The Torah Podcast Transcript
088 – The Torah Podcast – Transformed by the Torah – The Power of Experience
Torah Portion of the Week – Yisro
Verse 16 says like this, “On the third day when it was becoming morning, there was thunder and lightning with a heavy cloud in the mountain. And the sound of the shofar was very powerful. And the entire people that was in the camp shuddered. Moshe brought the people forth from the camp towards God, and they stood under the mountain. Mount Sinai was smoking in its entirety, because Hashem had descended upon it with fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a lime pit and the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly. The sound of the shofar grew continually much stronger. Moses would speak, and God responded to him in a voice.” And then after the giving of the Ten Commandments it says, “And all the people could see the sound and the flames. The sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain. And the people saw, and they moved and they stood away afar. They said to Moses, “Speak to us, and we will hear. Let not God speak to us, least we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for in order to exalt you, God has come so that His fear should be before you, that you should not sin.” The people stood from afar, and Moses approached the fog where God was.”
We see that when the Torah was given, the world shook. The people could see the sounds, there was thunder, there was lightening. The Rambam explains, “What was all this tumult about?” He says, “It was in order for God to come to habituate you to have faith. For since He showed you the revelation of the Divine presence, His faith entered your hearts and you are able to cleave to Him. And your soul will not separate from that faith forever.” So, according to the Rambam, all of this experience was to penetrate our being, to change us forever.
And Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains like this. “The basis for our belief is the firm evidence that we had with our own senses, the true fundamental truths which Judaism rests is on the receiving of Torah and the going out of Egypt which we experienced. We heard it, we felt it. We had this experience, and therefore it transcends this ideal belief. It was a fact for us. Our forefathers experienced it. And Chazal tells us that every soul, every Jewish soul was there at Sinai. Our souls experienced God’s presence.” He continues and says, “All other man-made religions and codes like all their aspects of human civilization, signs, art, morals and manners, are subject to change with the passing of time. And they are nothing but the expressions of the levels reached by the civilizations depending on that time period. But not so the Jewish religion. It doesn’t stem from beliefs held by human beings from one period to another. They did not contain time-bound human concepts of God. Why? Because they’re God-given. Through them, men are told God’s will, that their conceptions should be for all time about God, and things Divine and above all, about man’s human affairs. It’s eternal, it’s forever. It doesn’t change. The Torah we received from God, it can’t be influenced by man’s thinking. By the way man looks at the world, God told us the way things are.”
And he says, “When man enters the service of God with full knowledge and awareness, he has ascended to the exalted level that is without parallel in the world. His status before God is one of direct intimacy. Heaven and earth, the world and everything in it lie trembling behind his back, and he stands upright before God. All the forces of nature resound, thunder crashes, lightning flashes. The mountain quakes and the air is filled with the sounds of the shofar. This is when a person decides to serve God, the world changes to accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Torah, to go in the way of God. If we go in the way of God, the whole world will change for us.”
And Rav Moshe Feinstein explains, “Why was it necessary for us to see the sounds, what did we need that for? Why the extra miracle?” He explains, “That should be our approach towards Torah. It’s not enough just to get the simple pshat, the simple understanding of what it says. It has to penetrate our beings. Rather, a person must strive and use all his energies and intellectual abilities that it should be spelled out in front of him so clearly that he sees the reality of the Torah.” He says, “Hearing the thunder, that’s the simple understanding. But seeing thunder, that means its penetrated your being.” And Chazal tells us that the experience of receiving the Torah was so great that our souls left our bodies, and it happened more than once during this experience.
And the Sefas Emes brings the verse that says, “Toras Hashem temimah, meshivas nefesh.” Our souls returned. What does that mean? That the Torah is the levush, the begged, garment of the chiyus, of the life force of Hakadosh Baruch-Hu. And through our maasim, gashmim, through our physical actions, shey yechu adam she devek po, that a man is able to cling to the Torah, Yisboro af b’olam hazeh, also in this world. But by keeping the Torah we’re bringing God into the world and that’s what returned our souls. The Torah itself returned our souls. That’s what he says, “Zeh mashivus nefesh, veshuv hanefesh lehios mekushar be shores hiyyus shelo”, that our nefesh which is the lowest level, should get chiyus from the Torah. It was the Torah itself that brought back our souls, because this is the way God expresses Himself in the world is through Jews keeping the Torah, and Jews doing the mitzvos. This is God’s life force brought into the world through the Jewish people. And that’s what brought our souls back. It was the Torah itself.
