The Giving and Living of Torah
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
They [the Jewish People] traveled from Refidim and arrived in the Sinai
desert. Israel camped there in the desert; they camped opposite the
mountain. (Shemos 19:2)
"They Camped ... Like a single person with a single heart" (Rashi)
There are very few parshios that afford an opportunity of addressing the
issue of Jewish unity as directly as Parashas Yisro. This is because, as
Rashi points out, at Har Sinai and the giving of Torah, the Jewish nation
achieved an exceptionally high level of "achdus" (unity), Thus is the power
of revelation of G-d.
If you ask many Jews today who still remember the Persian Gulf War, what is
one of their fondest memories from that was, many will answer the "unity"
that was achieved. Whether it was here in Eretz Yisroel, or outside of
Israel, Jews came together to say Tehillim or to work together in some
capacity -- Jews who previously often let differences of approach to Torah
stand in their way of unity.
Thus is the power of a life-and-death crisis within a nation.
This does not mean that the Torah waves commandment-obligation in order to
solve the problem of disunity and baseless hatred among Jews. Just the
contrary: there can be no greater destructive force within creation than
the abandonment of Torah and mitzvos. This the Torah makes clear in many
places, and the Talmud reiterates often.
Then what DOES it mean? It means that, it is easier to go to the extreme
"right" on an issue, or to the extreme "left." There is an instinctual
yetzer hara within all of us to either avoid differences in people by
either completely condemning them, or, by completely exonerating them.
Sometimes we have no choice: sometimes we have to go to extremes on issues
because that is the best Torah response to the situation. However, other
times we gravitate to extremes as a result of intellectual laziness, or,
because of insecurity, or because of both reasons. Which direction one goes
depends upon the nature of the individual: confrontational or
In each case, the person can "justify" his or her approach in the name of
G-d, i.e., "G-d wants unity above all else ..." or, "G-d wants obedience
above all else ..." Each statement can be very true, depending upon the
situation. When Pinchas speared Zimri and Cozbi (Bamidbar 25:8), "unity"
became secondary to mitzvah-obedience, because, it was only through
mitzvah-obedience and such a corrective measure as Pinchas's that true
unity could be restored.
Other times, G-d may expect us to be more accepting of others who do not
live up to our standards of observance, in order to bring them back into
the "fold" and to help them find their true place within the Jewish nation.
Different levels of souls produce different types of Jews with different
capacities to live by Torah.
(I just read a story of the Chazon Ish, one of the greatest rabbis of the
last century, to whom a young man was brought. The boy was having
difficulty fitting into the mainstream approach to Torah, and his rabbi and
parents were worried about him. To the rabbi's utter surprise, the Chazon
Ish did not rebuke the boy, the reason for which, apparently, he was
brought to the Chazon Ish. Instead, the Chazon Ish spent the entire time
trying to build a rapport with the boy, making him feel comfortable, so
that he would be willing to come back a second time, and perhaps and third
The trick is to know in which mode to operate and at which time. The
problem is that there is no single formula to apply in EVERY situation,
which means that every situation has to be evaluated unto itself. As the
Talmud says, you have to push a person off with your left hand while
bringing him close with your right hand; a person has to know to show love
amidst the discipline.
How much "left" and how much "right"?
It depends. It depends upon the person you are dealing with, the situation
you find yourself in, and upon YOU yourself. However, the Talmud, like it
does in many places, only provides the polar extremes, and leaves the
middle ground undefined. This is not an oversight. It is the Talmud's way
of telling us that Torah is for the thinking Jew, that truth is arrived at
only after careful and effective deliberation of issues, and that only
sensitive and secure people can penetrate the surface of a confusing
situation, and turn it into a positive experience.
This is one of the greatest legacies of Har Sinai: the chance to see how
Jewish unity is affected when intellectual and spiritual clarity is
G-d came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and called
Moses up to the top of the mountain ...(Shemos 19:20)
As the Talmud relates, history is divided into three equal periods of
two-thousand years each: Spiritual Desolation, Torah Dissemination, Heels
of Moshiach (Sanhedrin 97a). By the time Avraham was fifty-two years of
age, history rolled over to the year 2,000 (from creation), and the period
of Spiritual Desolation, when mankind just about forgot about G-d
altogether, came to a close.
In the year 1656 (2005 BCE), there had been the Great Flood of Noach's
time. In the year 1996 (1665 BCE), the tower of Bavel had gone up and come
down, and thus were born the seventy languages in the Great Dispersal of
the people of Bavel. Now, in this week's parshah, the newly freed Jewish
people were at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive G-d's Torah -- the most
signification historical event since the creation of man himself. The year
is 2448/1313 BCE.
What really happened at that time? What does Har Sinai really represent as
a historical event? For countless generations, we have drawn out and
repeated the many possible messages that the giving of Torah teaches -- on
a pshat level. Perhaps it is time to expand upon those messages, by looking
at "Mattan Torah" on a deeper level.
