Matan Torah is very much alive today. Because we, too, were there
IN 1930, Rav Chatzkel Abramsky ztz”l, a talmid of Rav Chaim Brisker and the author of Chazon Yechezkel, was arrested by the Soviets and sent to the Siberian gulag. The new prisoners were welcomed to the frozen outpost by a giant of a man who screamed and intimidated each inmate into fear and submission. But while Rav Chatzkel received the same treatment, he remained entirely unfazed.
When his fellow inmates later asked him how he had remained calm in the face of the guard’s hostility, Rav Chatzkel replied, “I’m used to bigger noises.”
When Rav Chatzkel opened a Gemara, he didn’t only see the finely printed words of the Vilna Shas and the various page layouts of the later commentaries. He saw, he heard, and he felt Abaye and Rava. He was completely absorbed in the experience of learning Torah and the ensuing impact on all of Creation. In the face of all that, the Soviet soldier’s aggression meant nothing to him.
We’ve learned about the fire and the lightning that we witnessed at Har Sinai, how the entire world was shocked into utter silence, how the devar Hashem resonated through the universe.
Yet it may seem to us that as history draws us further and further from the greatest event of all time, its echoes grow ever fainter.
But that’s a premise we should question.
Was Matan Torah a onetime event that happened thousands of years ago? Are we unable to experience the awe, the fire, the thunder and lightning today?
Rav Chatzkel teaches us that those Divine reverberations still ring out today.
The mishnah in Avos (6:2) tells us that a Bas Kol (a Divine voice) rings out every day, crying, “Oy, woe to the creations of the world for the disgrace of Torah!” The mishnah elaborates: One who neglects the Torah is called a nazuf, rebuked and reprimanded, and one who occupies himself with Torah is misaleh, uplifted and exalted.
While we may not possess the sensitive frequency necessary to actually hear the Bas Kol, it’s incumbent upon us to heed the call of this missive echoing through the world, demanding that we not forsake the Torah.
It’s a powerful directive. But what does it mean for those of us who aren’t on Rav Chatzkel’s level, who don’t actually hear the Divine voice? What do we make of this message if we aren’t on that level?
Another point that can leave us wondering is that the Bas Kol seems to speak of extremes — learning Torah is exalted, neglecting Torah is a disgrace. Is there nothing in the middle? Aren’t there gray areas? Can’t there be a neutral zone that doesn’t lift us up but isn’t a disgrace either?
What about our legitimate need for downtime and recreation? Why must we either skim the Heavens or fall to the bottom of pits?
We find the same message in Tehillim as well. In the very first perek, Dovid Hamelech tells us, “Fortunate is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked… rather his desire is the Torah of Hashem… he will be like a tree planted by rivers of water….”
Here again, we see two polar extremes: We either desire Torah or we are stuck in the path of wickedness.
Let’s contemplate one more Shavuos-related question before exploring an answer. In Megillas Rus, we read the dramatic tale of Rus clinging to Naomi, giving up her prior faith, her family, and way of life.
As the halachah dictates, Naomi tries to dissuade her, and Chazal tell us that the first challenge Naomi focused on was the concept of entertainment. Jews don’t go to the theaters and circuses of the non-Jews.
As we know, Rus was unfazed by the argument and pursued her desire to convert to Judaism. But the question remains: why was this the number one item on Naomi’s list of Jewish laws and customs? Shouldn’t Shabbos feature more prominently, or kashrus, or any of the scores of halachos that take decades to master and promise to completely alter a convert’s way of life?
Before we answer these questions, let’s briefly detour to the Van Wyck Expressway, a heavily traveled highway that connects Queens with JFK Airport and Long Beach, notorious for being one of the world’s slowest thoroughfares. Traffic on this highway inches along, perpetual construction restricts its width and diverts the direction of the road, and strategically placed ads invariably hang directly in drivers’ lines of vision.
At one time, impatient drivers served as a captive audience (literally!) to an immense image of a shiny, black, wide-grilled sedan pointed right at their windshields. In bold, blaring font, the ad read: “You Need This.”
The billboard was certainly convincing. The sleek, powerful vehicle pictured certainly boasted some updates over its counterparts stuck in the noisy traffic jam below. But the irony that probably escaped most of the drivers that day was that had they really needed a car, they couldn’t possibly be reading the ad.
In his sefer Nachlas Yosef, Rav Yosef Lipovitz ztz”l, a talmid of the Alter of Slabodka who served as a rav in Tel Aviv, explains that these covert messages might not be as benign as we think. Every message, subtle as it might be, actually takes on an educational aspect.
The marketers who carefully crafted that ad on the expressway were whispering a message in our ears. Like all ads and marketing material, they were educating us, espousing a specific value system.
And here’s the danger. Ads, shows, entertainment mediums… they all claim to simply inform or entertain. But in fact, there is no information in the world of advertising or entertainment that is simply neutral, that isn’t purporting to teach us what is right or wrong, important or unimportant, necessary or just a waste of time and effort.
When Naomi begins her discussion with Rus of what constitutes a Jewish life by focusing on entertainment, she is imparting a deeper message. She is telling Rus that by accepting Torah, its dictates will have to be the primary factor in every decision she makes. A Jew allows himself to be influenced only by Torah and nothing else, even something as seemingly benign as an advertisement or entertainment channel.
While their messages may be more subtle, they are directing their viewers to pursue a specific way of life. What Naomi was telling Rus was that pursing Torah means abandoning the messages that teach opposing values.
The hotly debated topic of social media really hinges on this idea as well. It can seem innocuous at first to be exposed to so much information and trends, but make no mistake about it: Each message shared is a teacher of its own. The pertinent question is, who is louder? The rebbi at the front of the room, or the teachers of the street? They’re both trying to teach you something; don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking otherwise.
The Bas Kol from Sinai is meant to inform all our choices, what we live and what we do and how we spend our free time. But sometimes the background noise, the consumer culture trying to convince us that “you need this” drowns out that voice from Above.
Matan Torah is very much alive today. Because we, too, were there. And at the moment when Hashem hung the mountain over Klal Yisrael’s heads, He taught us that what we really need is Torah.
And it’s this message that continues to emanate from Har Sinai, thousands of years later, pulsating into our spiritual ears: Choose well! Life is a tug-of-war between two opposing sides. Choose the side that values Torah over the one that disgraces it.
Choose well, and join the ranks of those who proudly heed the call from Sinai, even today.
Rabbi Hillel Shepard is the menahel at the Mesivta of Cincinnati.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 963)
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