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At The Foot of Har Sinai

Another Shavuos is quickly approaching, another day of Kabbolas HaTorah, when we celebrate and reaffirm our acceptance of the “cherished utensils” that Hashem gave us with love. Another reliving of our standing at the foot of Har Sinai, where we become saturated with kedusha, imbued with yiras Shomayim and enchanted by our spiritual elevation in being so close to the holy Shechinah. It is said about tzaddikim of yesteryear that when they were mekabel the Torah during laining on Shavuos, they were able to hear the sound of the shofar and sense the thunder and lightning that instilled fear during this awesome event.

This special day is the pinnacle of seven weeks of anticipation, the culmination of what is meant to be days of serious preparation. It started with Pesach, the celebration of our freedom, the freedom to be avdei Hashem. Every day of the yemei haSefirah is a step closer to reaching this apex, where we actually stand before Hashem. But when we think about it, how can we really rejoice? Can we truly say that we prepared ourselves for this day? Are we really fit to relive that exhilarating experience? Our natural inclination is to feel so far removed from the level of previous generations, so empty of merit, so undeserving of the right to stand at the foot of Har Sinai.

In addition to our normal sense of weakness, this year there is a special feeling of pain. Our hearts are torn, as we are still reeling from the tragedy that took place on Lag Ba’omer in Meron. The ways of Hashem are far and beyond our comprehension. Even Moshe Rabbeinu, who asked Hashem to grant him the perception of His ways, was answered that no human can possibly comprehend. We can only remain silent, share the pain of those bereft of their loved ones, and work on maintaining our emunah. At the same time, it is difficult to feel cherished by Hashem. It is hard to feel welcome at this special event. How do we overcome these thoughts and approach this day with true happiness?

Maasei avos siman labonim… There is a precedent for these emotions from the very first experience of Matan Torah. “In the third month from the exodus of the Bnei Yisroel from Mitzrayim, on this day they arrived at Midbar Sinai. They journeyed from Refidim and arrived at Midbar Sinai and encamped in the Midbar: and Yisroel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Shemos 19:1-2). Chazal and the commentaries address an obvious question. The pesukim seem redundant.

Already in the first posuk, the Torah tells us that the Bnei Yisroel arrived at Har Sinai. Why, then, is it necessary to say in the second posuk that they journeyed from Refidim and arrived at Midbar Sinai before encamping opposite the mountain?

One of the answers given is that the Torah is alluding to the situation that the Yidden found themselves in right before Maamad Har Sinai. They were already in the midbar, awaiting that exalted day, but they had just traveled from Refidim. Why was it called Refidim? “Sherifu atzmam midivrei Torah” (Sanhedrin 106a). They were mechalel Shabbos, which is equal to the entire Torah (Maharsha). They had also dared to ask the brazen question: “Is Hashem among us or not?” This led to Hashem saying, “I am always with you and supply you with all your needs, and you have the audacity to ask such a question? I swear to you that the dog will come to assault you, and when he bites, you will scream out to Me for help.”

That dog was Amaleik, who suddenly attacked the Yidden. He called out to them in a friendly manner, luring them to come out from under the Ananei Hakavod. He then killed them and mutilated their bodies while scoffing at Hashem and the mitzvah of bris milah.

The war against Amaleik was not an easy one, and it required the special efforts of Moshe Rabbeinu and help from Above to weaken the enemy. This war was a terrible setback for Klal Yisroel. At Krias Yam Suf, they reached the greatest heights, when even a maidservant could see what the greatest nevi’im were incapable of seeing. They were able to point to the Shechinah and say, “Zeh Keili ve’anveihu – This is my G-d and I will build Him a sanctuary” (Shemos 15:2). But now, with the war against Amaleik, they sunk to a nadir of hester ponim.

Now they were approaching Har Sinai with feelings of inadequacy and consternation. How can we rejoice when we have sinned against Hashem, especially after the debacle of Amaleik? We cannot begin to fathom how much Hashem loves us despite our failings. “Hashem came from Sinai, having shone forth to them from Se’ir, having appeared from Har Poron, and then approached with some of the holy myriads” (Devorim 33:2). The Medrash tells us that Hashem came out to greet them like a chosson going out to greet his kallah. With the same love and affection and anticipating a beautiful future together, that is how He welcomed us.

Twenty two thousand malachim descended from heaven and stood on one side of the Shechinah. They placed crowns on the heads of each and every member of shevet Levi, the holiest of the shevatim. Then came over six hundred thousand angels and placed crowns of fire on the heads of every Yid. Hundreds of thousands of more malachim appeared on the other side, all to pay homage to Hashem’s cherished nation, the Bnei Yisroel.

