Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Mattan Torah - Seeing the Bigger Picture
After the Ten Commandments, Scripture describes the scene of that
incredible moment when we received the Torah on Har Sinai:
And the entire nation saw the sounds, the flames, the voice of the shofar,
and the smoking mountain.
Chazal, our Sages, explain that during the Revelation that took place
when the Torah was given, people transcended the normal limitations of
the body and its senses. They could see what one normally hears, and
hear the seen (Mechilta). Because this is something we're not used to,
it is somewhat hard to conceptualize. The question is this: What was the
need or purpose for this unusual phenomenon? While we believe the
Almighty created the concept of nature whereby the seen is seen and
the heard is heard, and as such He can manipulate these boundaries at
His whim, we are also taught that generally Hashem does not traverse
the barriers of the natural order to perform super-natural feats and
miracles, unless there is a need for such. While this synesthesia - the
commingling of the senses - surely enhanced and augmented the
experience of receiving the Torah, what was its necessity, and what is
to be learned from it?
Those readers familiar with the history of Bobov Chassidus will know
that Bobov today, boasting thousands of chassidim worldwide, was not
so long ago no more than a distant dream in the mind of the previous
Rebbe zt"l. After the Holocaust, when the Rebbe arrived in America,
what he found could aptly be described as a wasteland. European Jewry
had been decimated by the Nazis, and those who escaped the death
camps had little more on their minds than finding a job, a place to live,
and perhaps starting life again. To dream that the pre-war Judaism of
Europe could one day be rebuilt - than on the soil of North America (the
"tu'mene land") Yeshivos and battei midrashos would once again bustle
with the sounds of young men studying Torah - was something far
beyond many people's most optimistic fantasies.
But the Bobover Rebbe was a dreamer. No sooner did he set foot here
than he started rebuilding what had been lost. He opened up a shteibel
(in the Westside of Manhattan) and arranged for daily prayers. Often, the
Rebbe had to go out into the street and beseech Jewish passersby on
their rushed way to work to come in for a few minutes and help
complete minyan. Sometimes, the Rebbe would tell other people of his
dreams to open up Yeshivos and girls schools and rebuild chassidus in
America. Mostly, the Rebbes dreams were met with pessimism, if not
open derision. "Rebbe," they would respond, "things here are different.
It's not Europe. It's hard for you to realize, but after being here a few
years, you'll see that American soil is simply not fertile for the types of
things you envision." They told the Rebbe to get a job, make some
money, settle down and concentrate on building his own family (the
Rebbe remarried after losing his first wife in the war). People had no
time and no koach for his pipe-dreams, and nothing would come of all
his fantasies. Luckily for us, the Rebbe did not heed to their scepticism.
The Rebbe was fond of recounting one particular incident which
humorously illustrates the apparent futility of his vision. At the time,
mikvaos (ritual baths) were few and far between, and one erev Shabbos
the Rebbe set out with a companion to go to mikvah. Along the way, the
Rebbe began to speak of his dreams. He pointed out some of the larger
buildings they were passing by. "Do you see that large building... that
would be just right for a Talmud Torah. We'll begin with one class, then
add a second, and before you know it we'll have filled the whole
building. And that one down the street - perfect for a girls school." As
they walked, the Rebbe continued to dream of the Torah that would
one day issue forth from large and impressive buildings such as these.
Before they knew it, they had arrived at the mikvah. Outside stood a
mikvah Yid whose job was to collect money from those using the
premises. The cost: one quarter. The Rebbe felt in his pockets, but they
were completely empty. The Rebbe was penniless. Turning to his
companion, who has thus far listened intently to the Rebbe's seemingly
far-fetched and grandiose dreams, with a sheepish smile on his face, the
Rebbe asked, "By the way, could you lend me a quarter?"
There is an expression: Sometimes one loses sight of the forest for its
trees. This, to me, is what separates the really great from the good and
the mediocre; the ability to stay focused on the larger picture, and not
allow oneself to become overwhelmed with life's endless details and
minutia. The Rebbe could easily have listened to the advice of his well-
meaning supporters, who suggested that he focus on his own family, and
not waste his time dreaming of greater things. Had he done so, daresay
the face of Bobov chassidus, and perhaps even the face of Torah Judaism
in North America, would be vastly different from the way we know it
One who truly desires to achieve greatness in Torah; not mediocrity, but
to plumb its depths and reach levels of understanding reserved for the
truly dedicated and committed, must per-force internalize this lesson.
Otherwise, the small trials-and-tribulations that life dishes out daily will
prove too great a distraction for a mind that must be totally immersed
in the Torah's wellsprings. He must be able to see beyond the petty
give-and-take of material wellbeing, and remain focused on something
greater though less apparent.
Perhaps this is the message of "seeing the heard": Those who desire to
"receive the Torah" must be able to gaze beyond the obvious and
conspicuous, and fixate on the larger picture. On that which lays beyond.
They must see around the trees, and perceive the measureless forest
that lays beyond. They must see the voices that no one else sees.
Of course it goes without saying that one must still pay attention to the
particulars of life; one who ignores reality will not likely succeed in
making dreams become fact. But, as they say, don't sweat the details.
Take care of the small stuff, do what needs to be done, do it well, but
think big, and see beyond the petty and the trivial.
We're not the Bobover Rebbe. But as we approach kabbolas ha-Torah,
each Jew has the opportunity to dream about how he can accomplish
something truly magnificent with his life.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by Mr. Hershy
Weinberg, in memory of his mother, Chaya Sara bas R'
Chaim Tzvi Aryeh HaCohen.
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.