The Worldly-Wise Torah

The theophany or revelation at Sinai is the foundational event in Jewish life. It shapes Jewish identity both through it stories and even more significantly through God’s commandments or mitzvot to the children of Israel. This revelation, embodied in the Torah, not only shapes a Jew’s reality, but for the believing Jew, its acceptance has cosmic significance, namely, all of existence is dependent upon it.

This idea is found in a midrash based on a creative reading of a verse from the book of Psalms:

From the heavens You made judgment (din) heard, the earth was afraid and fell silent (yarah v’shakata) . (Psalms 76:9)

The plain or pshat meaning of this verse refers to the fear caused by God’s carrying out justice in the world. The sage, Hezekiah, however, reads “din” to refer to Torah and the verbs “yara” and “shakata” to be understood as fear and tranquility, respectively:

Hezekiah said: What is meant by the verse: From the heavens You (God) made judgment heard, the earth was afraid and tranquil. (Psalms 76:9): if it was afraid, how could it be tranquil, and if it was tranquil, why should it be afraid? [Rather, understand it this way:] At first it feared, yet subsequently it was tranquil. And why did it fear? [This interpretation] is in accordance with [a teaching of] Resh Lakish, for Resh Lakish said: Why is it written: And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (yom hashishi); What is the purpose of the additional ‘the (the definite article ‘hey’)’?  This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said: ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness (tohu va’vohu).’ (Shabbat 88a)

What is the textual impetus for this idea? The Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish, noticed that unlike for the first five days of creation, the Torah set the sixth day apart by using the definite article in referring to the day (yom hashishi). This “hey” inspired him to conclude that the creation of the world was held in check until the children of Israel accepted the Torah on the sixth day (yom hashishi) of Sivan, the day on which the Torah was given (Shavuot).

If one understands this midrash didactically, it expresses a quintessentially Jewish, though somewhat countercultural, message. The Jewish religious tradition has always stressed the idea of responsible behavior, a message embodied by the idea of serving God through divine service – the mitzvot or commandments. This idea, which has had many detractors throughout history, has again proved itself eternally relevant in a world where our fate really does depend on the idea that responsible behavior does matter. It is this precious thought which we not only celebrate on Shavuot but hope to embody in our lives.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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