Hashem then opened the seven heavens and His seven storage houses of blessing and said, “See, My children, with your own eyes that there is no one like Me in the heavens and on earth. See that I am One and that I revealed Myself to you in My honor and glory. If someone ever tells you to serve other gods, tell them, ‘Is it befitting for someone who saw his G-d face to face in all His splendor, majesty, and might to go serve other gods?’” (Otzar Aggados HaTorah).  This is what the posuk means. They traveled from Refidim having just failed to fulfill Hashem’s will. They camped in the midbar, meaning that because of this, they felt barren and desolate like a desert. And yet vayichan Yisroel neged hohor. Vayichan from the word chein, charm, like a kallah before her chosson.

Although we’re not capable of seeing them, those scenes repeat themselves every year on the day of Kabbolas HaTorah. The more we invest ourselves into experiencing this great event, the more it leaves a lasting impression on us. “The sound of the shofar grew continually much stronger: Moshe would speak and Hashem would respond to him with a voice” (Shemos 19:19). The Torah tells us this in the future tense, but when Moshe Rabbeinu wrote this, it had already transpired. Why, then, is it not said in the past tense, “Moshe spoke and Hashem responded”?

The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, answers that the Torah is telling us that the words that emanated from Hashem are eternal, and even the words that Moshe spoke were those of Hashem flowing out of his mouth. Since they are everlasting, the true tzaddikim throughout the doros were able to actually hear these words. And even the simple people who strive to serve Hashem can sense the light of kedusha, everyone according to his level. This is why it is said in lashon asid, for it is still present to this day.

“On the third day, there was thunder and lightning and a heavenly cloud on the mountain…” (Shemos 12:16). Here, the Torah tells us that there was mere lightning, yet later on we learn, “The entire people saw the thunder and flames” (ibid. 20:15). What happened in the interim to change it from lightning to flames? The Zohar Hakadosh asks this question and answers that before Kabbolas HaTorah, it was mere lightning, but afterwards, they were able to see the flames. How do we understand this?

Before they were given the Torah, before they heard the words of Hashem, they merited seeing miraculous revelations. But like a flash of lightning that illuminates the darkness for the moment, revelations and miracles make an impression temporarily but fade with time. Not so a burning fire, whicvh illuminates its surroundings and provides warmth for the entire area. After accepting the Torah, the Bnei Yisroel received the fire to illuminate their lives, as it says, “Behold My word is like fire, the word of Hashem” (Yirmiyahu 23:29). It gives us the ability to see clearly in our darkest moments and warms our hearts in the coldest times of golus. “A lamp for my feet is Your word and a light for my path” (Tehillim 119:105).

It is well-known from the Chofetz Chaim that the answers to all of our questions in how to conduct our lives may be found in the Torah. During World War I, when the battlefield was getting closer to Radin, the roshei yeshiva were in a quandary as to what to do. To stay in Radin meant a grave danger for their lives, especially since the Russians suspected Jews of spying for the enemy. To escape deeper into the country would make it impossible to supply the talmidim with food, and where would they be housed? The menahel of the yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim’s son-in-law, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Levinson, performed the Goral HaGra, which was used by the gedolim in times of peril to guide them on how to proceed. The goral fell on the posuk of “He divided the people with him…into two camps” (Bereishis 32:8). It was clear, then, that they would divide the yeshiva and the hanhalah. Half of them would stay in Radin, while the other would move deeper into the country.

After making the goral, Rav Tzvi Hirsch ran to tell his father-in-law the result. As he entered his doorway, before he had a chance to say anything, the Chofetz Chaim said, “Rav Hirsch, why are we in doubt? Our answer is in the Torah. ‘He divided the people…and now I have become two camps’” Rav Tzvi Hirsch said excitedly, “I performed the Goral HaGra and it fell on this very posuk.”

The Chofetz Chaim answered, “I also know how to perform the goral, but Hakadosh Boruch Hu taught the Torah to His nation, Yisroel. And in the Torah, He already provided us with all of the important teachings, advice, and guidance, so why should we bother Hashem to reveal answers through a goral, when we ourselves can learn from the Torah and reach a conclusion on our own?” (Chofetz Chaim Hachodosh Al HaTorah, Vayishlach).

The fire of Torah also warms us when we feel cold, when we face hard times, when things aren’t going right. “Had not your Torah been my preoccupation, then I would have perished in my affliction” (Tehillim 119:92). In the darkest of times, from when the Romans oppressed Jews in our own land to the Crusades, from Chmielnicki pogroms through the horrors of World War II, Jews found solace by continuing to learn Torah in their hiding places. It is our lifeline, our source of fresh air.

With the knowledge that Hashem cherishes not only our learning Torah, not only our fulfilling His mitzvos, but our very appearance before Him, we can proceed to celebrate this great day. And may our Kabbolas HaTorah be a truly meaningful and fruitful one.