Revelation and the Receiving of the Torah
(From the book “Celebration of the Soul” by HaRav Moshe Tzvi Neriah. Translated by Rabbi Pesach Yaffe.)
The Sublime Revelation
The entire world ripens on the festival of Shavuot. Yet the world is not worthy of that which the righteous feel in their innermost hearts on Shavuot. The whole universe is happy, noble; the entire earth is the Lord’s in a sublime revelation. Israel is elevated to become the most treasured of the nations, and the soul of Israel appears in its polished brightness. Limitless love for each Jew abounds. Sublime beauty envelops every Jew, a majestic sanctity like a priceless jewel, a wondrous treasure. The world cannot bear the light of the Song of Songs on Shavuot; its enormous value must be concealed in the book of Ruth. Joy and delight intermingle, uniting and blending in peace and supernal pleasantness. (Olat Re’iyah II, p. 305)
“We Shall Do and We Shall Hear”
“All that the Lord has said, we shall do and we shall hear” (Ex. 24:7). Rabbi Elazar said, “When Israel said ‘we shall do’ before ‘we shall hear,’ a heavenly voice called out and said, ‘Who has revealed this secret to My children, a secret used by the ministering angels?’” (Shabbat 88a).
Saying “we shall do” before “we shall hear” is Israel’s eternal power, for we feel within us that all of the sanctity of Judaism is concealed in the natural depths of our essence. If we feel a diminishment of its strength within us, we must first of all strive to be faithful to ourselves. We must shake off all self-deception and realize how to proudly protect the wholeness of our charac ter. “Then we shall walk with strength on all of the paths of life, including the path of our national renewal and the building of the Land.
That which is imprinted in nature does not require attention or study. The bee naturally builds the cells of its hive with utmost numerical precision without attending lectures on engineering. In the spiritual world, the supernal spiritual creatures require no instruction before they act, for their holiness is natural. Only human beings, who are liable to be confused by the convolutions of a fraudulent science, require effort to return to their pure spiritual nature.
The quintessential truth of our existence was revealed to us all at Mount Sinai, when the Master of All was revealed to us amidst clouds of purity to teach our people Torah and mitzvot. In attaining this elevated level, we became the pure, natural people of Israel. We therefore say “we shall do” before “we shall hear,” for we transcended the entire false culture of humanity, which blunders in its vanities and suffers from its evil stupidity in ruling over others to the detriment of all (cf. Eccl. 8:9).
Now, brothers, both young and old, in a bold flight let us return to our exalted purity. Faithful to the very nature of our soul, let us fortify our return to our land of life on a foundation of purity and self-confidence. Let us reveal in all collective and individual endeavors that secret concealed from all of mankind, which is afflicted by self-deceit. And a heavenly voice shall once again burst forth from the peaks of holiness, “Who has revealed this secret to My children, a secret used by the ministering angels?” And as in days of yore, we shall all answer together with a fiery voice, “All that the Lord has said, we shall do and we shall hear” (Ex. 24:7; Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, pp. 171-2).
Study for Its Own Sake
The foundation of the Torah is to study it for its own sake and to study regularly, not sporadically. One who studies at regular times studies Torah for its own sake. But one who does not study Torah for its own sake studies only intermittently, to impress others with his knowledge. One who learns for self-aggrandizement, for whom Torah is an external ornament for deceiving others, will not appreciate the preciousness of the Torah and its sanctity. Though he is acquainted with a fraction of its radiance, the Torah is cheap in his eyes, and he will quickly abandon the words of Torah because he does not cleave to Torah for its holiness. He will study a short time, but its holiness will not remain with him. But one who learns Torah for its own sake recognizes the virtue of Torah and its precious status. He knows that Torah brings man to the highest imaginable level of perfection. ׳Therefore, every word of Torah is dear to him, and Torah scholars are dear to him, for he recognizes their worth and honor (cf. Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, pp. 427-8).
