When A High Becomes A Low1
To the great men of the Bnei Yisrael He did not stretch out His hand.
They gazed upon G-d and they ate and drank.
“Hand” here means power or strength. The power that the pasuk speaks of is
the strength to endure one of the most intense experiences known to Man.
We sometimes unconsciously make the mistake of thinking of the material
world and its experiences as real, concrete and substantive. Spirituality,
we think, is ethereal. We associate it with dreamy clouds. We see it as
vapor-like and airy. In truth, however, an actual spiritual episode can be
crushing and suffocating to a person not prepared to deal with its
If a person is fortunate enough to be treated to authentic visions of
Divinity, two consequences can follow along. The first is that HKBH grants
him not only the experience, but a Divine influence that gives him clarity
and understanding. Through it, he can decipher and process the encounter,
not just experience it. He also gives the person the ability to withstand
the power of that experience, which might otherwise overwhelm him. Instead,
he is helped to become a vehicle for the Shechinah.
When a person endures such an episode, and gains the insight and
enlightenment that flows from it, he feels incredible joy – the high of
basking in the light of the King.
The “great people” of our pasuk, on the other hand, pushed beyond the limits
set for them. They contemplated more than was appropriate for them, more
than they were allowed to comprehend. Hashem therefore did not “stretch out
His hand” to support them, or to give them the insight to comprehend what
they beheld. Without that special support, they should have been grievously
injured by the experience. In fact, they would have been, had it not been
for the merit of that special day. They were nonetheless punished. Even
though they experienced what they did, they did not emerge with great
insight or enlightenment. They were not sated by the encounter, but were
left with a spiritual void. There was still room within them to eat and
drink, unlike others who experienced revelatory visions, whose thoughts
would not and could not turn to mundane affairs like dining.
Alternatively, the effect of a strong dose of Divine presence upon an
unprepared person can be devastating. It can even be fatal. In this case,
HKBH did not want to spoil the joyousness of the occasion, and their
punishment was suspended. The experience did leave its mark, however. It
weakened and exhausted them to the point that they required food and drink
to restore their equilibrium.
In any event, they had to settle for snack food, rather than the unique
spiritual experience that they had tried to achieve by pushing the envelope.
Ascend to Me to the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the
tablets of stone and the Torah and the commandment…
“Torah” here means the written text. So says the gemara. The
Yerushalmi understands our pasuk similarly, creating an identity between
the Torah text and mitzvos. (I.e. just as studying a Torah text requires a
berachah before, so do mitzvos.)
The Torah referenced here cannot mean the text of the Torah as we have it
today. That text was not completed until the end of the fortieth year after
the Exodus. Rather, our pasuk speaks of the primordial Torah, which
consisted entirely of different holy Names of HKBH , and with which He
created the world.
A gemara in Avodah Zarah describes Hashem’s daily schedule, as it were.
During the first three hours of the day, according to the gemara, He sits
and involves Himself with Torah. The can understand this along the lines of
our discussion. Each day, He creates the world anew. He does this in a
similar manner to His original act of Creation. The world came into being
through the use of His Names; its daily renewal involves the same use of
Names, read from the Torah. This is His involvement with Torah.
The primordial Torah was in Moshe’s possession from the time of Sinai. It
was inscribed in its entirety on the luchos – both first and second. It
would have read very differently from what we see in front of us. It took
forty years for the ur-text to be expanded and recombined. This happened
slowly, one parshah at a time, until the entire work was concluded with
1. Based on the Ha’amek Davar, Shemos 24:11
2. Based on Ha’amek Davar, Shemos 24:12
3. Berachos 5A
4. Berachos 6:1
5. As explained by Ramban in his introduction to Chumash