David Walk

Who Was There?

This week’s Torah reading is a powerhouse parsha. We have the heart-breaking scene of Moshe begging God to enter the Land. There is the reprise of the Ten Commandments. Plus, we have the first paragraph of the SHEMA with its dramatic six-word introduction which has become, perhaps, the motto of our people. But I’d like to discuss a couple of verses which precede the repetition of the Ten Commandments, because they present a delicious mystery.

Here they are: It was not with our ancestors that God made this covenant, but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now. Face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire God spoke with you (Devarim 5:4).

Whoa! Just a minute there. It was indeed their parents who were standing at Mt. Sinai, and, problem number two, most of those listening to Moshe hadn’t yet been born. The bulk of that generation died in the desert, but those under 20 were exonerated and survived to enter the Land.

Rashi, famously, adds a word to the statement, L’VAD, ‘alone’. It was not only with your ancestors who were there at the foot of Sinai. This works, but isn’t satisfying.

The Abarbanel agrees with Rashi, and adds, ‘so that the Torah should not be taken lightly by the many coming generations…the Torah was directed only at all of those who will live from generation to generation, not to those who would receive it.’ This begins to explain the intent of the declaration: The Torah and the Covenant belong to those dedicated to its survival and transmission.

Reb Kalonymus Kalman Epstein in his great work, Maor V’Shemesh goes a bit further. He quotes from a Midrash (Shmot Raba 42:8) which elucidates a very tough verse in Psalms:

Then they would not be like their ancestors, a flattering and lying generation, a generation whose heart was not loyal and whose spirit was not faithful to God (Tehillim 78:8). He expounds that to mean ‘the verse refers to the people at Har Sinai, that there were amongst them many whose hearts weren’t true…Torah must be accepted with devotion…but many of that generation ‘flattered and lied’.’

According to the Ma’or V’Shemsh this all fits in beautifully with the next verse: PANIM B’PANIM DIBER (Face to face He spoke). The Rebbe suggests that because of the BET before the second PANIM, ‘it means that God saw into their innermost selves.’ Even with all the pyrotechnics going on during the epiphany at Sinai, it was an intimate affair, and God knew that some participants weren’t into it.

Based on this last point of view, there are clearly many possible ways to understand what Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching the Jews about the Covenant. The most famous approach is that since this Covenant is based upon a long-term sense of duty which supersedes the time frame of the event at Sinai, anyone can be understood as being there at the foot of the Mountain. All they need is the long-term commitment to the deal and the transaction. My affirmation today places me at the event 3300 years ago. How’s that for time travel?

But there’s another time frame issue going in our parsha. We seem to have an obsession with HAYOM, ‘today’.  The word appears in the famous verse, ‘Those of you who hold fast to God are alive HAYOM (4:4).’ It is in verse three of our chapter, and later in our parsha it’s in the third verse of Shema: Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day (HAYOM).

Now we could just continually push the ‘every committed individual was there’ agenda, but Rav Dr. Avraham Twerski had another approach. This renowned expert on addiction shares with us that he was,

‘indebted to one of my alcoholic patients who called me, citing the verse in the Torah which says that Jacob love Rachel so intensely, that the seven years he had to wait for her seemed to him like just a few days. He noted that some commentaries say that this is contrary to nature. Separation from someone you love makes each day seem endless, rather than the reverse. “But if you look closely at the words in the Torah,” my patient said, “the answer is obvious. The Torah says that the seven years were yamim achadim, which means single days. Jacob was able to tolerate the long separation because each day he thought, `I only have to deal with today,’ and that was doable.”

What a powerful and cool idea! My commitment to Torah is an infinite obligation, but I must live it day by day by day. Let’s put the two ideas together. Those whose loyalty to Torah is embedded deep into their very being are considered as if they had personally stood at Sinai. Plus, this undertaking is best accomplished when viewed as a day-by-day duty. So, I (and every Jew) can and, indeed, should relive MA’AMAD HAR SINAI every day of my life. Wow, what a way to feel truly alive!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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