Studying All Night
Chaim Chanoch Stein described the alLnight study session on Shavuot in the Rav’s beit midrash: “Yeshivah students and residents of Jerusalem gathered in the library. The Rav sat at the head of the long table, which sagged under piles of volumes of the Talmud and other books. He read aloud in a sweet singsong from Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot and explained the ramifications of each mitzvah, resolving contradictions and ironing out difficulties with his vast erudition. His face glowed with divine radiance and his blazing eyes expressed inner tranquility and sublime joy. The audience listened to his every word with attention and reverence.
“After midnight some of the visitors slipped out, but the Rav patiently continued to explicate the mitzvot with no sign of weariness. Then he suddenly stopped, rose from his seat, and went out into the hall. His audience quickly followed. The guests and stu* dents all leaped into a spirited dance with the Rav. In a matter of moments, the dancing stopped, and the Rav returned to the library and resumed his lecture. In the early morning hours, the Rav and his audience moved to the study hall in the yeshivah. He leaned on the lectern near the bimah and continued teaching those who were still awake. Day broke. ׳The Rav stopped and said, ‘Thank
God, on this sacred evening we managed to cover a fair portion of Sefer HaMitzvot. We shall continue from this point next year, but now the time has arrived to recite the Shema.”
“The Rav was called up to the Torah for kohen. He recited Akdamut with tears of joy sparkling in his eyes. After the services, the Rav returned home to discourse on Shavuot-related topics. Then the entire crowd of worshippers set out for the Western Wall. The people sang as they accompanied the Rav, who walked leisurely down the main road. Periodically, the procession paused as passersby greeted the Rav. When the highest bricks of the Wall could be seen from the winding alleys of the Old City, they all burst out singing, ‘May the Temple be rebuilt, may the city of Zion be filled. ’״
Recitation of Akdamut
Two of the Rav’s disciples described their impressions of the Rav’s recitation of Akdamut. Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap recounted his experience on the Rav’s first Shavuot in Eretz Yisrael, in 1904, and Rabbi David Cohen recorded his impressions of the Rav’s recitation in 1935, on the last Shavuot of his life. Rabbi Charlap related that “I traveled to Jaffa several days before Shavuot of 1904. My physician had ordered me to immerse in the sea there. That year Shavuot fell on a Friday, and I prayed in the Sha’arei Torah synagogue. I was then twenty ׳one years old. I listened to the Rav recite Akdamut before the congregation in trembling and tears, and I was shaken to the roots of my soul. From that moment on, I cleaved to the Rav with great love and became his student and disciple. But I did not dare to approach the Rav or speak to him.
“On the Shabbat morning immediately following Shavuot, the sexton of the synagogue honored me with the taking out of the Torah scroll from the ark. The Rav was surprised to see such a young man receive the honor. After the services, Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank, who was then studying in Jaffa, introduced me to the Rav. The Rav invited me to visit his home that afternoon. I was thrilled by the invitation. At his home, he spoke to me at length on matters of halachah and aggadah. The Rav was then thirty-nine years old, and, although he was immersed in Torah, he inquired into the particulars of my illness. When visitors appeared, he took me outside for a walk. Thus he began showing me signs of affection and friendship, expressing them in every possible manner” (E. Zoref, Chayei HaRav, pp. 118-9).
Rabbi David Cohen wrote in his memoirs: “After Pesach the Rav fell ill, and we became fearful. On Shavuot he would always stand all night, teaching Sefer HaMitzvot and advancing original insights. This year he entered the reception hall but, after teaching several mitzvot from Sefer HaMitzvot, he returned to his bedroom. In the morning we prayed at sunrise as usual, but I stayed for the second minyan in the beit midrash to hear the Rav recite Akdamut. The Rav came in for the Torah reading, was called to the Torah for kohen, and recited Akdamut in a pleasant voice of weeping and joy, as he did every year. But I felt that this was his last song” (Nezir Echav I, p. 303).
A Kingdom of Priests
“And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).
