obviously to be able to fulfill they must learn and be aware of what is demanded. What is the true meaning of this second crown? What lesson can we derive from its true significance? Let us first examine another enigma of the giving of the Torah.
Our sages tell us that the Ten Commandments were uttered by G-d to each Jew with varying intensity according to the capabilities and potential of each individual, thus each one was spoken to by G-d on his level. However, in seeming contradiction to this idea, we find Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Lavi said, "As each utterance of the Ten Commandments emanated from G-d to the Jewish people, (they were so overawed and overcome) their soul left them... and G-d... resurrected them." (Ibid. 88B) If the Commandments were, in fact, communicated on the level of each individual, why would they then be so overcome and overawed to the degree that their souls left them?
To resolve this seeming contradiction we must analyze the full implication of the phrase "the level of each individual". Each Jew finds himself on a specific rung of the ladder of the Torah. This, however, is not the "level" the Midrash alludes to. What the Midrash refers to as a person's true individual level is the ultimate potential one could develop after putting forth his maximum effort. There is a vast expanse that lies between one's present attainment and his ultimate potential. It was precisely this intense and awesome revelation on each Jew's potential level that was so far beyond, in scope and intensity, the initial level they had attained, that caused their souls to flee.
Our ancestors stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah totally and unconditionally. In order for this commitment to be meaningful, however, they had to be willing to grow mature in Torah, to realize that they had just taken the first step. They had to realise that one must constantly improve and elevate his Torah observance. This was the declaration of "Nishma". We will constantly be open to learn more and strive to elevate ourselves, rung after rung, towards the ultimate Torah potential each of us possesses.
Rabbi Akiva continued to study and teach Torah even when it was outlawed by the Roman government with the penalty of death. When Papas Ben Yehuda challenged him that he was endangering his life in an irresponsible way, Akiva answered him with the following allegory. A fox drinking from a pond noticed the fish scurrying about in obvious consternation. "What frightens you little fish?", asked the fox. "We fear the nets of the fisherman," replied the fish. "We do not know where one will fall to trap us." "Why be frightened so," advised the fox, "perhaps I can assist you. Leave your pond and come up on the dry land, and I will protect you." "Foolish fox," exclaimed the fish, "if we are afraid and insecure in the water, in the environment that provides our very lifeblood, how much more so would we be when out of our element?"
Torah is the very lifeblood of the Jewish people. Without its study and observance, we are like fish out of water. What security can be attained by emerging from total immersion in the waters of the Torah? The Midrash tells us that the allegory must be taken yet one step further. Fish constantly immersed in water have a very peculiar nature. When it rains, as the droplets hit the surface, the fish ascend to the top of the water in a frenzy, to hungrily receive yet another drop and another, never content with the endless supply of water that engulfs them. So, too, the Jew engulfed and immersed in Torah must never be content with the status quo, but must hungrily wish to ascend and acquire new horizons, new levels, in Torah learning and observance.
Man is referred to as "one who walks" as opposed to the angels, who are referred to as "those who stand still". Man, by the very nature of his creation, must constantly strive to perfect himself. When he is not moving in a positive direction, then automatically he will be moving in a negative direction. Stagnation, assuming a status quo, is not possible in this world of constant movement. This constant desire and striving for more lofty levels of Torah observance is not merely desirable and commendable, but without it one finds himself descending into a well of bitterness and contempt for Torah, spawned by the guilt one innately feels in shunning the goal he should be in the process of attaining.
The Torah tells us, "Im Bichukosai Taylaychu", "If you will walk in the Laws of Torah". Rashi tells us that this refers "Amaylus Batotah", Torah devotion and commitment even when it is difficult. One must invest his entire energy and effort into Torah learning and observance. He must walk in Torah, must learn to improve and elevate with great self sacrifice. But what if this is not the case? The Torah charts out for us seven phases man will pass through if he refuses to be honest with himself in his quest for self perfection. If he is hesitant to learn more, for fear that he will find out that the status quo he has found accommodating and comfortable is not the perfection, not the potential, for which he must yet strive; "Vi'im Bichukosai Timasu." If you will detest my Torah and refuse to learn, explains Rashi, then phase two will follow - you inevitably will not fulfill the Mitzvos completely and properly. You will be ignorant of the basic Halachos and details of Torah observance and not appreciate their beauty and significance. Following this non- observance, guilt will swell up within you when you see others who do observe the Mitzvos that you do not, and observe even the ones you do observe more properly and carefully than you do. Instead of looking to these people as a model to try to emulate, if not now then eventually, instead of holding those more observant in high esteem for their coveted accomplishments, guilt will create a feeling of disgust, of revulsion, for those who are more "frum". Chnyuk! Fanatic! This will be the vocabulary of a guilty conscience, of those who, deep down inside, know that they are not honest with themselves.
And from there, one descends to yet a fourth phase: a hate for the leaders and teachers and Rabbis who exhort the Jewish people to reach their potential. Who teach Torah without compromising it and diluting it and whose task it is to constantly encourage, prod and rebuke those that they lead. These leaders become a threat to one's self contentment with self delusion. They are a thorn that digs deeply and painfully into the recesses of one's conscience. The individual reacts with hate and bitterness to divert and camouflage the guilt. Then the descent continues one step lower. The most effective way to soothe this guilty conscience is to be surrounded by individuals who do not represent any higher levels, but who also share the same shortcomings and status quo. One begins to be the rallying force in convincing others to share their feelings and levels of observance. One begins to use all methods of discouraging others from being more observant, more careful. Mockery, sarcastic jokes, Loshon Horah (gossip), even Motsee Shaym Ra (totally fabricated stories), are all utilized to make intensive Torah observance something to be avoided, and the Yetzer Horah permits one to rationalize that the intentions are purely Lishaym Shemayim - for the good of all. Finally, when all these methods fail to ease the conscience fully, when one is faced with the reality that there is legitimate reasons to improve Torah observance, then the only way out is to consciously or subconsciously negate the total validity of the Mitzvah and its Divine origin, and if this cannot be done successfully, the seventh step completes the cycle by permitting doubts to develop as to the very existence of the giver of the Torah. At this point there can be no further guilt feelings for not furthering Torah observance, for the entire basis and foundation has been destroyed.
This bleak picture that Rashi paints for us is so painfully true to life that we must all feel both shocked and inspired when confronted with these holy words. We members of the Jewish Community and especially as those fortunate to dwell in Eretz Yisroel must make every effort to cultivate the "Nishma" of Torah observance. We must realize that the "Baal Teshuva" movement is not limited to estranged and alienated Jews, rather we are all "Baalei Teshuva", ever striving to return to the levels of perfection that every Jew is capable of reaching. We must guarantee that modern orthodoxy connotes the adaption of the modern society to the highest levels of Torah observance and not, G-d forbid, the diluting of the quest for Torah perfection to be able to adapt to modern society.
The author is the Rav of Moshav Matisyahu
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