And the Kli Yakar wants to explain, what exactly did we see when it says that we saw the sounds? He said, “We saw the letters. We saw the letters of the Torah. Just like we know that when the first Tablets were broken, so the letters floated off the Torah, and then the letters came back by the second Tablets. We saw those letters with our own eyes, which Hashem spoke. We saw the written words in front of us. And why is that? Because sight has more influence than hearing. Hashem wanted to make sure it penetrated us, that we have daas, the concept of daas which means that the knowledge penetrates your physical being all the way down to your core, to your nefesh. That’s what the verse said, “Hashem did it in order to raise you up.” God came in order that fear should be on your faces, that you shouldn’t sin. Moses was saying, it’s better for them to receive the Commandments by both seeing and hearing at the same time. At the same time, each one has a unique purpose. And by receiving it through two senses, it had more hashpa’ah, more influence on us.
Rav Moshe Dovid Vali and the Ohr HaChayim both explain, it’s the thunder that we heard. The sound that we heard was so powerful that it took away any impurities that we had. The sound removed our impurities, because we know that at Har Sinai the Jewish people reached a level of Adam haRishon before the chet, before the sin of Adam haRishon. We became pure, how? Through the thunder. And it explains that even now when we have rain we have thunder. Why do we put rain and thunder together? Because the time of rain is a tremendous chessed. It’s an eis ratzon, it’s a time where Hashem is close to us when it’s raining. And because of that, Hashem puts thunder there to take away the forces of impurity which try to cling to the goodness of Hashem. So therefore, we also had thunder at Har Sinai.
Rabbeinu Bachye wants to explain on the verse. It said, “The people stood from afar, and Moses approached the fog where God was.” What was the fog? He says it wasn’t exactly fog. What it was is it appeared that it was dark, but it was just the opposite. The light was so brilliant where God was, that it was out of the range of our ability to see it. It was so bright, we couldn’t see it. It appeared like darkness, like fog to us. Look what he says. He says, “This describes a light so brilliant that it blinds, so that the viewer cannot see it any better than darkness. This brilliant light hides matters just as effectively as does ordinary darkness.” It’s unbelievable. It’s so brilliant that it remains hidden from the human eye. In other words, the reason why we can’t see the presence of God is because it’s so bright that it’s outside the range of our ability to see it. We know that our senses are limited, but just outside of our senses is a brilliant light. God’s presence is here in the world. We don’t see it, because it’s outside of our range.
The Seforno brings a Gemara, Gemara Chullin it says a similar idea. One time the Emperor said to Rav Yeshua ben Chanana, “I wish to see your God.” He replied, “You cannot see Him.” “Indeed,” said the Emperor, “I will see Him.” So, what did he do? He went and he placed the Emperor facing the sun during the summer solstice and he said to him, “Look up at the sun.” And he replied, “I cannot.” Said Rav Yeshua, “If the sun which is just one of the ministers that attend the Holy One, Blessed-be-He, you can’t look at, so surely you’re not going to be able to see the Divine presence.” And that’s the Divine presence that Moshe Rabbeinu was able to see, but the Jews couldn’t see it. They weren’t on that level, but still it’s part of the experience of Har Sinai. And this experience at Har Sinai was all there to change our being.
Rav Schwab explains there was a contradiction. On one side you have the Mechilta and the Midrash Rabba explaining this tremendous crescendo that happened in the giving of the Torah, like the possukim said. However, the Sifri explains, there was another aspect which was the silence. It said in Yeshayahu, “Fall silent, you idle dwellers.” That’s when Hashem speaks. And we know by Eliyahu HaNavi, in the end he heard Hashem from a very small voice. And the Shemos Rabba said, “The birds did not chirp. The fowl did not fly. The ox didn’t make any sounds. The angels didn’t flutter. The seraphim didn’t say, Kadosh, Kadosh.. The ocean didn’t move, and the creatures did not speak.” So, what was it? Was it a tremendous tumult or no, was it silence? He wants to explain, the giving of the Torah was not just the giving of the Torah. The Avos also had the mitzvos. They had bris milah, they had gid hanasheh. We know we had other mitzvos given before, the para aduma, Shabbos, kibbud av v’em, korban Pesach, matza, maror. They were all given before Har Sinai, so what was going on there? He wants to say, “We call matan Torah the giving of the Torah. Matan also comes from matana. It was a gift. It was the infusion of the Torah deep into the soul of every Jew, that therefore you should have the desire to fulfill Hashem’s commandments, which creates our intimate relationship with Him.” And that’s the law in the Rambam. We say that if there’s a Jew who refuses to do a mitzvah, refuses to give a get to his wife, or refuses to do a different mitzvos, we beat him until he says, “Rotzeh ani.” How could it be, we beat the guy up until he says, “I want?” Why do you beat the guy up until he says he wants? He doesn’t want. The answer is, deep in his soul he really wants. Every Jew wants to do mitzvos, he wants to do the right thing. And therefore, you can force this person to do the right thing, because inside his soul at Har Sinai he received this tremendous energy to do the will of God. So, the earth-shattering noises were there to get the absolute commitment to Hashem’s will. And the silence was that Hashem chose us. He gave us the kochos, He gave us the strength to fulfil His will. He put it inside of ourselves, inside the silence of our soul, in the deepest part of our soul.