Torah and kingship in Israel are inseparably bound together. Every Jew is obligated to write a Torah scroll for himself; as it says, “Write this poem for yourselves” (Deut. 31:19). But the king, as ruler of the people and leader of society, wrote an additional Torah during his reign. This royal obligation teaches us that Israel’s acceptance of the Torah is twofold. There is an acceptance of obligation by the individual as a part of the collective and also an acceptance by the nation as a people in control of its own political life. Yet observing the Torah of the collective is far more difficult than observing the Torah of the individual. For the Torah and its mitzvot were given to refine mankind (Gen. Rabbah 44:1), and the process of purifying a community with all of its political needs is far more complicated than the purification of each individual. The individual approaches simple issues of human morality informed by a natural sense of justice, but mankind has not yet arrived at a consensus on the ethical imperatives governing affairs of state. Thus, the evil inclination in collective, political man is many times stronger than the inclination in the individual. As a result, all conceptions of good and evil, justice and iniquity, are totally lost amidst political turmoil in the bubbling cauldron of state, which rages like a stormy sea. Therefore, the Creator of the Worlds planted the name of Mashiach before the creation of the world, “before the [creation of the] sun, his name is Yinon” (Ps. 72:17) (cf. Nedarim 39b). Sovereignty hewn from the very foundation of sanctity lies latent in the depth of the collective Jewish soul. It lies untouched by the tumult of life, which tends to erase justice and destroy morality in an awesome current of turbulent waves of political life. Therefore, because the Scroll of Ruth concludes with the lineage of David, king of Israel, the foundation of the Mashiach of the Lord of Jacob, it is read on the festival of Shavuot, the time of the giving of our Torah.
Let this remind us that within the movement in which we feel a political rebirth, we are dutybound to raise the level of morality and the bond to our foundation of holiness through the power of our sacred Torah, the Torah of life, the source of justice, and the fountain of truth. We must not think that the stormy waves of political ambitions may blind us. Certainly we must not allow the inclination toward factionalism, the threat of which is strongest at the inception of a political movement, to deter us from justice and truth, from love of man — both the collective and the individual — from love for Israel, and from the duty of sanctity unique to Israel. We are obligated not only to be holy individuals but also, and especially, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We should aspire to found a sacred government worthy of its name before the creation of the pragmatic world and all its din, based on the Torah, which preceded the world (ibid.), and on David, king of Israel, who lives and exists. “Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever” (Is. 60:21), speedily in our days, amen.
(Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, pp. 1734).
The Righteous Proselyte
On Shavuot we read the Scroll of Ruth, the story of the Moabite princess who adopted Judaism and found shelter under the wings of the Shechinah. Regarding proselytes, the Rav once said: “I knew a righteous proselyte who lived in Jerusalem. His name was Avraham Ya’akov, better known as Leon Ger-HaZedek. Prior to his conversion, he had officiated as a priest in a large and wealthy New York church. He decided to forgo the false honor and prestige of his pulpit and converted along with his family. He moved to Jerusalem and studied diligently, with genuine fear of Heaven, until he became a true Torah scholar.
“In 1906 or thereabout, he visited me in Jaffa. He told me he had been overwhelmed by my small work Eder HaYakar, in which I had outlined the personality of my father-in-law, of blessed memory. He requested my permission to translate the work into several European languages. I consented, of course.
“Following an intimate conversation, I gently asked him why he had come to embrace Judaism. After a short, thoughtful pause, he said that his conversion had grown out of feelings of gratitude toward God after a miraculous recovery from a terminal illness. He had always been deeply religious, he said, and recognized that man’s superiority came from a sacred faith in God, not from any culture or science. For even a master of ethics and philosophy remains an educated beast without genuine faith.
“But he also realized that only pure faith, free of idolatrous notions, imparts happiness to man and brings him to that noble spiritual stature resulting from sacred belief. He began examining the purity of his faith and brokenheartedly concluded that adherence to his religion was impossible without harboring some idolatrous thoughts. He knew of theologians who claimed that their religion was untainted by idolatry, but he regarded them as intellectuals and philosophers who lacked genuine faith. Only in Judaism did he find the purity of faith he sought.”
