Instead of obligation, Hashem emphasized privilege
Kabbalas HaTorah — the most pivotal event in human history — conjures up images of thunder and lightning, the mountain hanging over our heads, and feelings of awe as Hashem gives us His precious Torah. The neshamos of the people left them every time they heard the voice of Hashem, and the whole world trembled with His revelation at Har Sinai. Though we all associate this encounter with fear and trembling, I believe that a careful analysis of the Torah’s depiction of this event will help us approach the Yom Tov with a different focus, and will allow us to relive Matan Torah with a more nuanced — and the intended — frame of mind.
Hashem commands Moshe (Shemos 19:3–6) to speak to the Jewish People and prepare them for the giving of the Torah. While Hashem speaks to Moshe Rabbeinu numerous times in the Torah, here we have a unique warning given to Moshe — both before as well as after Hashem’s message. Hashem introduced his short command with the words “Ko somar,” which Rashi tells us means that Moshe should relay Hashem’s message “with these words and in this order,” seemingly warning Moshe not to alter the message in any way. The admonition is repeated at the end of these four verses, which end with Hashem telling Moshe “eileh hadevarim,” which Rashi explains to mean “not less and not more.”
These warnings seem perplexing. Why would Hashem need to caution Moshe to convey His message to the Jewish People accurately? Didn’t Moshe always relay Hashem’s mitzvos exactly as he had been commanded? What was it that Hashem was concerned Moshe would add to his instructions?
It seems that in the next three pesukim, Hashem tells Moshe to give the Jewish People a message that he may not have expected, and that Moshe might consider lacking in some way. I believe that a careful reading of these pesukim with the explanation of Rashi will answer these questions, and open a new window into understanding the import of Matan Torah.
The first message is that (Shemos 19:4) “you have seen what I have done to Mitzrayim.” Rashi explains that although the Egyptians had been a society of paganism and decadence for generations preceding the enslavement of the Jews, Hashem only punished them now. Hashem has untold patience; He waits for individuals as well as nations to return to His service and find meaning in their lives. Only when Mitzrayim persecuted and brought pain and suffering upon the Jews did Hashem decide to punish and destroy them.
The message here is clear: Hashem loves the Jewish People, the descendants of our righteous Avos and Imahos. When people persecute His beloved nation, He intervenes and pours His wrath out on them. This is a sign of His affection for us — and that was a message He wanted to convey as an introduction to the giving of the Torah.
The verse continues, “I have borne you upon eagles’ wings.” Rashi explains this phrase with the image of an eagle carrying his young to protect them from harm. Other birds hold their chicks in their talons, hiding them from the predatory eagle that soars above them. The eagle fears only the arrow of man, and therefore carries his offspring on his back, saying, “I would rather take the arrow myself than allow my child to be shot.”
Similarly, Hashem positioned His clouds of glory between the Jews and the Egyptians, “taking” the arrows and projectiles that the Mitzrim hurled at the Jewish People, and protecting them from all harm. While Hashem is not affected by projectiles, He demonstrated his love for His children by making his clouds of glory vulnerable, as it were, to the Egyptian barrage.
Upon second thought, however, the eagle’s approach seems illogical. Were the hunter’s arrow to hit the adult eagle, both he and his child will fall and be killed. What is gained by the parent “taking the bullet” for his child? One must conclude that this is not a logical tactic, but rather the instinctive approach of a nurturing parent. He cannot bear the thought of watching a hunter murder his child and would rather block the attacker with his own body than witness his beloved child being hurt.
This, then, is the next message that Hashem wanted Moshe to convey to us. Hashem positioned His clouds between us and our attackers to recall this metaphor that expresses His love and care for His people, as a parent loves a child and will tolerate insult and attack just to protect his beloved offspring.
Pasuk daled continues with the words “and I brought them to Me.” Rashi continues the previous theme by explaining these words according to Targum Onkelos: “I have brought them close to My service.” The main point that Hashem wants to convey to His nation is that He gave us the Torah not only as an obligation, but as a way for us to connect with Hashem Himself, and as an expression of His love and affection for us. It is from that perspective that He wants us to understand Torah and mitzvos.
Let us look at the next verse, which continues to develop the concept of Hashem’s special love for the Jewish nation. Pasuk hei says, “And now,” which Rashi explains to mean “all beginnings are challenging” — but with time they become sweet and beautiful. Once again, Hashem speaks words of encouragement and solace, to help us realize that accepting the Torah — while an enormous challenge — is ultimately to our greatest benefit, and will bring us limitless joy and satisfaction.
The pasuk continues, “You shall be for me a ‘segulah’ among all the nations.” Rashi interprets the word segulah as “a precious treasure.” Although Hashem created and sustains all life, and all humanity is charged with recognizing and serving Him, Hashem cherishes us as his “dearest possession.”
The Torah continues with Hashem’s final words in pasuk vav: “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests,” which Rashi translates as “princes.” Those who accept the Torah are considered nobility; receiving this gift is an expression of our unique status as Hashem’s cherished and beloved people.
I would like to suggest that Hashem may have been concerned that at this critical moment, Moshe would have primarily emphasized obligation. He would have chosen to convey to the Jews that the Torah is the foundation of the world, and without its acceptance, all creation would cease to exist. While this is absolutely true, Hashem told Moshe that this was not the time for these truths.
Instead of obligation, Hashem emphasized privilege. He commanded Moshe to convey the beauty and value of the Torah, to frame Matan Torah as an expression of Hashem’s love and esteem for the Jewish People. This perspective was to be the underpinning of our acceptance of the Torah. Obedience and fear of Heaven surely bolster this foundation, and Moshe Rabbeinu would share those vital concepts with his people at a later date — but at the moment of Kabbalas HaTorah, our initiation as Hashem’s treasured nation, He wanted to motivate us with a message of His love and affection.
As we relive and rededicate ourselves to accepting Hashem’s Torah this Shavuos, let us remember this introduction. Surely Torah observance is challenging, and the study of Torah “day and night” is a burden. We live with the fear of Heaven and observe Hashem’s commandments as faithful servants. However, our position as Hashem’s chosen people is predicated on His love for us, and the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai was the greatest demonstration of this affection.
Let us internalize and cherish this feeling of being loved by the Creator. Let it motivate us to approach Torah learning and mitzvah performance with renewed emotion, passion, and excitement. And may it spur us to reciprocate Hashem’s love by renewing our acceptance of His Torah and mitzvos with our own kabbalas haTorah b’ahavah.
Rabbi Dovid Merling is the rav of K’hal Zichron Yaakov in Lakewood, New Jersey.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 962)
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