Parshat Yitro תש”פ
The Jewish people left Egypt on the Fifteenth of Nisan and reached Mount Sinai forty-five days later, on the First of Sivan. From the moment that HaShem appeared to Moshe at the Burning Bush, HaShem made it clear that the sole purpose for the Exodus was for the Jewish people to stand at Sinai and receive the Torah, which contained all of HaShem’s instructions to the Jewish people on how to live their lives. Although the redemption from Egypt freed them from Pharaoh’s slavery, they would need to become HaShem’s servants through observing His commandments. This would bring the world to perfection, its purpose for Creation.
Our Sages teach us that, indeed, Creation itself was hanging in the balance, waiting for the Jewish people’s decision whether to accept the Torah. Had they not accepted it, all of Creation would have reverted to the nothingness that it was before creation.
The source for this concept is in the Talmud, Shabbat 88a.
We notice that as HaShem created the world in six days, the Torah says at the end of the first day (Genesis 1:5):
“וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד”
“And it was evening and it was morning, Day One.”
Similarly, on each subsequent day, the Torah says, “And it was evening and it was morning, Day Two, Day Three, etc.”
Yet when the sixth day came, the Torah says, “And it was evening and it was morning—“The Sixth Day” (in Hebrew: “יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי” ). What is the meaning of the extra ה?
Hebrew grammar contains the concept of the ה’ הידיעה—the identifying ה, the definite article. We find an example of this in the Book of Esther,מגילת אסתר . Our Sages teach us that even though the name of HaShem does not appear explicitly even once in the entire Megilah, every time it says “The king—הַמֶּלֶךְ — with the identifying ה , the reference is to the Ultimate King, HaShem, the King of all Kings. Every other time”מֶלֶךְ” is used without the ,ה it is a reference to Achashverosh, the human king. Similarly, “THE Sixth Day–refers to the most important “Sixth Day” in the Jewish calendar, the sixth day of the month of Sivan, when the Jewish people would millennia later receive the Torah.
What does the Sixth Day of Creation have to do with the Sixth Day of Sivan?
“דאמר ריש לקיש: מאי דכתיב “וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי?” ה”א יתירה למה לי? מלמד שהתנה הקדוש ברוך הוא עם מעשה בראשית ואמר להם אם ישראל מקבלים התורה אתם מתקיימין, ואם לאו אני מחזיר אתכם לתוהו ובוהו!”
“Reish Lakish taught: What does the extra ה teach us? That HaShem made a condition with Creation, saying to it: “If the Jewish people accept the Torah on the sixth of Sivan, you will continue to exist; if not, I will return you to chaos and nothing.”
(Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
Since the Creation of the world depended on the Jewish people accepting the Torah, it is clear that the nation’s fulfillment of the Torah is the purpose for the world. Hence, if they did not accept it, the world would no longer be needed.
Rashi expresses this concept on the first verse in the Torah.
“בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ”
“In the beginning of HaShem’s creation of the heavens and the earth.”
“בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא”—אין המקרא הזה אומר אלא דרשוני כמו שאמרו רבותנו זכרונם לברכה: בשביל התורה שנקראת (משלי ח, כב) “רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ”, ובשביל ישראל שנקראו “רֵאשִׁית תְּבוּאָתֹה” (ירמיהו ב, ג).”
“This verse begs for an interpretation. It is to be interpreted as the Sages have rendered it in the Midrash, “for the Torah, which is called “רֵאשִׁית”, “Reishit” (Proverbs 8:22), and for Yisrael, who are called “רֵאשִׁית”, “Reishit” (Jeremiah 2,3).”
This means that the בְּ commencing the word “בְּרֵאשִׁית“ is to be translated as “for;” therefore, since the Torah and Yisrael are both called “רֵאשִׁית”—Reishit– it comes out saying, “For the Torah and for Yisrael, HaShem created the heavens and the earth.”
It was crucial that the Jewish people accept the Torah, or all would be for naught. The events that transpired before the giving of the Torah set the tone of the Jewish people’s decision to accept it.
In the days between their arrival at Mount Sinai and the actual receiving of the Torah six days later, Moshe went up and down the mountain numerous times, bringing messages from HaShem to the Jewish people and returning to HaShem with their responses.
The events at Mount Sinai unfolded as follows (this follows Rashi’s Torah commentary):
They arrived at Mount Sinai on the first of Sivan, as “one man with one heart.” We learn this from the verse (Exodus 19:2) that uses the singular form of the verb “camped” ( “וַיִּחַן” ) instead of the plural form ” וַיַּחֲנוּ”.