Rabbi Ya’akov Goldman added, “I heard from the Rav an additional fact about the American priest who had converted. He planned to establish a yeshivah in Jerusalem in which prospective proselytes could study the fundamentals of Judaism. But he departed for Europe in the summer of 1914, and the Rav never heard from him again.”
The Bikkurim and the Agricultural Life of Israel
How were the bikkurim [first fruits] brought to Jerusalem? All of the cities in the delegation gathered in the city of the delegation and slept in the city square. They did not enter the houses. In the morning, the appointed
one said, “Rise up and we shall go up to Zion, to the Sanctuary of the Lord, our God” Bikkurim 3:2).
In the usual course of things, a nation which occupies itself solely with agriculture, to the exclusion of commerce and the industry associated with it, experiences a decline in its development, for it is isolated and has no opportunity to absorb new ideas or traits from other nations. Yet God desires that His people, though destined to be a wise and understanding nation, perfected with virtuous character traits and the purest and most enlightened beliefs, should remain planted in its land, enjoying and being nourished by its goodness, each under his vine and under his fig tree, with no involvement in any economic pursuits which might lead it to be dispersed among the various nations. This is because He endowed this precious nation with the potential to achieve perfection in every domain and discipline without the need to absorb spirits from without. Amongst the nations, commerce strengthens the social bond among merchants, whereas the farmers — who individually derive pleasure from the produce of their fields — develop no such bonds among themselves. But the bond which unites the people of God in unconditional love for Him and His Torah is a spiritual bond, and everything good and sublime which issues from it is built solely through the national force within the people of Israel. The first fruits therefore reflect the special love for the agricultural basis of the Israelite nation, whose culture will develop only when it is isolated from the nations, and the power of whose unity is perfected through its mighty spirituality.
Therefore, “All of the cities in the delegation gathered in the city of the delegation.” Whereas among the nations the basis of unity is built upon commerce and the market, in Israel it is built upon joint participation in the pure service of God. “[They] slept in the town square” to demonstrate their love for the natural life associated with agriculture. “They did not enter the houses” to avoid possible ritual impurity. Indeed, distance from a pure, natural life leads to many impurities. Fortunate, then, is the nation which chooses a natural, wholesome lifestyle but escapes the debasement of primitive man and merits instead to be cultured and highly intellectual. This is possible only in the nation of the God of Israel, which is “The city which contains everything, from it shall come forth its priests, its prophets, its leaders, and its kings; as it says, ‘Out of him shall come forth the cornerstone, out of him the stake, out of him the battle bow, out of him every ruler together*” (Zach. 10:4) (cf. Chullin 56b). Its superiority shall be realized only by focusing on the development of the precious, sacred treasures latent in its own great power, for it has no need for foreign vineyards. “Bless God in the congregations, the Lord, from the source of Israel” (Ps. 68:27).
Labor, Wealth, and Wisdom
And the ox walked before them, and its horns were covered with gold, and an olive crown was on its head. The flute played before them until they approached Jerusalem. (Bikkurim 3:3).
A nation which possesses a supernal and sublime objective cherishes work, for only labor and physical toil lead to a proper and upright life. Were the nation to harbor no desires loftier than carnal ones, it would not turn toward wealth and greatness, but since it possesses a lofty soul yearning to increase its activity in the world, it also desires wealth earned by labor. Of course, affluence is not a goal in itself, only a means to enlighten oneself and the world through the light of wisdom and genuine knowledge, the light of the Lord, God of the world. This is the mission of Israel. “The ox walked before them” — this signifies labor; “much produce comes by the strength of the ox” (Prov. 14:4). “Its horns were covered with gold” — to show that only toil leads directly to wealth, not the plundering and looting of others. But this is not the ultimate goal. That goal is represented by the olive wreath, symbol of light, just as the olive oil in the candelabrum symbolizes Torah and knowledge. “One who wishes to become wise should go south. This is indicated by the candelabrum of the Temple, which was in the south” (Baba Batra 25a). And thus our Sages said of the olive twig brought by the dove to Noah: “It is that which brings light to the world” (cf. Tanchuma Buber, beginning of Tetzaveh). In short, work should lead to wealth and wealth should lead to a crown of wisdom and light.