But not only that, the Ohr HaChayim says we were brought to the level…this is simply unbelievable. We were brought to the level of the angels. From that moment on, Yisroel would be included in God’s celestial hosts. The Jewish people are considered like the hosts in the in the heavens. We’re also known as Cohanim, priests. God is telling the Israelites that as of now, He is substituting the Jewish people for the celestial servants known as melachei Cohanim v’goy kadosh. There was a set of angels in the shemayim that did their job. At Har Sinai, we took over their job. Can you believe such a thing? We took over the job of the angels. We now have to be like angels in this world, to affect the world for good, to do the right thing, to bring the positive energy and the godliness into the world, that’s our job. And we know that the righteous people among us reached these levels. The Gemara in Sanhedrin says like this. It teaches us, we have found that the righteous among Yisroel actually achieved this level. They were both called “angels of holy.” Man has the ability to reach such spiritual levels by the means of the Torah, he can even be superior to the angels in heaven. And for this job we were chosen. The Seforno says also on that day, what does it mean, we become a goy kadosh, a holy nation? A nation that shall never perish, but shall exist forever among men. The Jewish people have survived every holocaust, everything that’s happened to us for all these thousands of years. The Jewish people are still here, why is that? Because on Har Sinai, Hashem chose us and He said, “You people will be forever. You are my messengers. You have to bring Me into the world, that’s your job.”
And the Chassam Sofer explains that the Jewish people even had the ability to change a gezera, the decrees of God Himself. He put it into our hands, into the beis din, the beis din lemata, our beis din here. Our courts decide when the new month is. “Our courts can change things, even if there was a heavenly voice,” he said. In the Gemara it says if there was a heavenly voice, we would have to listen to the heavenly voice. He says, “Hashem says that He will yield over much of man’s destiny to the Jewish people if you live up to my call of being a sacred nation. Therefore, you will rule over Me, causing me to reverse my rulings.” That’s what the Chassam Sofer said. So, we see how power and how much responsibility the Jewish people were given over at Har Sinai, the experience changed our being, and then we became responsible. We have to do our job, because we went up to a completely different level.
And the Rabbeinu Bachye explains that the Jewish people showed all the nations of the world what they have to offer. Why don’t the Jews turn to other religions? How can we stay inside of our religion? Because none of the world can offer anything. They can’t match what we experienced at Har Sinai. When we were chosen by God there’s nothing that can change us. There’s nothing that the world has to offer that we’re interested in. The Jews are not interested in such things.
Rav Wolbe explains that at matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, the Jews received an entirely new perception of themselves. Their self-image changed. The image of who we are changed. We became a different people. Each Jew is a dignitary, each Jew has responsibility. We have to follow the Torah, and if we follow the Torah then brochas come into the world. We’re the Cohanim, the priests unto the nations. That’s our job, and if not things go haywire. We must follow the Torah. We have to follow the Torah, we were chosen to follow the Torah. But we shouldn’t think it’s impossible, who am I, what am I? Am I an angel? I’m just a man. The Malbim explains. He says, “The verse said that Hashem spoke with Moses. He didn’t speak to Moses. What does that mean? There was a conversation going on, can you imagine such a thing? Moses was conversing with God, which means Moses could have his own opinion” He says, “The Torah was entrusted into the logical mind of a human being, that after the Torah sages learn logically, Hashem concurs with whatever they conclude. The Torah was given over to the Rabbis. Hashem communicated with us. It’s not beyond us, aino chinami, Hashem is beyond us.” Ano chinami, the next world is beyond us where we can’t see. But the Torah was entrusted to us. When we delve into the Torah, when we work hard in the Torah, we can change the rules. We can change the laws, obviously, all based on the Torah. But the expression of the Torah in this world, that’s our job. The droshas of the Ran says, that when it says, “My children have defeated Me,” what does that mean? Like I said before, they ignored the heavenly voice. They don’t have to listen. But obviously, we’re talking about righteous people who want to do the right thing, who want to bring God’s presence into the world, with all the contradictions that are occurring, with all the contradictions of society, and all of the problems that our world faces.