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר
“They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.”
During their forty-five day journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, the Jewish people underwent an extraordinary transformation, from a people who had worshipped idols to a cohesive group unified in their mission to serve HaShem.
The idea of “one man with one heart” implies that in their personal growth, each reached a level where he was focused on the singular goal of serving HaShem without giving thought to his own personal ideas or biases. When everyone in the group is focused exclusively on the goal with no personal interest involved, there is no competition or jealousy between its members. The success of each individual member is experienced as a success by the entire group. Reaching such a high level of harmony was a milestone for the Jewish people and was a prerequisite before they could receive the Torah. Thus, when receiving the Torah, they would receive it as purely as it was given with no interference from their personal biases.
On the day that they arrived at Mount Sinai, HaShem told them nothing, as they were weary from travel and getting settled.
Bright and early the next morning, Moshe ascended the mountain to receive HaShem’s message to the Jewish people. It was the ultimate message, because it clearly defined the role that HaShem wanted for them (Exodus 19:5,6).
“וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ”
“וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ”
“And now, if you harken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire world. And you will be for me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”
Our purpose in this world is to be 1. “A treasured nation to HaShem”, 2. “A kingdom of princes”, and 3. “A holy nation”. How are we to accomplish this extraordinary mission? By observing HaShem’s covenant.
Through keeping the Mitzvot, we create a special relationship with HaShem as a people and as individuals. This relationship is very precious to HaShem, and thus we are His treasured nation. The Mitzvot also make us holy, elevating us above our earthy tendencies and inclinations; they comprise the recipe for perfect relationships between people, and between people and HaShem. When the world’s nations would observe a holy nation that exemplifies every good quality and carries itself in such a noble way— a kingdom of princes—they would aspire to follow in those footsteps.
This is how Maimonides’s son, Rabbi Avraham, quotes his father.
“ופירוש “ממלכת כהנים” שהכהן של כל עדה הוא המנהיג שהוא הנכבד שלה והדוגמה שלה שאנשי העדה ילכו בעקבותיו וימצאו את הדרך הישר על ידו ואמר “תהיו אתם בשמירת תורתי מנהיגי העולם היחס שלכם אליהם כיחס הכהן אל עדתו ילכו העולם בעקבותיכם ויהיו מחקים את מעשיכם ויתהלכו בדרכיכם”
“The explanation of “a kingdom of princes” is that a Kohen (the word used for ‘prince’ in the verse) is the leader of the congregation, as he is its most honored member and a role model for the congregation’s members to follow in his footsteps. Through him they will find the straight path. HaShem has told the Jewish people, “You will be, through keeping the Torah’s laws, the leaders of the world. Your relationship to them will be like that of a Kohen to his congregation. The whole world will follow your footsteps and imitate your actions and follow in your ways.””
Moshe relayed HaShem’s message to the Jewish people, and they responded in unison, “Everything that HaShem has said, we will do.”
The next morning, the third of Sivan, Moshe ascended the mountain with the people’s response.
HaShem then told Moshe (19:9):
“וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם”
“Behold! I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever.”
HaShem told Moshe that the people will not be spoken to directly; they will only hear Him speak to Moshe. When the people heard this, they were unhappy to be just observers of HaShem’s word to Moshe; they wanted to hear it directly from HaShem. This is what they answered to Moshe: “רצוננו לראות את מלכנו”—“We want to see our King directly” (Rashi).
On the morning of the fourth of Sivan, Moshe brought this request to HaShem, Who responded by saying, “If that is the case, they are going to need to sanctify themselves for the next two days to ready themselves for the revelation that will come on the third day.”
At this point, Moshe gave the nation the laws of how to prepare themselves to receive the Torah directly from HaShem, as well as the prohibition against ascending the mountain. He also taught them the Seven Noahide Laws, the laws regarding Shabbat, respecting one’s parents, the Red Heifer, and laws relevant to money matters. On that day, the fourth of Sivan, Moshe also wrote the “סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית”—Sefer HaBerit—the Book of the Covenant—which was a Torah scroll, exactly like the one we read from today, starting from the beginning, “Bereshit Bara” … until the events of that time.
To these laws, the Jewish people also responded, “Everything HaShem has said, we will do!”
The next day, the fifth of Sivan, Moshe read the entire Sefer HaBerit to the Jewish people, and their response was (Exodus 24:7):
“וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע”
“And he [Moshe] read the Book of the Covenant into the ears of the nation, and they said, “Everything HaShem said we will do and we will listen to.”