The flute is played at both joyous and mournful occasions: “A flute for the bride or for the dead” (Baba Metzia 75b). Complete happiness requires a consciousness of the reality of mourning which could, but is not, afflicting one. Similarly, the three major forces of success in a nation — manual labor, wealth, and education bom of wealth and industriousness — may also totally devastate the nation when it diverts these precious commodities to evil purposes. Labor may degrade the human form until it is sunk solely in materialism. Affluence brings the love of luxury that dulls the heart from attaining genuine understanding of the wisdom of divine justice. Wisdom may be used for evil; as it says, “Your wisdom and knowledge have perverted you” (Is. 47:10). However, with the Torah, the word of God which goes forth from Jerusalem, guiding us along the paths of justice which God has straightened, we are certain that these successes which assure the national welfare will indeed bring the people to its highest peak. Therefore, the flute, instrument of both joy and mourning, “played before them” with a merry and joyous sound “until they approached Jerusalem,” “for there the Lord commanded the blessing” (Ps. 133:3).
(Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, pp. 18-24)
Teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov
The Ba’al Shem Tov died on Shavuot 1760. The Rav’s inner affinity toward the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples was inherited from his maternal ancestors, who were Chabad chassidim, and from his paternal ancestor, Rabbi Yitzchak Katz, the maggid of Vidz, who was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The Rav used to praise him lavishly and related that on the day he died, when people crowded around his bed mournfully, he chided them and said, “It is written, ‘And she laughs at the final day’ [Prov. 31:25]. One must rejoice when the soul departs the body and rises upwards.” He ordered them to light candles in the Shabbat candlesticks and to bring musicians to accompany his departure with song and joy.
In a letter to Rabbi Avraham Rabonsky, Rabbi of Dubravna, the Rav wrote:
“I am surprised that Your Honor wrote that the Ba’al Shem Tov did not reveal kabbalistic matters to the masses. His statement that study of kabbalah from books is not considered esoteric is well known. Even if he did not wish to speak about these matters to the untutored masses, he definitely revealed much before groups of scholars. It is well known that he taught scores of disciples, and he certainly did not refrain from teaching them kabbalah according to his method, even in groups. He was not concerned about the prohibition against publicly teaching the “work of creation” and the “work of the chariot” (Chagigah 2:1), for he, like the author of Sha’arei Orah, maintained that intellectual study is not included in the prohibition” (Igrot II, p. 69).
“I see a vision of perfection in the joining of all the parts of the good which have enhanced us from all sides, from ancient days until the present generation. I only wish that the holy work of paving the way and bridging the depths which divide us would be as cherished by all those engaged in the soul of the Torah as it is beloved to me. In modem times, all of the discussions of the disciples of the Vilna Gaon and Ba’al Shem Tov, so conflicting in their day, are very beneficial to us. With the investment of much toil and talent, a complete literature will be produced which will mend these spiritual ruptures” (Igrot I, pp. 30-45).
Tales of the Zaddikim
It is said in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov that telling stories about zaddikim is like studying the “work of the chariot.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, said, “All the zaddikim who visited the home of the Ba’al Shem Tov were guests in my father and mother’s home in Medzibezh. I heard many anecdotes from them which awakened me to serve God, and thus I merited what I merited” (Sichot HaRan 138).
The Rav used to tell stories in great detail about leading Torah personalities. In the course of his discussions with scholars on halachic and aggadic issues, he would tell these stories, each of which carried a moral. Several times we heard the Rav tell the following story about Rabbi Zvi Broida, Rabbi of Salant, known as “Reb Hirsh the great.”
