Elevated by Divine Command
By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
For many, the song of Dayeinu serves as one of the primary hallmarks of the
Passover Seder. The composition highlights the many wonderful acts of
kindness that the Almighty has bestowed upon His people throughout the
process of the exodus from Egypt, and the need for us to express our
collective gratitude for each item independently.
There is one line, however, that does not seem to belong together with the
others. It is the twelfth stanza, which states that even if the Almighty
would have brought us before Mount Sinai – Keravnu Lifnei Har Sinai – but
would not have presented to us the Torah, it would have been sufficient an
act as to warrant our appreciation. The obvious question is why is this so?
Was not the entire purpose of bringing our nation to Mount Sinai to receive
the Torah? What independent benefit was presented to them by simply arriving
at Mount Sinai?
One answer that is commonly given relates to the supernatural experience of
receiving the Torah. The Jewish people were treated there to an unparalleled
occurrence, one that has never been replicated in human history. However,
the description of this event presents some significant challenges.
There was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mountain,
and the sound of a shofar was exceedingly loud; so that all the people who
were in the camp trembled… And Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because
the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a
furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly… And all the people saw the
thunder, and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar horn, and the
mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood
far away. (Exodus 19:16, 18; 20:15)
How are we to understand the idea of the Jewish People “seeing” the thunder
and the sounds of the shofar horn? How can one see things that are relegated
exclusively to the aural sense?
As we know, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. One cannot compare the
clarity and knowledge that one receives from hearing a description of the
item or event to that of viewing something directly. When one actually
beholds an experience, it translates directly in one’s mind to a deep
understanding, without having to rely on one’s imagination to create the
picture and fill in the gaps. At Mount Sinai, the Almighty's revelation was
so complete that it reached their deepest senses, to the point where their
knowledge of the event was akin to the level of having seen every aspect of it.
For that experience alone it would have been sufficient to thank G-d, even
if we would not have actually received the Torah. Of course, the fact that
we did receive the Torah made this experience all the more rewarding.
However, there is an alternative explanation for this statement found in
Dayeinu; one which focuses less on the supernatural experience of standing
before Mount Sinai and more on the transformation which occurred to the
Jewish People as they experienced this seminal, historic event.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Volume 3, p. 52) describes
the transcendent experience at Sinai as one in which the nation collectively
became elevated to the level of M’tzuveh V’oseh, of those who are commanded
to perform Mitzvos. This was in contrast to those select few, such as the
Patriarchs, who had kept the Torah’s dictates previously based on their own
lofty spiritual levels. Now, as it were, the Torah would be made accessible
Based on this approach, we can deduce a new understanding of the famous
expression of acceptance of the Torah used by the Jewish People at Mount
Sinai “Na’aseh V’nishma (we will do and we will hear)”. Following the
Sinaitic experience, the Jewish people were in position to raise themselves
to loftier spiritual levels (Nishma), once they were given direct access to
the Torah’s precepts (Na’aseh).
Similarly, in the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Da’as T’vunos, 158):
Even though the Jewish people were themselves prepared to serve the
Almighty… the ability to serve Him was only given to them by the Almighty
Himself… This is what He gave to them at the time when the Torah was given…
This is the distinction between one who is commanded to fulfill mitzvos and
does so (“M’tzuveh V’oseh”) and one who is not commanded (“Aino M’tzuveh
V’oseh”). A man who is so commanded was granted the power by the Almighty to
accomplish with his deeds that which is necessary for the (ultimate
fulfillment of) creation, which is not the case for someone who is not.
Rabbi Luzzatto is also saying that our gathering at Sinai was not simply a
logistical prerequisite (albeit a supernatural one) for us to receive the
Torah. Instead, the assembly provided us with a unique opportunity to become
transformed into a community who would serve G-d as those who were commanded
to do so, rather than those who did so out of their own volition. Through
this process, we entered into a new dimension, one in which our actions were
given the power to accomplish much more than they had previously.
What, however, is the source of this increased power? The Talmud (Avodah
Zara 50b, Bava Kama 38a) informs us that, “greater is one who is commanded
to fulfill the Mitzvos and does so than one who is not commanded and still
At first, this idea seems counterintuitive. How is it possible that a
mandatory act – the consequence of whose neglect is some form of punishment
– can be considered to be of a higher level than one which is performed
altruistically by an individual who carried no such responsibility to
The Tosafos commentary (Avodah Zara 50b) explains that a person who is
“commanded” must routinely struggle to nullify his evil inclination, and is
challenged to fulfill the Mitzvos despite such resistance. Alternatively, a
person who is not commanded had no compelling urge to contest the act, and
faces little opposition in the process. It is because of this unique
struggle that the deeds of a M’tzuveh V’oseh are considered to be more
impactful than those of an Aino M’tzuveh V’oseh.
Based on the above approaches, it is clear that there was far more to
arrival at Mount Sinai than that which first meets the eye. And while we are
surely grateful for having received the Torah, it would behoove us to try
and fully appreciate the unique benefits of becoming M’tzuveh V’oseh.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, M.Ed., is an instructor of Jewish History at the Hebrew Theological College (Skokie, Illinois) and serves as associate principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel in Chicago. More information about Rabbi Hoff can be found on his website,www.rabbihoff.com.