Our sages tell us that Hashem specifically chose Har Sinai, the smallest mountain, as the site for Matan Torah. Obviously that choice was significant, but the question is: Why did Hashem choose a mountain at all? The Torah could have been given just as well in a valley.
Rabbi Nissim Yagen explains that just as one climbs a mountain, the Torah too requires upward movement, i.e. spiritual ascension. The Torah was not given in a valley because it cannot be acquired without effort and exertion. Torah is earned by one who struggles and perseveres. Man has to climb the mountain, and sometimes he needs to overcome challenges and obstacles that he encounters along the way. The Evil Inclination lies in wait, seeking to intercept him and to hinder his attempts to come closer to Hashem.
Throughout his life, even Avraham Avinu was confronted with nisyonos and adversity. Hashem tested Avraham ten times. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) relates that even as Avraham was already en route to meet the greatest challenge of his life – akeidas Yitzchak – the Soton waylaid him.
“Avraham, you are the beloved of Hashem,” the Soton said. “Is this how He shows His love for you? By having you cut off your future generations?”
“I go with sincere dedication,” Avraham Avinu replied. “I do not analyze the decrees of Hashem.”
The Soton then took a different tack. “I have heard from behind the Heavenly Curtain,” he said, “that a sheep will be sacrificed and not Yitzchak.”
Still Avraham did not heed him. This is the punishment of one who doesn’t tell the truth – that even when he speaks the truth, others do not listen to him. Rabbi Yissochor Dov of Belz expounds that Avraham Avinu did not want to function under the influence of the Soton in any way, even if what the Soton said was true.
We learn in the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim that the essence of man’s existence in this world is to fulfill Hashem’s mitzvos as he struggles to withstand the challenges of life.
In this vein, Rabbi Yaakov Neiman, the rosh yeshiva of Ohr Yisrael, gave the following account:
During his travels, the Chofetz Chaim’s train once pulled into a station where a large crowd waited to greet him. He got out to offer them divrei chizuk and inspiration.
“In your opinion,” he asked the crowd, “what does it mean to be a Jew?”
One of the people called out, “A Jew goes to shul every morning to pray. After his prayers, he learns a little mishnayos and then he goes out to work.”
“That’s how you describe a Jew?” asked the Chofetz Chaim. “What’s novel about that? How could he act otherwise?”
Another man put forth an answer. “A Jew has to be careful that all his business transactions are according to halacha, Jewish law,” he said. “He can’t charge interest, he can’t take advantage of a buyer, he can’t have false weights, and so on.”
“Is it possible to conduct oneself in a different way?” asked the Chofetz Chaim in puzzlement.
A third person gave it a try. “When a Jew returns home, exhausted after a full day of work, he nevertheless leaves the house to participate in an hour-long shiur in shul,” he said.
“Is there any other way one could conduct himself?” asked the Chofetz Chaim. “That’s your analysis of a Jew?”
The assembled crowd waited with bated breath for the Chofetz Chaim’s answer.
“A Jew is one who will withstand a nisayon,” stated the Chofetz Chaim simply.
On the verse “I raise my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?” (Tehillim 121:1), the Slonimer Rebbe asks: what mountains are being referenced here?
Every Jew finds himself between two mountains throughout life, the Slonimer Rebbe explains. There is the mountain of Hashem, as it says “Who will ascend the mountain of Hashem?” (ibid. 24:3). There is also the mountain that is the Evil Inclination, as the Talmud tells us, “the Evil Inclination appears as a mountain” (Succah 52a).
Finding himself between these two “mountains,” Dovid HaMelech declares: “My help will come from Hashem” (Tehillim 121:2). Throughout life, a Jew is to always stand strong in the face of challenges and to choose to climb the mountain of Hashem.
When new recruits enter the Israeli Army, they are not yet experienced in the art of war and they are sent to special camps where they go through tough training. These include difficult obstacle courses that they must successfully navigate in order to become full-fledged members of the army. They involve running long distances, climbing and rappelling walls, jumping over fences and muddy puddles, crawling under stone walls, swimming and balancing, testing their speed, agility and endurance. These exercises leave them worn out and drained of strength.
Two American tourists interested in donating money came to observe the soldiers in training camp. When the wealthy Americans saw the soldiers jumping over the fence, climbing the ropes and nets, and crawling underneath the walls, they had great rachmanus on the soldiers.
One of the two men turned to the general who was with them. “I can’t take seeing these soldiers withstanding so much hardship,” he said. “I would like to give $100,000 in order to make this obstacle course easier – lower the fence, construct a path that is more accessible, and make it less challenging.”
With a look of surprise, the general turned to him and said, “Without mastering these obstacles, they will not become soldiers. It is only by experiencing these obstacles that these men can achieve their goal to become soldiers.”