Photo Credit: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff

Ask the average real estate professional for the three most important elements of a quality property and you will likely get the following response: location, location, and location. Developers can do almost anything to a property to fix it up but they can’t do anything about where it’s located. Often, people will pay top dollar for a parcel of land simply because of where it is and what it’s close to, irrespective of its other qualities.

When it comes to history, however, it would appear that location often plays a diminished role. Historical events are typically remembered more for the outcome that they produced than for the location at which they occurred.

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Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. While we recall where Lincoln’s historic speech occurred, the fact that it happened in a small Pennsylvania town is viewed as mere backdrop for the president’s world-altering proclamation. In a similar vein, the setting of D-Day (the beaches of Normandy, France), is noted as a sidebar to the story of the Allies’ massive invasion onto mainland Europe.

At first glance, the same can be said for major events in our national history. We think of Pesach as a story of persecution and divine liberation; the bad guys just happened to be Egyptian. Shavuos is recalled as a moment in which we received God’s holy Torah. The fact that it occurred around a small desert mountain is of limited significance.

However, careful consideration of the aforementioned chagim reveals that each one’s respective setting played a central role in the spiritual and moral lessons of the holiday. Mitzrayim comes from the word meitzar, which means confinements or straits. Our sages tell us that no individual slave had ever managed to escape from the ancient world power, let alone an entire nation. Moreover, the Jewish slave nation was trapped in a spiritual wasteland and desperately needed to experience redemption – otherwise it would plummet to the spiritual abyss.

The story of Pesach, therefore, is a direct outgrowth of the Egyptian experience and the intended benefits could not have been achieved in any other context.

Similarly, Mount Sinai was more than a nice backdrop for receiving the Torah. It was, in fact, the perfect setting for this momentous event and played a critical role in setting the national mindset for receiving His word.

The Midrash tells us that Mount Sinai was neither the highest nor the most splendid mountain. In fact it is described as being the lowest and humblest in its vicinity. Still, Hashem chose it as the place on which to give the Torah in order to teach us that humility is a prerequisite to its study.

The basic expectation in our receiving the Torah is that we need to internalize its teachings and follow its mandates This is easier said than done, however, as our ego and inclinations often get in the way and we chafe at being permanently subjected to a higher will. For that reason, Hashem framed Matan Torah in a humble setting to remind us to check our egos at the door so that we can selflessly accept the Divine Mandate. We pray regularly for such humility when we say at the conclusion of each amidah prayer, “May my soul be to all as the dust; open my heart to your Torah.”

Humility also keeps us from trying to misuse the Torah for selfish purposes. Rabbeinu Yonah, writing in Shaarei Teshuvah (3:160), explains that a person can fulfill all the mitzvos to the fullest degree and still be someone who hates Hashem if he is bothered when he sees others serving Hashem as well. Such a person is not behaving out of a true desire to fulfill His will but rather for the purpose of enhancing his own personal stature.

This is what occurred with Rabbi Akiva’s students. The grudge they held against each other was caused by a subtle form of jealousy, an inability to truly appreciate the greatness of their peers. This, in turn, impacted their willingness to treat each other with the requisite degree of respect, which resulted in their deaths. “He who makes improper use of the crown of Torah passes away.” (Avos 4:5)

Though humility is critical to Torah study, the fact that the Torah was given on a mountain rather than on flat terrain or even a valley indicates there are times we need to stand tall in order to resist outside pressures. There have been many instances throughout our history in which our study of and adherence to Torah have been threatened by outside forces. At other times, the threat has come from within, as members of our own nation have questioned the very purpose and value of Torah study and have sought to attract other Jews to their way of thinking. At such moments, it has been essential for us to muster the inner strength and courage to resist these forces and remain steadfast in our study and commitment.

While Har Sinai may serve as a model of humility, it also demonstrated Divine might and firmness. The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) relates a most unusual exchange in which Hashem uprooted the mountain from its moorings and held it above the people’s heads. He threatened them, saying if they accepted the Torah all would be good, but if they didn’t, “there will be your burial place.”

Many commentators struggle with this passage. After all, had not the young Hebrew nation already declared that it would do before it would hear? What was the purpose of this added threat?

Maharal explains that this story is not to be understood literally. At no point did Hashem actually uproot Har Sinai. Rather, the Talmud is sharing that the Sinai experience was one of deep clarity and awareness, in which the people perceived God’s oneness and the need to adhere to His word to such a degree that it was as if they were compelled by a mountain hanging over them.

This was not the only clarity-inducing element of Sinai. The Torah’s account (Shemos 19:16, 18; 20:15) presents a most unusual description of the sound and light effects, as it were, that was put on display for Klal Yisrael.

There was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of a shofar was exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled…. And Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly…. And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken and stood far away.

