Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Absolut Torah” Parashat Yitro 5776

It seems counterintuitive. Am Yisrael were about to receive the Torah, the written word of the Almighty who only weeks earlier had taken them out of Egypt with miracles, shock, and awe. The Torah was the basis for their exodus[1]. It was the ultimate gift, making Powerball look puny in contrast. And yet for some reason they did not seem to want it.

We arrive at this unavoidable conclusion from a verse describing Am Yisrael as they encamped at Mount Sinai [Shemot 19:17]: “They stood b’tachtit ha’har”. These words in their simplest form mean that Am Yisrael stood “at the foot of the mountain”. Indeed, this is the explanation of Onkelos. Rashi, however, deviates from the simple meaning and brings a Midrash from the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88a] that states that Hashem actually uprooted the mountain and held it high over their heads. He gave them a choice: either you accept the Torah right here and right now or you will die. It is clear that Am Yisrael did not want the Torah, otherwise Hashem would not have had to use force to encourage them to accept it. The question is: what alerted the Talmud? What did Am Yisrael do that gives any indication that they were not interested in receiving the Torah?

The answer has to do with one of the customs of the holiday of Shavuot. Many people stay awake the entire night of Shavuot learning Torah[2]. What is the source of this tradition? One explanation is that the Jewish people did not rise early on the day that Hashem gave the Torah, and it was necessary for Moshe to awaken them. This is clearly written in the same verse in which Am Yisrael camp “under the mountain”, where the Torah tells us [Shemot 19:17] “Moshe took the people out toward Hashem from the camp”. One would have expected them to be so excited that they were about to receive the Torah that they would not be able to sleep. We would have expected them to stand waiting as close as they could get to the mountain. But they were apparently not at all excited and they slept quite well, to the point that Moshe had to shake them out of their slumber. To compensate for their behaviour, Jews have accepted upon themselves the custom of remaining awake all night. Having proved that Am Yisrael were not particularly excited about receiving the Torah, Rashi just takes the next step, teaching that they did not want it.

Tosafot [DH Kafa] on the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88a] is disturbed by the need to coerce Am Yisrael into receiving the Torah. Isn’t this the same nation that said [Shemot 24:7] “We will do and we will listen (na’aseh v’nishma)”? Our Sages tell us that these were the most important words ever uttered by Am Yisrael. Until that moment these words were spoken only by angels. How could the same nation that had attained such a high spiritual level perform such an about-face[3]? Tosafot answer that Am Yisrael were so frightened by the shock and awe at the revelation at Sinai that they were willing to do without the Torah. Rav Zalman Szorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, gives a much more prosaic answer: So they said na’aseh v’nishma. Big deal. Saying something is much less meaningful than actually doing it. At the end of the day, it’s all a function of conviction – how much effort a person is willing to expend to stand behind his words. Am Yisrael lacked conviction and they lacked willpower to go beyond mere lip service.

Let’s fast forward three and a half thousand years and ask ourselves frankly: if we were were standing at the foot of Sinai, would we have willingly accepted the Torah? I’m not certain the answer is “yes”. A vignette that I heard last week strengthens my doubt. This story concerns a person who was, until recently, responsible for the curriculum of a certain rabbinical school. He felt that it was important that the future rabbis under his tutelage have a fluency in the prophecies of Jeremiah. When he presented his idea to his colleagues he was met with a surprising amount of resistance. While all agreed that many concepts in Jeremiah are extremely timely, it was felt that the Hebrew language in which Jeremiah is written would be “too difficult”. And so these future rabbis are now learning “Topics from Jeremiah” that have been cherry-picked and have had their Hebrew skin peeled off.

Remember, these are the future leaders of the Jewish people, and yet they are unwilling to expend the effort to open up a book and to learn it. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [83b] reinterprets the verse [Bemidbar 19:14] “This is the law (torah) for a person who dies in a tent” as “Only a person who ‘kills himself’ studying Torah will merit understanding it”. You want to learn Torah? You want to understand the Torah? Then you’re going to have to sweat. Not these rabbis. If it doesn’t come to me easily, I’m not interested in it. The key word here is “me”. The American and French revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century had a huge impact on world Jewry. These revolutions brought about the emancipation of man, bringing him to the centre of the universe, in many cases replacing G-d. Not surprisingly, in the world of Judaism these revolutions brought about an exodus from orthodoxy.

Twenty-first-century postmodernism is a continuation of this trend: there is no “good” and no “evil”, no “right” and no “wrong”, no “black” and no “white”. Truth is relative and it is determined by the observer. The Torah flies in the face of postmodernism. It is a book of absolutes: certain acts are permitted and others are not. Some foods are kosher and others are treif. It is their nature, and it cannot be changed one iota. The Torah is a book of G-d given truths, and man, even while he is the pinnacle of creation, cannot overrule his creator.

What can we do to prepare ourselves to receive the Torah? The Midrash tells the story of how Hashem offered the Torah to the Nations of the World before He offered it to Am Yisrael. First Hashem approached the Edomites, giving them first refusal. They asked Hashem “What is written in the Torah?” He answered that it contains a prohibition to commit murder. They responded that as murder plays an important part in their society, they could not accept the Torah. Then Hashem approached the Ammonites and the Moabites, who also asked Hashem “What is written in the Torah?” He answered that it contains a prohibition to commit adultery. They responded that as adultery plays an important part in their society, they could not accept the Torah. Then Hashem approached the Yishmaelites, who also asked Hashem “What is written in the Torah?” He answered that it contains a prohibition to steal. They responded that as theft plays an important part in their society, they could not accept the Torah.

Finally, Hashem approached Am Yisrael who told him “na’aseh v’nishma”. But is this really fair? If Hashem had told Am Yisrael what was written in the Torah — no cheeseburgers, for instance — perhaps they would have balked just like the other nations. The answer is that just like the other nations were given a test to see if they could go against their natural tendencies, so were Am Yisrael. Am Yisrael had — and still has — a natural tendency to ask questions. By not asking Hashem “What is written in the Torah”, Am Yisrael passed the test. They did not check to see if the Torah was “right for them”. They understood that they were not even part of the equation. They understood that they must take whatever was given to them in its absolute whole. Sadly, they lacked the conviction to turn their words into deeds. We’re not even close to their level. To prepare ourselves to receive the Torah the first thing we must do is to go against our own natural tendencies. We must take ourselves out of the centre of the circle and expose ourselves to the possibility of absolute splendour.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yoav ben Chaya.

[1] When Hashem first appears to Moshe at the burning bush, He tells him [Shemot 3:12] “When you take the nation out of Egypt you will worship [Hashem] on this very mountain”.

[2] I used to do this before I had children. Now, not so much. The truth is that in Israel Shavuot usually falls around the shortest night of the year. By the time you finish eating dinner you’re dead tired and you have only about four hours in which to learn before you start davening. Shavuot in Australia is much more user-friendly. It usually falls on one of the longest nights of the year. Dinner ended early while I was still alert. I could get in a good five hours of learning and still have enough time to sleep eight hours before shul.

[3] While the words “na’asaeh v’nishma” are recorded in the Torah only after the revelation at Sinai, most commentators concur that this episode actually occurred before the Torah was given.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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