The giving of the Torah, which we commemorate and re-experience on Shavuot, was an unprecedented revolution in the history of the universe. On the simple level, it was the communication and codification of a divine wisdom that would influence and refine all of human civilization thereafter. But on a deeper level, it was a fundamental transformation of existence which has reshaped the very nature of the creation.
The dramatic shift that occurred on the first Shavuos 3335 years ago is encapsulated in the opening words of the ten commandments that were delivered on Mount Sinai. “Anochi A-donai E-lohecha asher hotzeisicha me’eretz Mitzrayim mi’beis avadim/I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).
Exploring the mystic depth of this first commandment, the Chassidic masters explain that the verse is far more than a mere introduction or statement of fact. Hashem is not simply telling us that He is our G-d who rescued us from slavery, as the plain translation of the words suggests. Rather, the first three words of the phrase inform us of one of the most profound truths of our existence.
Each of the these three terms – Anochi, A-donai, and E-lohecha – refers to a different aspect of G-d, and therefore the phrase describes the process by which the highest level of G-dliness penetrates our deepest recesses. “Anochi/I” represents the level of G-d that is so completely beyond the world that it cannot be named and can only be referred to as “I.” With the giving of the Torah, this essence descended into the level of “A-donai/the Lord,” a transcendent G-dly energy that is beyond the world but creates and conducts it. From here, the divine essence descended even further into the level of “E-lohecha,” the G-dliness that is contained within the world and within each of us and is therefore expressed in the possessive form as “YOUR G-d.”
The verse is thus commanding us to know and internalize the fact that G-d is not merely omnipresent and beyond the world (“Anochi” and “A-donai”), but He is simultaneously immanent within us (“E-lohecha”). Humankind, we discover, are not simply brute, physical beings inevitably subject to their animalistic instincts. Rather, we are, each and every one of us, fragments of G-dliness hidden in a casement of materiality. With this revolutionary conception of our being, we are instructed to go “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In other words, we are to transcend all of our previously perceived limitations, and then to externalize and publicize the truth of G-d’s oneness throughout the creation.
Yet we might ask what the giving of the Torah truly innovated. Were we not the same G-dly beings prior to the events of Mount Sinai? Was the aspect of “Anochi,” G-d’s essence, only infused into us on the very first Shavuot? If so, what about the previous 2,448 years from the time of Creation until then? Certainly the spark of G-d was within humanity from the moment of our creation, for that is our very soul and life force. What then does it mean to say that the giving of the Torah marked the moment when G-d embedded the celestial level of “Anochi” into the worldly level of “E-lohecha?”
We will gain some insight by exploring another verse that employs similar terms and expresses similar themes. In the first verse of the fourth portion of the book of Deuteronomy, G-d proclaims: “Reeh Anochi nosein lifneichem hayom bracha u’klala/See, I give before you today a blessing and a curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). Simply translated, this verse means that G-d is providing the nation on that day a choice between a blessing and a curse. But its deeper meaning is once again gleaned from examining the precision of the Hebrew text. Once again we find the word “Anochi,” which we have already identified as an unusual usage and a less common translation for the pronoun “I.” Regarding the fourth word of the verse, “lifneichem/before you,” the Alter Rebbe asks why the more simple and straightforward term “lachem/to you” was not employed. If G-d merely wanted to express that “I am giving to you today a blessing and a curse,” then He could have more simply stated “Ani nosein lachem hayom….” Substituting “lifneichem” for “lachem” provides a far more profound implication, as does inserting “Anochi” instead of “Ani.” “Lifneichem” can mean “before you,” or it can be translated as “within you.” Based on the use of these terms, the Alter Rebbe’s translation of the verse reveals its mystic secret: “See, I place ‘Anochi’ within you today, a blessing and a curse.”
On this deeper level, the verse is stating that G-d is placing His level of “Anochi,” His deepest self, within us. Once again, as we found in the deeper understanding of the first commandment, we are presented with a shockingly blatant and succinct statement of G-d’s insertion of His essence within us. Our task is laid out in the first word of the verse, “Reeh/See”: we are instructed to perceive this hidden truth, and to then make it revealed so that others can see it as well. It is a blessing when we do so, and it is a curse when we are unaware of our holy core.
Yet what remains to be understood in the verse is the word “hayom/today.” When is this “today” on which G-d implanted His level of “Anochi” into our “pnimyus/innermost core?” The Sages state that the word “hayom/today” aligns the verse with another significant date in history. The Zohar, discussing the verse “Atem nitzavim hayom/you are standing today” (Deuteronomy 29:9), comments that the word “hayom/today” in that verse is a reference to the first day of Adam and Eve’s creation. This is because the same word is found in the phrase from the Talmud, “zeh hayom techilas maasecha zichron l’yom rishon/this day is the beginning of your works, a remembrance of the first day” (Tractate Rosh Hashana 27a; Ramaz, Zohar Chadash beis 32,2). If we read “hayom/today” in our verse (“See, I place Anochi within you today …”) as a reference to the day of humanity’s original creation, then we find that the time when G-d instilled His inner essence into our innermost core was the very moment of our inception. Humanity was conceived and created with G-d’s level of “Anochi” as our crux and foundation. It is what we are in essence and in fact!
If this is the case, then what was the innovation at the giving of the Torah? How is it, as we asked previously, that we and the world were dramatically transformed when we stood at Mount Sinai after we went out of Egypt two and half millennia after our creation? If the soul, which is a spark of G-d, was within us all along, then what did we gain with the receiving of the Torah?
While we might be tempted to suggest that G-d infused in us “more” of His essence at Mount Sinai than He had given us at our creation, this is untenable because there cannot be more or less of the infinite. However, there can be a greater revelation of something that already existed in a more hidden way. And this is precisely the additional dimension that became manifest when the Torah was given. At that point, with the giving of the Torah, humanity was provided a far greater ability to locate the divine essence that G-d had already hidden within us at our creation. The Torah was, and is, a way for us to relate to and reveal the infinite that was previously too blinding for us to detect. The “Anochi” that He gave with the giving of the Torah was a mechanism for us to see the “Anochi” that was already in us but was previously impossible to grasp and maintain. In this sense, Torah can be seen as an eyepiece that allows us to perceive, and even stare without being blinded, into the blazing infinite light that shines from within our hidden nucleus.
In The Ethics of the Fathers, it is taught: “Precious is man for he was created in the image of G-d. Even more precious is that it was made known to him that he is formed in the image of G-d” (Pirkei Avos 3:14). The essence and image of G-d was always within us, but we weren’t aware of that and truly able to know what that meant until we received the Torah. This is the revolutionary innovation of Shavuot. As we receive the Torah anew ever year on this holy day, we are once again provided the opportunity to plumb the depths of our existence and to express our infinite nature and potential.