With Spirituality and Life limits are necessary. The Torah which is our guidepost to how to live life, always gives us examples of what happens when we ignore boundaries (gavol in Hebrew) and limits.
In the Book of Exodus 19:12, Moshe is told to caution the People lest they ascend Mt. Sinai and breach the set boundaries. The punishment: “… whoever touches the mountain shall surely die.”
Some verses later (19:20), HaShem again commands Moshe to descend from the mountain and warn the People: … “lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to the Lord, and many of them will fall.”
Moshe himself in the next pasuk (19:21) questions the need for an additional warning, but Gd seemingly ignores his question and proceeds to direct Moshe to forewarn the People again (19:24). How can this double alert be understood?
The written Torah simply can not be understood without the Oral Torah explanations. Our greatest commentator, Rashi summarizes varies sources in his terse explanations.
Rashi (19:24), quoting the Mechilta, explains that “… we spur on a person to follow instructions by warning him prior to the act and spur him on again at the time of the act.” In Rashi’s view, when the violation of a given behavior carries with it severe consequences, additional warnings are warranted.
Rav Soloveitchik expands upon this Midrash (more of the Oral Torah) by utilizing its answer to advance a fundamental principle in the Torah. “Apparently, G-d did not want the People to refrain from ascending the mountain because a physical barrier blocked them.” This is more the mark of a slave whose character is such that only physical force can stop him from breaching the borders.
Not so the Jew. “For Jews, there are neither fences nor partitions. We don’t eat bread on Passover, because there is someone physically stopping us. We don’t eat because we take the prohibition on ourselves.
The prohibition and the warning are enough to prevent a Jew from transgression and wrongdoing. G-d had to emphasize to Moses that the whole Torah is contained in the words, אל’ יהרסו, let them not break through’ – do not break down any abstract boundaries or partitions…
The most amazing thing about the Exodus, far greater than the signs and wonders, [was] the transformation of a nation of slaves who lived in a boundless state, … who did not understand the meaning of laws and strictures, [into a nation who would obey] laws when no taskmaster threatened.
Indeed, the religious Jew observes Shabbos, keeps the laws of Kosher, behaves ethically not primarily because he fears physical punishment. Rather, the sacred and sublime word of HaShem is enough to embolden and impel a Jew to abstain from these and other violations. Hence the warning – the verbal instruction – required repetition.
A very different approach is suggested by the great rabbinic sage of the last century, HaRav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l. In his opinion (Emes L’Yaakov, Shemos 19:24), the double warning was necessary because of the very real fear that the people would be prepared to jump the boundary and suffer the consequences in order to approach and experience palpable intimacy with the Almighty. What truly could be greater than to bask in the Presence of G-d, a spiritual reward reserved only for the righteous in the World to Come! The two sons of Aaron learned this lesson when they were killed for trying to come too close to G-d at the inauguration of the Mishkon (temple) in the desert.
The message here is equally indispensable. The desire to come close to G-d is absolutely intoxicating. The thirst and craving are so powerful that even the greatest of our Sages succumbed to this spiritual longing only to suffer terribly.
The story of the four Tannaim is well known. Rabbi Akiva was the sole survivor of the group because while he did enter the mysterious Pardes (heaven itself), he knew when to stop and not proceed further. (In the Talmud -Yerushalmi Chagigah 2:1)
This intense longing to almost merge with Divinity is no doubt rooted in man’s unquenchable desire to know it all, to know all there is.
In short, to be like G-d. And while emulating G-d is praiseworthy ( Talmud -Shabbos 133b), imagining that one can aspire to be Gd is downright dangerous and a clear threat to anyone and everyone. All too often, a man may not even realize the sheer futility of this spiritual fusion – the human and the divine being mutually exclusive.
A man may even give pious lip service to G-d and sincerely worship Him, but if he behaves as if he is the supreme font of all wisdom, he will have recklessly overreached, broken through the boundaries, and eventually will have brought about his own end. Only when man recognizes that there are limits, limits by virtue of his finite, mortal existence – only then will he understand the ethos of humility and in so doing, open himself up to Divine wisdom which prohibits and permits, which guides and instructs, and which inspires and sanctifies!
At the foot of Sinai, when the People were about to experience this extraordinary spiritual event of actually hearing the voice of G-d when upon hearing the first two Commandments, their souls temporarily left them – at that very moment, they remembered the warning about not approaching too close.
And they then understood that in the heeding of those very boundaries would lie the secret of their mission and purpose as Gd’s Chosen People. Paradoxically, less is more, and limits actually allow for the gushing forth and blossoming of man’s great potential as a singular being created in the image of his Maker.
All of us want to know more. Like this child in the joke below:
One afternoon little Shmuli Horowitz who lived in the northern most region of Canada was sitting with his father in the snow. Shmuli turned to his father and said: “Dad, am I really Canadian?”
The father replied: “Of course, Shmuli, you’re 100 per cent Canadian.”
A few minutes later, the Shmuli turned to his father again and said: “Dad, tell me the truth. I can take it. Am I really 100 per cent Canadian?”
The father answered: “Son, I’m 100 per cent Canadian, your mother is 100 per cent Canadian, so you are definitely 100 per cent Canadian.”
Shmuli seemed satisfied, but a few minutes later he turned to his father once more and said: “Dad, don’t think you’re sparing my feelings. I’ve got to know. Am I 100 per cent Canadian?”
The father was becoming distressed by the continual questioning and said: “Why do you keep asking if you’re 100 per cent Canadian?”
Shmuli said: “Because I’m freezing!”