How are we to understand the idea of the Children of Israel “seeing” thunder and the sounds of the shofar? How can one see things that are relegated exclusively to the auditory sense? The answer is that we cannot compare the clarity and knowledge one receives from hearing a description of an item or event to that of viewing something directly. At Sinai, God’s revelation was so complete that it reached the people’s deepest senses, to the point where their knowledge of the event was akin to the level of having seen every aspect of it.

It is worth noting that although our bechirah (free will) may have been temporarily diminished while at Sinai, it nevertheless serves a central role in our relationship with Hashem and His Torah. Our ability to choose, as it were, to live a life of Torah has deepened our relationship with its and its supreme Author.

The primary source for our ability to opt in or out of a life of mitzvah observance can be found at the beginning of Parshas Re’eh. There, the Torah presents the outcomes of our choices as a matter of blessing and curse:

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know. [Devarim 11:26 ff]

Ibn Ezra, Ohr HaChaim, and other commentators understand these verses as speaking to each individual Jew and his or her ability to choose whether or not to keep the mitzvos. Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah, Chapter 5) understands this similarly:

Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his. A person should not entertain the idea…that, at the time of a man’s creation, The Holy One, blessed be He, decrees whether he will be righteous or wicked. This is untrue…. This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests the totality] of the Torah and mitzvos as it states…”Behold, I have set before you today [the blessing and the curse],” implying that the choice is in your hands. Any one of the deeds of men which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil.

According to Rambam, we are not bound by a predestined outcome. Hashem gives each of us the opportunity to make choices that will determine our standing and our future. We can choose to act positively, and live the noblest form of existence. Alternatively, we can elect to act wickedly.

But choice alone will not amount to much if there is little commitment to sustain it. As the seven-week lead-up to Sinai makes clear, we cannot achieve high levels of sustained commitment in one supernatural moment of transcendent awareness. Instead, we must establish a steady a routine of positive action.

Rav Dessler explains the reason Klal Yisrael proclaimed “we will do and we will hear” was that they understood the importance of regular positive actions as the basis for their lives as servants of the Almighty. It would not suffice for us to think positively or even meditate about spiritual matters. Only continued action, fulfillment of mitzvos, and making good choices ensure our longstanding commitment.

Another way to achieve sustained growth is to grow together. The Mishnah (Avos 1:6) instructs us to “make for yourself a mentor [and] acquire for yourself a friend.” Positive, growth-oriented friends (equated to mentors) are so integral to our spiritual well being that we are told to “acquire” them if we cannot develop them otherwise.

The experience at Sinai was one of historic national unity. The pasuk (Shemos 19:2) relates that “Israel [singular] encamped there opposite the mountain.” The singular expression prompts Rashi to comment (based on the Midrash) that “they encamped there as one man with one heart.” This unity was the basis of the Sinai experience because it forged a sense of deep national connectedness at the very outset of our collective mission and purpose. Without such unity, we simply would have been unable to accept the Torah, whose basis is the love of the fellow man (see: Rabbi Akiva).

While the unity was unfortunately short-lived (Rashi points out that while the encampment around Sinai was “as one man,” the other encampments were “all [divided] with complaints and with strife”), it was enough upon which to build our national destiny.

It’s no secret that getting Jews to act and feel united can often seem as impossible as bringing the Palestinians to the negotiating table for a real two-way peace-oriented conversation. We have so many divergent attributes and attitudes that it seems that we can never recapture that glorious sense of connection from centuries ago. But at the same time the experience of Sinai shows us that when we band together for the common good, we can break down barriers and achieve deep unity.

Sometimes such unity can stem from tragedy, as when the abduction of three Israeli yeshiva boys a few years back brought our nation together regardless of location or affiliation. But is there hope for unity that does not necessitate rallying together in times of pain?

One possible approach is for us to appreciate others’ uniqueness not as an imperfection but rather as their special contribution to the heavenly ensemble. Rav Shimon Schwab (Selected Writings, CIS Publications, 1988) points out that what makes us different should be the source of national pride, not tribal scorn.

Am Yisrael, at its very inception, was organized intoseparate units, each distinguishable from the other – the twelve shevatim (tribes) – under one single command…. The common denominator of all customs has always been the unquestionable loyalty to the halacha, and the identical faith in the divine authority of the Torah…. In our own days we are acquainted with a multitude of divergencies such as the countless customs which distinguish Oriental from Occidental Jews. Each main division, such as chassidim and misnagdim, Eastern European and Western European, Yemenites, Moroccans, or Lithuanians, Hungarians, Poles, etc., again can be divided into smaller segments…. There comes to one’s mind the image of a symphonic orchestra, a large group of musicians playing various instruments under the direction of one conductor.

As we gather together in celebration of Shavuos, let us recall the unique lessons of Sinai, so that we can humbly reaccept the Torah with clarity and unity.

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