The chachamim, the holy Rabbis, have the ability to see and perceive the reality, the way that it really is, and give the solutions to the problems that we’re facing on a daily basis. But you have to know that someone who’s living a life of Torah, he’s living in a completely different world. And this what Rav Moshe Sternbuch says, “Why do we have the additional effect of smoke? Why was there also smoke at Har Sinai?” He wants to explain that smoke was there to separate. It was there to show that someone who is involved with Torah is living in a completely different world from the rest of mankind. That’s what a ben Torah is. A ben Torah is a person, every minute he has, he sits down to learn. Whether you have to work or learn or whatever you have to do, but every spare moment you have, you have to try to sit and learn, to experience the Torah, to taste the Torah, to see the beauty of the Torah, to see the wisdom and the chiddushim, the new ideas that come of the Torah. And every day, we know Chazal tells us that every day is matan Torah. We should see the mitzvos that they’re new each day, and we should accept upon ourselves the Torah. In this way, we’ll grow to new and higher levels.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid Mi Dubno brings the verse like this, “And now if you listen diligently to my voice and preserve all my covenants, you shall be my special treasure among all the peoples. For all the earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of Cohanim, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So, one time there was a wealthy man whose wife passed away. And the man decided instead of marrying another wealthy woman, he’s going to marry a poor woman, and he decided to marry one of his servants. So, before he got married he spoke to her and he said to her, “You know, you’re about to become the lady of the house. But you should know, it’s true there are many advantages to becoming the lady of the house. But there are also disadvantages. When you were a servant, you were just in charge of your one job. But now you’re going to be charge of the entire house, and you’re going to have a lot of responsibility.” So, the woman said, “Why should I have so many responsibilities? What do I want this for?” He explained to her that you’re going to receive tremendous honor, being the lady of the house. But he said, “That’s only if you do your job well. If you do your job well, everyone’s going to honor you and respect you. But if you don’t do your job well, you’re going to be a disgrace to the house.”
So too, the Jewish people were chosen to be the Cohanim, the priests among the nations. If we do our job diligently, and we listen, so then we’re going to be the special treasure among all the peoples. But if we don’t listen and we don’t follow the Torah, oy vavoy, we’re going to be disgraced.
Great Stories – Rav Moshe Solovechik
When Rav Moshe Solovechik was in Switzerland after the Holocaust, many of the Jews from all over Germany were sent to Switzerland there to go into camps to recover. But most of them lost their entire families. They were physically in very bad shape, mentally in very bad shape. The life energy was drained from them. So, he wanted to try to mechazek them, to strengthen them in Torah and mitzvas, but he didn’t know what to do. Just to speak to them simply, they’re not going to listen. He had to do something. So, he decided that he’s going to try to get into the camp and he’s going to bring a sefer Torah with him. Then I’ll read the sefer Torah. When he got there, he saw absolutely, there was no way to speak to any of these people. They were completely mentally and physically in such bad shape, nothing would help. But when they saw the sefer Torah, all of a sudden they started to get life back a little bit. It ignited a spark inside of them. So, what did he do? He said, “Listen, why should I read the sefer Torah? Let me get one of the people here to read the sefer Torah. Maybe it’s going to mechazek, it’s going to strengthen them.” He asked if anybody knew how to read the Torah, and nobody answers. But there was another guy there from the same town as this other guy. This other guy knew how to read the Torah. So he says, “Listen, I know this guy knows how to read the Torah” He started to press him, “Go, go and read the Torah.” Now, this man who knew how to read the Torah. He left Torah and mitzvos, he was a total chiloni, not religious at all, because he was so burnt out from the Holocaust he left religion completely. But what happened? And this is a true story. When he got up to read the sefer Torah, he hadn’t seen a sefer Torah since the beginning of the Holocaust. All of a sudden his eyes lit up. He started to remember all of his memories of all his education, of cheder, school, of his parents, of Shabbos, of all the holiness in his house, of all the kedushah of his yeshiva. It started flowing back into him, and he read from the Torah. When he finished reading the Torah he was like a totally different person. He said himself, “As soon as I looked at the Torah’s holy letters and started reading, I was infused with the feeling of joy and holiness, memories of my childhood flooded my mind. And the chinuch, the education I received from my parents, surged inside of me once again.” After that incident, this young man returned to Torah. He merited to marry and build a beautiful Jewish home, and raise generations of Torah observant Jews.