One day a butcher approached Reb Hirsh with a difficult question regarding the kashrut of some meat. As Reb Hirsh discussed the matter with his students, the butcher sensed that the Rabbi was inclined to prohibit the meat, so he cursed him. The following morning, Reb Hirsh arrived at the synagogue as he did every day, but after laying the tallit on his shoulder, he suddenly paused and sank into deep thought. He stood motionless for about ten minutes. The congregation waited until he snapped out of the trance, quickly put on his tallit and tefillin, and began to pray. After the services, he explained to his students what had happened:
“The holy Rabbi Yitzchak Luria ordained that before praying, a person should accept upon himself the mitzvah of ‘Love your fellow as yourself’ [Lev. 19:18]. I recalled what had happened yesterday with the butcher and began to doubt if I could sincerely love him. I remained frozen until I was able to persuade myself to include the butcher in my observance of the mitzvah.”
The Cloud of the Torah and the Cloud of Redemption
And the Lord said to Moses, “Lo, I will come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you and believe in you forever” (Ex. 19:9).
When we want to illuminate the darkness, we must strive to remove the opaque shade which obscures and obstructs the radiance of the source of light. To the extent that we uncover the light, the darkness retreats and brilliant light illumines the expanses that need to be lit. This principle applies to the behavior of both physical light and the spiritual light of the intellect. The only exception to the rule is the supernal light, the light of Him Who spoke and created the world, Blessed Be He, which appears and is revealed only when it is obscured.
There are two causes of darkness in the world. One pertains to the light source, the other to the receptacle. The principal cause of physical and spiritual darkness is under-illumination, whether through the absence of light or through its dimness. Hence, uncovering the light or increasing its luminosity dispels the darkness. But not so the supernal light, “the light of God” (Is. 2:5), “Who has shown us light” (Ps. 118:27) — “light dwells with Him” (Dan. 2:22). The darkness experienced by man in relation to this light results only because man’s weak eye, his limited and feeble intellect, cannot look upon the awesome radiance of the divine light, for foolish mankind flees God’s presence like a bat flees sunlight. Thus, only by obscuring the supemal light, the light of all lights, does its brilliance increase. Shading it, contracting it, and concealing it — these serve to reveal it.
This attribute, relating to apprehension, cognition, and knowledge of God, also pertains to the manifestation of the divine force acting within His creations. Here, too, the greater the divine power which appears within something, the more it must be obscured so that human eyes can enjoy the light and not be blinded by its radiance.
One of the earthly phenomena in which the supernal heavenly light appears is associated with the messianic light, which is the light of the redemption from the beginning of its flourishing. It was veiled in darkness so that not a single point of light could be seen. This obscurity is maintained at all levels. Even within Cyrus the Persian, that Gentile who aided in building the second Temple and later soured, the hidden messianic light flickered; “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus…. I have even called you by your name, though you have not known Me…. I have girded you, though you have not known Me” (Is. 45:1, 4- 5).
Today, the messianic light, the obscured light of redemption, is undoubtedly appearing again and flickering before us. Its brilliance is still veiled by an awesome, thick darkness, as it has been since the word of the Lord came to the faithful shepherd Moses, to teach posterity that the thick cloud obscuring the supernal light is the same cloud which readies its revelation. All those bound to the sanctity of Israel and the sanctity of the Torah, the eternal source of the redemption, will understand and apprehend that a light shall burst forth from the thick cloud obscuring the divine light. This light shall shine upon all the souls, upon all of Israel, and through it upon all the nations. They shall recognize that “Lo, I will come to you in a thick cloud,” in obscurity, in deeds whose value and substance will remain unknown even among those who are called to lead and implement them. They are summoned by name but do not know who summons them; like Cyrus the Gentile, of whom God says, “I have even called you by your name…. I have girded you, though you have not known Me.” But this awesome obscurity shall terminate in the brightest and most eternal illumination, “that the people may hear when I speak with you and believe in you forever.” From amidst darkness and concealment, blind eyes shall see with a new light that will appear upon Zion and its assemblies speedily in our days, amen” (Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, pp. 170-1).