This coming Friday (starting Thursday at nightfall) and Shabbat, the Jewish people in the diaspora will celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot, the 6th of Sivan, is the day that the Jewish nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard Hashem’s voice announce to them the first two of the Ten Commandments, after which Moshe told them the remaining eight. Yet only forty days later, upon descending from the mountain, Moshe smashed the tablets containing those Ten Commandments. Since, in essence, that event was “broken,” why do we still celebrate it? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to celebrate the day on which Hashem gave us the second set of tablets, Yom Kippur, since those tablets we still have?
The answer is that although we no longer have the first tablets, many benefits that accrued to the Jewish people then are still with us, and those things are some of what we are celebrating.
For many people, one of the favorite parts of a Pesach seder is singing Dayeinu. It is an exuberant, catchy tune and is easy to learn. One of its verses is:
אִלּוּ קֵרְבָנוּ לִפְנֵי הַר סִינַי, וְלֹא נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה דַּיֵּנוּ
Had Hashem only brought us close to Mount Sinai but not given us the Torah, Dayeinu, it would have been reason enough to thank Him.
But what benefit was there from being close to Mount Sinai if not to receive the Torah? Wasn’t the purpose of Mount Sinai to give us the Torah? From the verse, though, it seems that merely coming close to the mountain was itself an accomplishment. What was that?
Here are a few of the answers given to this question.
The Jewish people journeyed from Refidim on Sunday, the last day of the month of Iyar, and reached Mount Sinai the next day, Monday the 1st day of Sivan. They received the Torah that following Shabbat, the 6th of Sivan. When the Jewish nation arrived at the Sinai desert, the Torah (Exodus 19:2) tells us.
(ב) וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר
2) They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.
When the People camped at Mount Sinai on the 1st of Sivan, the verse uses the singular form of the verb ויחן – “he camped” instead of the plural form ויחנו – “they camped.” From this, the Midrash infers that their encampment of somewhere around 3 million people, was like “one man with one heart,” that is, there was complete unity among them.
During their 45-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. This was an amazing accomplishment, and a highpoint in Jewish history. They maintained this level of unity for six days until the Torah was given.
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 to receiving the Torah. Thus, they would receive it as purely as it was given with no interference from their personal biases.
ופירש הרה”ק מהר”י זצללה”ה מווארקא שלשון ויחן הוא נשיאת חן, היינו אף שכל אדם דרכו לפי שורש נשמתו ישר בעיניו מ”מ מצא גם דרך חבירו חן לפניו וע”כ היו כאיש אחד בלב אחד, ודפח”ח
Rav Yitzchak of Varka (d. 1848) explained “ויחן” (he rested) as if it came from the word “חן,” meaning “grace” or “charm” in that although each person has his own innate perspective, the members of the Jewish people were able to abide their neighbors’ differences and coalesce into a single nation.
Often what divides people is a difference in approach as to how something should be done. Each person sees his approach as the correct one and the other’s as flawed. This is especially true when it comes to serving Hashem. A person always feels that because his way works well for him, it is the only proper way to serve Hashem, and others have it all wrong. At Mount Sinai, everyone realized that each person has a unique path of serving Hashem, and “my path is right for me, and his path is right for him.” In this context, the word ויחן means “the nation found favor (חן) in the eyes of all the others,” creating total harmony.
This is a good lesson for us, too, to realize that every person has a unique way of serving Hashem. My way may be the only way for me, but the other person is also entitled to have his own way.
The Zohar writes that when Hashem saw the people as one man with one heart, He said, “Now is the time to give the Torah to my children.”
ובזוה”ק שהקב”ה אמר בראותי אותם כאיש אחד בלב אחד, השתא מטיא שעתא ליתן אורייתא לבני
Had Hashem only brought us close to Mount Sinai to reach the peak of perfect unity, but not given us the Torah, Dayeinu, it would have been reason enough to thank Him for bringing us to that great level of unity. This is a state we must always aspire to achieve in our relationships with other Jews.
A second achievement at Mount Sinai, even before formally receiving the Ten Commandments, was accepting to do the Torah in a very special way.
On the 5th of Sivan, a day before receiving the Ten Commandments, Moshe read the Sefer Torah from the beginning (“In the beginning when Hashem created the heavens and the earth”) until that point in time, and the Jewish people responded (Exodus 24:7):
(ז) וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְדֹוָד נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע
7) 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.”
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, and accept, what Hashem would demand of them?
אמר רבי אלעזר בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע יצתה בת קול ואמרה להן “מי גילה לבני רז זה שמלאכי השרת משתמשין בו” דכתיב, ברכו ה’ מלאכיו גבורי כח עושי דברו לשמוע בקול דברו ברישא עשי והדר לשמע
Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) teaches us that when the Jewish people put “we will do” before “we will listen,” a voice came from Heaven and proclaimed: “Who taught My children this secret? They used the very principle that the angels use. “
Rav Simai taught another reaction to the Jewish people’s response.