Peace in Your Home
Rav Moshe Aaron Stern talks about sanctifying ourselves. If we want to have peace in our house, if we want to have spirituality in our house, we have to be holy. He says, “There are two aspects to being Jewish. One is to fulfill the mitzvos, and another level is being holy. But a person, God-forbid, could be what’s called an menuva berishus HaTorah, an evil person within the halacha.” In other words, he keeps all the mitzvos but he’s not into it. His heart’s not there. He’s just doing it in the minimum. Like Bilham. Bilham said, “I can’t do what Hashem tells me not to do. I just can’t do it.” But he was a total rasha. Everything he did was try to trick, to try to go around Hashem’s word. Okay, he kept whatever he was supposed to keep, but he was still an evil person. We want to bring holiness into our house, we cannot be like that. We have to want to fulfill the mitzvos. We have to strive to fulfill the mitzvos, and add on to more – add mitzvos deRabbanan. It says in the Gemara in Berachos 53A, “Mayim acharonim, mayim rishonim, adds kedushah, holiness.” The water before eating bread, the water after eating the bread. All these little mitzvos add holiness to us. Like it says in Yoma, “A man sanctifies himself a little, and is sanctified a lot from above.”
And there’s no middle path. As long as you’re going up, you’re going up. As soon as you start going up, you go down. That’s the rule. The Chofetz Chaim explains, it’s like standing on a ladder. How long can you stand on a ladder? Either you go up the ladder or you go down the ladder, but you don’t stay in the same rung very long. And that’s why on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we read the Parsha about the ariyos, all the forbidden relationships. What’s the connection between the holiest day of the year and the worst sins that a person can do? The answer, he says, “You should know, if you don’t go up, you’re going to go down. If you don’t constantly go up, you can wind up who knows where.” He explains, “On the other side, you can’t be a fanatic. Why? Because if you become a fanatic, it leads to sin.” There’s a Gemara in Yoma that says that Eliyahu HaNavi did not come to Rebbe Yehuda. Why? Because on Yom Kippur night, many virgins were violated. How could it be on Yom Kippur night that virgins were taken advantage of? The answer is, they decided to sleep outside, zecher lemigdash. Since the Beis HaMigdash was destroyed, they decided on Yom Kippur everybody’s going to sleep outside, which led to all kinds of nonsense.
The Kotzker Rebbe used to say, “When you’re holy, don’t forget to still be a mentsch.” In other words, don’t be so holy that you’re a nasty guy, you have to be a mentsch. You have to be holy, but you also to have to be a human being. One time a woman came to Rav Yehuda Leib Diskin, complaining. She says, “My husband is trying to be so holy, he refuses to speak to me. He doesn’t want to speak.” So, what did Rav Diskin do? He invited him over for a meal. When he came in, he didn’t say hello to him. He sat down, he washed his hands, he doesn’t say anything. The guy’s getting more nervous and more nervous. He eats the whole meal, he bentsches, and he doesn’t say anything. Then he sent the guy home. The guy got the message. Not to speak to your wife is the wrong thing to do. How can you hurt other people for your holiness. For your own holiness, you’re going to hurt your wife? It’s just the opposite.
He brings a story, that one time there was a guy who was close to the Brisker Rav, who made matzos with him. What happened? He put the matzos in his closet before Pesach. When the wife was cleaning for Pesach, she took the box down. All of a sudden she turns around and she sees that her little boy put his hands inside the box, and she didn’t know – maybe he had bread, maybe he didn’t have bread. She didn’t know what to do. So, what did she do? She got her brother to go and buy matzos, and exchange the matzos, and took those matzos out, threw them away and put different matzos in the box. Erev Pesach, here comes the husband to take out the matzos. Her husband sees right away, these are not the same matzos I baked with the Brisker Rav. But he didn’t say anything. Why didn’t he say anything? He didn’t want to get his wife upset. He pretended not to notice. So, as the Seder’s going on, here the wife is at the Seder. She’s getting nervous, “Oy, what did I do? I have to tell my husband.” So, she tells her husband in the middle of the Seder, “Listen, these are not the same matzos that you made with the Brisker Rav.” The husband said, “I noticed. It’s better to be machmir, better to be strict about anger and shalom bayis on Erev Pesach than to be strict about matzos.” So, it’s not about being a fanatic. It’s about being a true Torah Jew, which means the ratzon of Hashem, the will of God. Not your idea, it’s God’s idea. It’s not what you think is strict, and this is strict. A person has to be a mentsch, and go in the right way.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s Torah podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. Please share it with your friends, and please leave comments.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff