JWR Revelation Anew

Jewish World Review / May 27, 1998 / 2 Sivan, 5758

What it takes to really re-create the Encounter at Sinai

By Rabbi B. Berkovits

OF ALL THE FESTIVALS, Shavous, known as Z'mahn Torahseinu --- the time when we received the Torah, is unique. It doesn't have any specific symbol, nor is there any particular mitzvah, or precept, associated with it. Why? Because the Torah is comprehensive and all-embracing. On Shavous, we celebrate that most fundamental of historical events through which we became the Jewish People.

Our commemoration of Kabbalas HaTorah, the Encounter at Sinai, is not merely the anniversary of a historical event, however. It is a continuous and constant process, as illustrated by the wording of the daily prayer, Birchas HaTorah, in which we refer to the Creator as melamed Torah and nosein HaTorah --- the teacher and giver of the Torah, and not the One who taught or gave us the Torah. Jewry cannot be satisfied with having received the Torah yesterday, with having studied the Torah yesterday, with having observed Judaism's precepts (mitzvas) yesterday. Torah is not something which we continue on a habitual basis. It is the essence of the Jew's existence, the meaning of our life --- and as such we, as Jews, have an obligation to grow and develop in our understanding of Torah, we must constantly strengthen and deepen our perception of Torah.

THE TALMUD, in Tractate Shabbes, tells the story of a non-believer who saw the sage, Rova, deeply engrossed in his studies. His fingers somehow were bleeding yet, in deep thought as he was, he was unaware of it. Said the non-believer to Rova: "You impetuous people --- who speak before you listen! You still persist in your impetuousness. First you ought to listen, and if you are able to, you should accept, but if not, you should not accept."

Answered Rova: "About us, who walk wholeheartedly, it is written: ‘The straightwardness of the upright will guide them.'" On this the foremost commentator, Rashi, observes: "We walk with G-d in sincerity of heart, in the manner of those who act in love."

From this Talmudic passage, we have an insight into the famous Jewish concept of na'aseh v'nishmah, the ancient Hebrews' declaration to the Creator of accepting the authority of the Torah before even they knew of its contents.

At first blush, the approach of the non-believer seems eminently reasonable. Before accepting an obligation, before undertaking a commitment, one ought to know what one is accepting or undertaking. The "impetuous" approach characterized by na'aseh v'nishnah, literally "We shall do, then we shall hear, is indeed an unthinking one, not based on cool analysis, and, consequently, it can result -- as in the case of Rova -- in unforseen harm. What, then, was Rova's reply?

The answer is indicated in Rashi's comment cited above. Rova did not attempt to refute the non-believer as such. He did not attempt to rationalize Jewry's acceptance of the Torah or try to demonstrate it makes logical sense. What he was saying was that the question just does not arise. The question is only a question for those whose approach is based on rationalism --- a rational person does not act without reason. For those whose approach is based on love, however, there is no problem.

This is what na'aseh v'nishnah means -- love of the Creator -- an attitude of mind characterized by total, complete and utter love of G-d.

There is another condition to re-creating the Encounter at Sinai, another dimension of love which is required before we could receive the Torah. This is ahavas Yisrael love of one's fellow Jew. The Talmud tells us, in Tractate Berachos, that the Creator, so to speak, has a pair of tephilin. What is written in these tephilin, what is the Divine equivalent of Shema Yisrael? In the Heavenly tephilin it is written the verse: "Who is like you nation, Israel, one people in the world?"

The idea that our Sages are expressing here is this: Just as the most fundamental statement we can make about the Creator is that He is One, so the most fundamental statement we can make about Jewry is that we are one nation. And just as the "Oneness" of the Creator is a complete unity, so the unity of Jewry is a perfect and complete oneness.

And it is this concept, too, that lies at the basis of our "accepting" the Torah. Without complete unity, without perfect "oneness," there would have been no Encounter at Sinai --- it would have been impossible and, indeed, meaningless, for the Torah to have been given. Hence, the famous comment of Rashi, on the biblical Hebrew's sojourn in the desert: "And Israel encamped there" (the verb is in the singular) --- "like one man, with one heart." In other words, it was only when Israel had reached the stage of functioning as one single organism that they were able to receive the Torah, and it was only then, when they loved each other as themselves, that they could achieve the love of G-d exemplified by the declaration, "na'aseh v'nishnah." Love of the Almighty and love of one another are inextricably related.

The concept of oneness of the Jewish people is not merely an empty slogan or theoretical --- it has important Jewish legal implications, as well. Thus the notion that every Jew is responsible for another -- Kol Yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh -- is based on Jewry's essential oneness. Similarly, Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah notes that the Jewish Supreme Court, or Sanhedrin, can temporarily suspend observance of a particular mitzvah, as an emergency measure if the purpose is to bring people back to the Torah or prevent them from transgressing the Torah, as a whole -- "just as a surgeon amputates a person's hand or foot in order to save his life as a whole." To this the commentary, Radvaz, adds: "This comparison is only accurate if we look upon the whole of the Jewish people as one organism. Even though they are physically different from one another, nonetheless, since the soul of each Jew is derived from the same source, they are treated as one body, because the soul is essential." In other words, as long as their is spiritual unity amongst Jewry, it matters not if we are comprised of individuals.

There is a further implication in this concept --- a practical one. No Jew can be self-sufficient, and no Jew can live only for himself. This idea is developed in a remarkable essay by the 18th Century sage, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer. In an essay, the rabbi emphasizes that a person's primary duty in the world is not to achieve individual self-perfection, but to increase the Glory of Heaven by influencing his fellow man to better himself. "It is better for an individual to concentrate less on his own perfection in order to increase the glory of G-d by reducing the numbers of those who rebel against Him." It was for this reason, says the Chasam Sofer, the biblical Abraham was described as especially beloved by the Creator, because he preferred to spread Torah rather than concentrate on his perfection. He, too, could have attained the level of angel, had he withdrawn from the world and concentrated on himself, but he realized that G-d does not want a person to perfect himself, whilst abandoning those around him to their own devices.

Similarly, the Chasam Sofer explains that Moses' prayer was "that all the people of G-d be prophets" extended not only to the Jewish people, but to the whole of humanity, so that all of mankind would know and recognize the Truth.

If our celebration of Shavous is to be a meaningful one, we have to be prepared to re-examine our attitudes. We have to strive to re-affirm our na'aseh v'nishnah, in a spirit of unqualified love of the Creator and of Torah. Above all, we have to be prepared to join one another in true unity, so that we are permeated by an attitude of love for one another. By doing so, we will truly be celebrating the Giving of the Torah.

JWR contributor, Rabbi Berel Berkovits, is the Registar of the London Beth Din.


©1998, Rabbi B. Berkovits