The world had never seen anything like it, nor would it see
anything like it ever again. As the Jewish people gathered at the foot of
Mount Sinai watched with breathless awe, a thick layer of clouds
descended over the mountain. Jagged streaks of lightning rent the
heavens asunder, and the sounds of crashing thunderbolts were so
earsplittingly loud that the people trembled uncontrollably. Sheets of fire
suddenly engulfed the mountaintop, and the entire mountain quaked
and discharged thick smoke like a colossal furnace. The eerie blast of a
ram’s horn grew louder and louder. And then God spoke from the
mountaintop and pronounced the Ten Commandments.
What was the purpose of this spectacular display of special
effects? Wouldn’t the experience of actually hearing God speak have
been awesome enough? Didn’t God’s voice in itself inspire sufficient
fear and reverence in the hearts of the people without the addition of
artificial external stimuli?
The commentators explain that the spectacle at Mount Sinai was
meant to serve as a metaphor for the future conditions under which the
Jewish people would often attempt to study Torah and live by it. It would
not take much courage to study the Torah and observe its
commandments during tranquil and prosperous times. Who would turn
away from the ultimate spiritual fulfillment in the absence of distractions
But rarely if ever does humankind experience such placid times.
The world is always in upheaval, torn by wars and migrations, plagued
by poverty and deprivation, struggling under oppression and exploitation
and, in the best case, distracted by the material mirages of prosperity.
Where does a person find the presence of mind to study Torah and
live by it under such daunting conditions? In the memory of the stand at
Mount Sinai when the voice of God penetrated through the cacophony
of the thunder and lightning and the raging fire, and the people heard
His words. This is the only way Torah is absorbed, by the extreme effort
to overcome external distractions and internal emotional turmoil, by a
dedicated perseverance to penetrate to the divine essence of the Torah
and through it to connect with God.
A young man traveled to a distant city to study with a famous sage.
After many days on the road, he arrived at his destination, a large white
building on a sun-drenched street. He walked up to the front door and
tried to open it, but it was locked. He knocked and knocked for a few
minutes, but there was no response. He walked around to the side of
the building where he found another door. It too was locked. Here too
his loud knocking elicited no response.
Through the open windows high up on the wall, he could hear the
sounds of excited young voices engaged in heated arguments and
discussions. He called out to them, but no one heard him. He smelled
cooking food and followed the trail of the odors to another window,
which was surely a kitchen. Here too he called out at the top of his
lungs, but no one came to the window.
Under the kitchen window, he noticed a coal grate. He pulled at it,
and it came away in his hands. Gingerly, he lowered himself through the
coal grate into the cellar. Covered with soot, he groped his way through
the shadows and found the stairway to the upper floors.
The sage was waiting for him at the top of the stairway.
“Welcome, my son,” he said. “We have been waiting for you. I am
happy to see that you have found your way here.”
“If you were waiting for me,” said the young man, “why was the
door locked? Why didn’t anyone respond to my knocking or my calls?”
The sage smiled. “It was a test, my son. If you had not discovered
the coal grate and clambered through the cellar, you could not have
been a worthy member of our group.”
In our own lives, the pressures of everyday life often force us to
forgo the opportunities to study or perform various other good deeds.
Someday, when things settle down, we tell ourselves, we will devote
more time to our spiritual growth, but the time is not yet right. But if we
wait for this tranquil time, it may never come. Distractions are never
lacking. Life is always full of thunder and lightning. It takes
perseverance to penetrate to the truth.