Let us begin with an analogy. Most of us who make use of electrical
appliances have very little understanding of what is happening when we turn
the switch on -- within the appliance, or, at the source of its power. All
we know is that we need to cook, for example, and our electric stove must
function properly for us to succeed; all we know is that we are hot, and
that, to cool down, we require our air conditioners to respond to our every
beckon and call.
Then comes the "brown out." All of a sudden our lights flicker, and we are
reminded once again that, as successful as we are at providing electricity
to every home in the Western world, there are still limits. Turning on our
air conditioner units in unison with the rest of the country draws more
power than we can supply, and the system weakens to make the point.
It works the same way in the spiritual world as well, with one phenomenal
and essential difference. Just as in the physical world a greater demand
for electricity means a greater draw on the source of that electricity, so,
too, does a greater demand for spiritual light draw down more of that light
from its Source -- its UNLIMITED source, G-d Himself.
However, increased electrical input does not change the nature or potential
of the appliance waiting to receive it; if it tries to, the appliance will
become destroyed. That can happen also in the spiritual world as well: too
much G-dly light can and will destroy the "vessel" that receives it.
However, even a little extra spiritual light will transform the "vessel" --
in this case -- the person, enhancing their physical nature and expanding
their spiritual potential.
For 2,448 years, the Original Light of creation had rarely made an
appearance in any real, overt way. As Rashi points out, this sublime Light
became the "Ohr HaGanuz" -- the "Hidden Light" -- because G-d "withdrew" it
to a higher spiritual realm on the first day of creation, to protect it
from abuse by the upcoming evil generations (Chagigah 12a).
While the Hidden Light remained revealed, nature remained almost
non-existent. It was there, but it competed with open miracles every second
of the day. It was barely a veil for the hand of G-d, which is why Adam was
able to have such a "real" relationship with his Creator. This is why this
light is also called "Ohr HaNissi" -- the "Miraculous Light," and while it
shone, physicality was drawn upwards to a much higher spiritual plane.
When the Ohr HaGanuz is withdrawn, nature became more "fixed," appearing
quite permanent; miracles became less visible to the human eye. If you want
to survive at such a time, you are forced to eat, and to take care of other
physical needs -- unlike Moshe Rabbeinu who survived on Mt. Sinai in spite
of the fact that he didn't eat or drink for FORTY consecutive days and
At Har Sinai, in the year 2448 from creation, the small nation camped at
the base of mountain created a large demand for this spiritual light. We're
not talking air conditioners here. We're talking primordial light ... we're
speaking about the holy light with which G-d made creation itself.
And, as the light came down from its Upper World, aimed at the Jewish
people below, physical reality gave way to a completely miraculous one.
This is why, as the Talmud teaches, the Luchos (Tablets) with the law upon
them inscribed by the "finger" of G-d, with which Moshe descended, were
completely miraculous (Megillah 3a).
And, even though forty days later the golden calf would rip us from that
higher, more sublime reality, and throw us back down to a more mundane
physical existence, we would still never be the same again. Once touched by
the Ohr HaGanuz, you are never the same again. In spite of all that
happened to the Jewish nation from that time onward, and would ever happen
to us, the Ohr HaGanuz has stayed with us on -- at least some level.
Perhaps that is the basis on our supernatural survival, at which even our
enemies have marveled. Every Jew since Mt. Sinai has carried some
impression of that fantastic, supernal light. Opening the Torah and
penetrating its depths is no less than penetrating the depths of our very
own souls, and when successful, unleashing the power of the Original Light
that lies hidden within each of us.
Har Sinai lives on within all of us, forever.
The Talmud makes a remarkable comment:
G-d spoke all these things, saying ... (Shemos 20:2)
"We learn that The Holy One, Blessed is He, spoke all of the Ten
Commandments in one word, in a way that is impossible for a man to do. If
so, then why does the Torah say [after], "I am ..." and, "You should not
have ..."? [To tell you that] Moshe went over and explained each
commandment individually ..." (Rashi)
We find this concept a few places in Torah, when G-d informs us of two
different but related concepts simultaneously. For example, as we say in
"Lechah Dodi" in Kabbalos Shabbos on Friday nights:
"Keep" and "remember" [the Shabbos] in one word G-d caused us to hear ...
The question is, what is the point? The most important aspect of
commandments is that we understand them for what they are, so that we can
do them properly. The fact that Moshe had to review each one separately
indicates that hearing all ten at once did not do the trick to make us
fully relate to the mitzvos. So what was taught by hearing all ten
commandments at one time?
Perhaps we can explain the meaning of this idea based upon the following
section of Talmud:
Amos was able to reduce [the commandments] to one ... (Makkos 24a)
The question is, why? It sounds, at first, as if trying to reduce Torah in
any way is degrading for Torah. If G-d wanted to make His Torah less
complex, He would have. If G-d wanted to give only ONE mitzvah, He would
have. So what right do these great people of the past have to do that which
G-d Himself did not?
The answer is, of course, that Amos and the other great leaders of the past
did not intend to try and reduce the importance of a single letter or crown
in the entire Torah. These were G-d-fearing and Torah-loving individuals,
who cherished every single word and mitzvah.
So then, what WERE they trying to do? They were trying to show that all the
details of Torah are really aspects of more general, all-encompassing
concepts. In fact, this is implied in the number of commandments that there
are all together:
613 = 6 + 1 + 3 = 10 = 1 + 0 = 1
The great Hillel implied this idea with his famous comment to the potential
"Do not do to others as you would not want done to you. The rest is
commentary; now go and learn." (Shabbos 31a)
One can just imagine the converting non-Jew sitting there with the sea of
Talmud and shaking his head, saying, "What? All of THIS is only commentary
on THAT? Did this Rabbi Hillel pull a fast one on me?"
The answer is no -- not the great Hillel for whom patience with others was
of the utmost importance. He was being completely honest, and not just
honest, but extremely insightful, telling the would-be convert that living
by Torah requires a change in attitude toward the commandments: Look not
upon the details when weighing Torah, but upon the Klal -- the overall goal
The root of this idea was a real root: the Tree of Life and the Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil. Kabbalists explain that, in spite of the fact
the Torah seems to indicate that there were many trees in the Garden of
Eden before Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, in fact
there was only one: the Tree of Life!
But what about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and all the other
trees in the Garden to which G-d referred (Bereishis 1:29)? They WERE there
too -- but not as independent trees; rather, they were branches off the
Tree of Life (which is why they are called "aitz" as opposed to "e-lan"),
until, that is, Adam ate from the forbidden fruit. Then, the sublime unity
of knowledge was broken, and each "branch" became a tree unto itself.
(Incidentally, this is why, according to the Pri Tzaddik, Tu B'Shevat is
called the "Rosh Hashanah of the Tree" -- in the first mishnah of Tractate
Rosh Hashanah -- as opposed to "of trees." Which tree? The Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil, which still awaits its final rectification and
eventual reunification with the Tree of Life.)
Hence, Torah, which is called the "Tree of Life," is the general, overall
tree from which all other aspects of knowledge branch out -- literally. In
this vast world of unlimited information, especially in this "Generation of
Knowledge," it is easy to be fooled into seeing the myriad of details of
knowledge as being completely independent of Torah, and in the Torah world
itself, as seeing the details of Torah as being independent and standing on
However, at Mt. Sinai, G-d spoke all TEN Commandments at ONE TIME to hint
at the age-old concept that all areas of knowledge, and all the mitzvos and
their details converge into one concept: a profound need to mirror our
Creator, for the sake of eventual union with Him. The rest is commentary.
Now go and learn.
For it is good to make music to our G-d, for praise is pleasant and
befitting ... (Tehillim 147:1)
This tehillah is considered to be a continuation of the theme of the
previous one (see last week), that of the Final Redemption of the Jewish
The Builder of Jerusalem is G-d; the outcast of Israel He will gather in ...
Why the focus on the building of Jerusalem? Because, it is from Jerusalem
that the Final Redemption will begin. After all, Jerusalem is the center of
the universe; after all, it is over the Western Wall that all spiritual
light enters the world and emanates out to the rest of the world.
And, to Jerusalem He will gather in the "outcasts" of the Jewish people,
people, upon whom the world continues to look down -- until the time that
G-d steps into history and sets the record straight. Then, the world will
no longer reject the Torah, nor its devote followers. Most important of
all, the Jewish people will no longer reject themselves, those of whom have
abandoned any sense of connection to Sinai and the Divine Mission.
... The Healer of the broken-hearted ...
What a time it will be, when the guessing and the second-guessing will end.
When Eliyahu comes, followed by Moshiach, no mistake will any longer be
able to be made. It will be unbridled joy, because there will be no fear of
error, no fear of disappointment. And, those who have waited and have lived
to see their hopes of true redemption dashed over and over again, will be
uplifted and experience true elation, like that of the giving of Torah at
... He counts the stars, and calls each by name ...
G-d has not lost track of any of us over the ages (though we may have lost
track of ourselves!). He remembers each and every Jew, who he was, how he
lived, what he believed, and what were his tests. He can and will call each
of us by our name, our true name, the one that describes the essence of all
we became with all we were given. It will be a great and awesome day.
... Because He will strengthen the bars of your gates; bless your children
in your midst ...
Finally, it will be a time of security. Jews, throughout history, have
lived in fear and with tremendous insecurity everywhere they have gone, and
some point in time. And, when seeking security meant leaving behind Torah
values and assimilating into host cultures, the end result was even greater
fear and insecurity.
"Not this time!" we promised ourselves, as we settled into everyday life.
"Yes, this time too ..." history answered us, when everyday life gave way
to Divine planning.
However, not in the End-of-Days, to which King David refers. As the prophet
promised, a time is coming, a "great" and "awesome" time, when G-d will
send his prophet and redeemer. Finally, Mt. Sinai will stand once again,
the Torah and the Jewish people will be united forever, and the world will
achieve the state of universal brotherhood for which it has long, but never