We are on the eve of celebrating and on some level reliving the most cataclysmic event in the history of mankind. The festival of Shavuos is when the Jews stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and said “naseh v’nishmah” through which they received the Divine Revelation of the Aseres Hadibros, and ultimately the entire Torah over the forty years in the desert. Each year when this festival arrives, along with it follows the question, why? Why is the Sinaitic Revelation the most cataclysmic event in the history of mankind? Every religion has their “book”, why is the revelation of our “book” so central to all of world history? Also, in our liturgy we constantly point to Yetziyas Mitzrayim as our reference point for nationhood not Mount Sinai, everything is “zecher l’yetziyas mitzrayim”. In the Haggadah we say “if Hashem had taken us out of Mitzrayim and not split the sea or given us Torah it would have been enough”. The Sefer Chovos Halevavos writes in Chapter 5 of the Sha’ar Habechinah, that the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was the single greatest infusion of goodness for all of humanity that there has ever been and will ever be in history. We also know that Torah is referred to as the “good council” – lekach tov nasati lachem. It is the one truly good council that the world has. It is this good council that not only endows goodness on the Jewish people but on all of creation. Yetziyas Mitzrayim may be the inception of the Jews as a nation and certainly our reference point in time for many of our mitzvos and halachos, but that just set the stage for the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. This event is what truly put the Jewish people on the map of history. This event is what transformed us as a people to being a mamleches kohanim and a goi kadosh. It transformed us into a people who would constantly impact human history forever.
What is so good about Torah, what gives it such broad impact and significance? The Ramban numerous times in the verses of Maseh Bereishis understands that the proper translation of the Hebrew word “tov” (good), is – “established forever”. The “good” of the Torah is certainly tied to its eternal relevance and its ongoing and established value that is unchanging and immutable. Our sages teach us that before the Almighty came to Mount Sinai to give the Torah to the Jewish people He first offered it to the nations of the world. The Midrash on the verse “The Almighty came from Sinai, He came up from Sair to them, He appeared from Mount Paran, and He came from holy multitudes” (Devarim 33:2) expounds as follows. When the Almighty came to give Torah to the Jewish people He first offered it to the nations of the world. The Edomites, who lived in Mount Sair, asked what is written in it. The response was “thou shall not kill”. The Edomites responded we can’t accept it because our whole essence is that we are murderers who come from Esav the murderer who lived by the sword. When the Almighty offered the Torah to the Amonites and Moabites, who lived near Mount Paran, they asked what is written in it. The Almighty told them “thou shall not have illicit relations”. They answered that our whole essence is illicit relations. When the Almighty offered the Torah to the Yishmaelim they asked what is written in it? The response was “thou shall not steal”. They responded we can’t accept it because we are sustained on thievery. There are numerous difficulties with this Midrash. Firstly, was it possible for these nations to say yes to this question or is this Midrash just teaching us through this interplay that the nations of the world just couldn’t possibly receive Torah, it wasn’t meant for them at all? In fact there is a different Midrash which seems to indicate this may have been the case. Another problem is the answer they gave. At no point do we have on record that the official legal or moral code of the Edomite, Ammonite, or Yishmaelite nations was to kill, commit illicit relations, or steal at will. These were always accepted as basic tenants of morality that must be upheld. There may have been circumstances or situations which warranted certain responses of defending one’s honor or simply surviving at the brink of impoverishment but that wouldn’t have classified as murder or thievery. Furthermore, when the Almighty comes to give the Torah to the Jewish people they simply respond “naseh v’nishmah” – we will do and we will understand without asking questions. Were the Jewish people lacking intellectual sophistication? Did they suffer from narrow minded culturing and thus lacked the breadth and the courage to ask “let us know what is contained within this Torah before we accept it”?
If we work with certain basic assumptions then the difficulties in this Midrash begin to fall away. If we work with the assumption that Torah being given in the world by the Almighty is something that is going to be of objective benefit to all of humanity then it makes perfect sense for Him to go to these other nations to give it to them as well. Even if Torah and mitzvos were not meant to be kept by all of humanity in their entirety, they are nevertheless relevant to all of humanity. The Netziv (on the verses in Devarim 27:4-8) understands that the precept the Jews had to set up rocks when they came into the land of Israel and inscribe the Torah on them is referring to inscribing the entire written Torah for the nations to see and learn from. That means regardless of whether they were ever meant to fulfill all the mitzvos, some dimension of the entire Torah was meant for them to be aware of. Also the response of these nations was in fact quite characteristic of a basic human nature. What was the choice they were being posed with at that time? They of course knew that they had definitions of thievery and murder for which they had designated certain punishments. However, they were being offered a new definition of “thou shall not kill, commit illicit relations, or steal”. They were being offered the objective definitions of these precepts as defined by the Almighty Himself, not as defined by the human mind or society at any given time. The response of the nations was then quite clear. We can only be comfortable working with our man made definitions of thievery, illicit relations, and murder. At the moment at which we accept upon ourselves that there is an absolute definition of these precepts that is binding we will be in a state of constant internal friction with the Supernal Will, since we have a nature that constantly prods us to live otherwise.