דרש רבי סימאי: בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע באו ששים ריבוא של מלאכי השרת לכל אחד ואחד מישראל קשרו לו שני כתרים אחד כנגד נעשה ואחד כנגד נשמע
Rav Simai taught: When the Jewish people said, “We will do” before “We will listen,” 600,000 angels, one for each adult male, 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 would be used to etch out each person’s unique mission within the framework 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.
When a person says, “I will do it” even before hearing what he needs to do, it is very different than saying “Okay, I will do it” after having heard what needs to be done. A person who says, “I will do it” after hearing what needs to be done is saying, “I have considered your request, and I agree to do it.” When he says, “I will do it” even before hearing what has to be done, he is proclaiming, “I am prepared to do whatever you tell me to do. 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 follows 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 “listening.”
This was the secret to which Hashem referred: 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 each person two crowns. Each human response was equal to the way that they would have responded. 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.”
Had Hashem only brought us close to Mount Sinai where we accepted His commandments with complete faith, but not given us the Torah, Dayeinu, it would have been reason enough to thank Him for bringing us to that high level of trust in Him.
When the Jewish people accepted to do the commandments before receiving them, they achieved yet another milestone in their development. Our Sages (Tractate Kiddushin 31a) teach us a counter-intuitive concept.
א”ר חנינא גדול מצווה ועושה יותר ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה
Greater is the one who performs a mitzvah when obligated to do so, than the one who does so voluntarily.
Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Isn’t a volunteer who does a mitzvah out of the goodness of his heart being more altruistic and giving more of himself than the one who does so out of obligation?
Nachmanides (1194-1270) explains why this is not so. By doing a mitzvah because he is obligated to do it, a person is subjecting his will to the will of the one to whom he is obligated. He humbles himself and places himself under the other’s control. This is difficult and uncomfortable. Whereas, on the other hand, when one voluntarily chooses to do the mitzvah, he retains control for himself. He is doing it because he has decided to do it for his own reasons, which just happen to concur with the wishes of the other; but he can always change his mind if he so decides. The one doing the mitzvah because of his commitment and obligation is demonstrating Hashem’s control over him, and ultimately, as Hashem’s servant, Hashem’s kingdom in the world. The volunteer is not.
The Tosafot commentary on the Talmud (12th to 14th Centuries) adds an additional element. A person obligated to do a mitzvah carries with him the burden of how and when he will get it done as well as the worry of what will happen to him if he fails to do it. This pressure to fulfill the mitzvah adds to the burden of being obligated to perform it. While carrying the responsibility to get it done, he is actually working harder for Hashem than the volunteer who carries no responsibility.
There is yet another important difference between a volunteer and someone who is obligated. A volunteer is not as reliable as someone who has an obligation. Since the volunteer has no obligation, he can back out at any time and leave the deed undone. Someone who is obligated cannot just back out without suffering a consequence. Therefore, because he has committed himself, and he will suffer a consequence for not fulfilling his obligation, he is more reliable.
Had Hashem only brought us close to Mount Sinai where we became obligated to do the mitzvot, but not given us the Torah, Dayeinu, it would have been reason enough to thank Him for making us obligated as His servants.
The idea that the Jewish people became obligated to keep the Mitzvot at Mount Sinai plays an essential role in yet another change that Hashem made at Mount Sinai.
Our Sages teach us that every mitzvah that we do creates a powerful entity of holy spiritual energy that ascends to the holy places in heaven and returns to this world in the form of blessing and goodness. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When we commit a sin, we create a unit of evil spiritual energy, which returns to the world and has a bad effect on it. In other words, Hashem has linked our actions to the way He runs His world. He has, through our mitzvot, put us in control of the bounty and blessings or the lack thereof. Hashem merely bestows upon the world what it deserves based on our actions. This power was only given to us when we accepted the mitzvot as an obligation. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and the 12 tribes all kept the entire Torah before it was given, but since their mitzvot were voluntary, they did not have the power to control the world. It was only after the Jewish people accepted the obligation to keep the Torah that Hashem changed the world’s operating system from one where He controls it to one where He allows us to control it through our Torah and mitzvot.
Had Hashem only brought us close to Mount Sinai where we were given control of the world through our Torah and mitzvot, but not given us the Torah, Dayeinu, it would have been reason enough to thank Him for having empowered us so.
These are some of the benefits that the Jewish people received at Mount Sinai, which are still with us, and are all worth celebrating.
As Shavuot approaches, the same spiritual energy that was present then, returns to the world for us to utilize for our growth. The energy present then, brought forth unity, acceptance of Hashem’s commandments and the obligation to do them. It would be appropriate to contemplate how we can harness that special holy energy to improve ourselves in these areas this Shavuot.