This response caused great commotion in Heaven. The people said that they will do it even before hearing what was in it? How could they do that? How could they know what HaShem would demand of them?
“אמר רבי אלעזר: בשעה שהקדימו ישראל “נַעֲשֶׂה” ל”נִשְׁמָע” יצתה בת קול ואמרה להן: מי גילה לבני רז זה שמלאכי השרת משתמשין בו? דכתיב “בָּרֲכוּ ה’ מַלְאָכָיו גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרוֹ”. ברישא: “עֹשֵׂי” והדר “לִשְׁמֹעַ”
“Rabbi Elazar said: “When the Jewish people put “do” before “listen,” a voice came from Heaven and proclaimed: ‘Who taught My children this secret? They used the very principle that the angels use.”
Talmud (Shabbat 88a)
Rav Simai taught another reaction to the Jewish people’s response.
דרש רבי סימאי: בשעה שהקדימו ישראל “נַעֲשֶׂה” ל”נִשְׁמָע” באו ששים ריבוא של מלאכי השרת לכל אחד ואחד מישראל קשרו לו שני כתרים, אחד כנגד “נַעֲשֶׂה” ואחד כנגד “נִשְׁמָע“.
“Rav Simai taught: When the Jewish people said, “We will do” before “We will listen,” 600,000 angels, one for each person, came and tied two crowns on each of them, one crown for “we will do” and one crown for “we will listen.”
What was the secret to which HaShem was referring? And what was so impressive about their response that HaShem commended them for being “angel-like,” and the angels themselves brought two crowns for each person? What do these crowns represent?
An angel is always prepared to do HaShem’s bidding before he hears it because every angel is created to fulfill only one mission. An angel’s entire essence is designed and attuned to accomplish the task for which he has been created. A human being, on the other hand, has so many different directions that he can pursue. A human being is multifaceted, endowed with many different talents any of which he can perfect and make the reason for his existence. By putting the “do” before the “listen,” the Jewish people indicated that they saw their sole purpose for Creation was, like an angel, to fulfill the Torah. All other endowments of talent were to be used to etch out the unique mission of each person within that mission of keeping the Torah’s laws. In this sense, people are on a higher level than even angels, for angels are fixed in their created positions and cannot become any greater or advance to a higher level. They have one mission in “life” and, when that is accomplished, they are done. A human is endowed with a certain complement of qualities, both good and bad, and it is his job to channel them correctly within the framework of the Torah’s law, to become the holiest person that he can become.
An “I will do” from a human being before an “I will listen” is different that an “I will do” after having heard what needs to be done. An “I will do” after hearing what needs to be done implies that “I have considered what you have said, and I agree to do it.” An “I will do” before hearing what has to be done implies that I will do it no matter what it is that you are going to tell me to do. I will get it done. No matter what it takes, and no matter the obstacles that I will encounter, I will figure out how to accomplish what you will ask me to do.
Implicit in this response was a display of the absolute trust that the Jewish people had in HaShem. They were unafraid to accept “carte blanche” all of HaShem’s commandments because they realized that He would only give them commandments that were suitable for them.
An “I will listen” that comes after an “I will do” is also different than an “I will listen” before the command. When one listens before agreeing to do something, he is really assessing whether he can or wishes to fulfill the request. It is subject to his will. When one listens after having said, “I will do it, no matter what,” his listening is to hear every detail of what his mission is so that he can fulfill it perfectly. This is a totally different “listen.”
This was the secret that HaShem was referring to: How did the Jewish people reach such a high spiritual level that they understood their mission in the world so clearly. And this is why the angels were so impressed and gave two crowns to each person. Each response was equal to the way that they would respond. Here, human beings had reached the level of angels; with so many options to follow, they chose to use all of them to serve HaShem. Figuring out how to use all of one’s talents and endowments to serve HaShem would be the fulfillment of “I will listen.”
Unfortunately, the Jewish people lost all of this when they made the Golden Calf. As Rabbi Elazar’s statement continues in the Talmud,
“וכיון שחטאו ישראל ירדו מאה ועשרים ריבוא מלאכי חבלה ופירקום שנאמר ויתנצלו בני ישראל את עדים מהר חורב”
“Once the Jewish people sinned, 120,000 angels of destruction came and removed their crowns.”
This is one of the many terrible outcomes of that sin for which we are still suffering. We struggle daily against the multitude of attractions trying to lure us away from our real calling, to serve HaShem with all our hearts. If we had remained at the level that the Jewish people had reached at Mount Sinai, service to HaShem would be very different for us.
May HaShem help us to see the true light of the Torah so we can become better servants to Him.