What sets the Jewish people apart then was that in the most crucial point in world history they made the most sublime commitment that a human being is capable of. The Jews knew that the Almighty was coming to present them with His immutable definitions of right and wrong, of good and evil. They also knew quite well that these definitions would fly straight in the face of their own human nature and that they were potentially committing themselves to a life of anxiety and inner turmoil in order to keep it. However they said “naseh v’nishmah” anyway. This was their commitment to constantly make the necessary effort to live according to the Will of the Almighty even though it may go against their nature. They had the clarity and the foresight to realize that the alternative was futile. To turn away from making this commitment was tantamount to admitting permanent defeat to live as our raw physical nature would dictate. We would be forever bound and defined by our limitations. To ask the question “can you let us know what is written in it before we accept it” is one step too late. It is the response of one who has already subscribed to the position that we are bound to behave a certain way and we can’t really change.
Why is this good for all of humanity? The answer has now become exposed quite clearly. It is ultimate the greatest good for the world to be penetrated forever with the immutable fact that there is a basic set of guidelines for living an ethical and moral life and that we as human beings can aspire to and succeed at upholding them. Whether humanity chooses to go their own way from now on or to take this fact seriously they are only changing their position and orientation relative to this reality. The constant rejections, attacks, and mockery that the Torah has faced day in and day out for millennium only stand to change humanity’s orientation to it – “either further or closer”, but they can never stamp it out. They can never make it inherently irrelevant. This is the ultimate good. The Almighty has changed our world forever. He has made it literally impossible to change the fact that He has revealed His will clearly in our world and shown us that we can fulfill it. The Jews have embraced this book of life, this source of pure absolute good. They have made it their legacy to study the full depths of the Torah’s teachings and pass on the traditions. But underneath it all what these links in the chain of tradition have passed on to us is that even still nothing has changed. The fact still remains that there are immutable absolute guidelines of moral and ethical conduct that the Almighty revealed at Mount Sinai. This is true even now while scientists are on the frontier of discovering the secrets of matter, curing more of the world’s diseases, and even cloning creatures. Yes, through it all nothing has changed. The Almighty’s immutable Will and Wisdom have penetrated this world forever and will never stop being relevant. The Almighty’s gift to us is eternal and we can have an eternal share in it.
The Gemara in Shabbos 88b teaches that when the Almighty uttered “Anochi Hashem Elokecha….” A fragrance of the Garden of Eden filled the whole world, and so again when He uttered “Thou shall not have any other gods before Me”. What could our sages be coming to allude to with this reference to the Garden of Eden? Perhaps in light of what we have discovered this is not so far fetched. What was the single most outstanding difference between the perception of Adam Harishon in the Garden of Eden and our perception after he ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Adam Harishon was ale to naturally perceive the absolute moral and ethical codes of the world. He had no inner pull or inner drive to go against it. He experienced no friction internally when faced with the clarity of the Supernal Will in creation. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish People said “naseh v’nishmah”. We committed to keep the will of the Almighty wholly and completely even if it would go against our nature.
The Meharsha on the Gemara in Shabbos 88b explains that even within the Jewish people there were different reactions to the Revelation at Sinai. He teaches that essentially there were three groups. The first group was shaken by the Revelation and thus needed the fragrance of the Garden of Eden to strengthen them. The second group was thrown backwards twelve mil. This group was escorted back by the angles. The third group actually experienced their souls leaving their bodies and being dead. This group had to be revived with the “Due of Resurrection”. The Meharsha explains that the determining factor was how strong they were. We could certainly question what type of strength the Meharsha is referring to. It seems unlikely that he is referring to mere physical strength. Rather he is referring to different levels of spiritual strength. In other words, there were different levels within the Jewish people in terms of how much they had overcome their raw physical nature and begun to live with the fortitude and integrity of maintaining their spiritual identities and their true spiritual nature. Those who were still weak died and had to be resurrected. Those who were somewhat strong were blown away and had to be escorted by angles. Those who were really strong needed a mere fragrance of the Gan to bring them back. The three levels correspond to people who are essentially material in their orientation, people who are motivated both by the material and mundane as well as by spiritual matters, and those who were only motivated by spiritual matters and their physical material component was nullified to the agenda of the soul.
Shavuos is called “Chag Matan Toraseinu”. We are reliving the giving of the Torah on Shavuos. The central point of avodah on this festival is to face the fact that we are both physical material beings as well as lofty spiritual beings at the same time. Where we stand on the spectrum of defining ourselves according to our true spiritual essence as opposed to our physical material status will very much determine how the magnitude of the Kabbalas Hatorah this which takes place on this festival will hit us. Ultimately we as Jews will either be “broken” by the magnitude of realizing that the Almighty has spoken to us and revealed His will, or we will be impacted by it intensely but we will just be able to take it in stride and simply renew our commitment to Torah and Divine Service. One way or another as Jews we all say “naseh v’nishmah” because we know that special secret, the greatest good that the world could ever know is that the Almighty revealed His will in it. We recognized that to accept it was an absolute moral imperative. The Maharal, in Chapter 37 of his sefer Tiferes Israel, understands that this is one of the reasons why the first words of the Revelation at Sinai were “Anochi Hashem Elokecha”. The structure and syntax of this statement is such that it conveys much more than a historical event. The statement “I am G-d your Lord….” is not something that was said at Mount Sinai, it is something that is being said forever past present and future. It is a statement made by the Infinite Being who is beyond time and space that is constantly penetrating and permeating our finite world. May we merit hearing that voice once again this Shavuos and be forever changed and impacted by the magnitude of its eternal importance!