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Preparation for Matan Torah

By: Rav Yonny Sack

With Shavuot around the corner, Zman Matan Torateinu, let us explore an idea that is central to the importance of learning of Torah and how we should be preparing ourselves over these coming days.

Back in Sefer Shmot, parashat Yitro, the Torah describes the arrival of the Jewish People at Midbar Sinai:

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 In the third month of the Children of Israel's leaving the land of Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Sinai desert. 

And they travelled from Refidim and they came to the Sinai desert and they encamped in the desert. 

And he encamped there, Israel, opposite the mountain [1].

The Ohr HaChaim ha Kadosh points out the perplexing nature of these pasukim:  Firstly, the very fact that it took 7 weeks (only in the third month after leaving Egypt) before Hashem gave the Torah is quite strange. After all, the journey to Har Sinai did not require 7 weeks of travel. Surely Hashem wanted to give us the Torah as soon as possible?  As he writes so poetically "one of the signs of love is not being able to hold back one’s desire from the one whom he desires", as such, as a result of Hashem's love for the Jewish people, it is hard to understand how Hashem, with His immeasurable love for us could wait so long to give us His Torah.

Secondly, the mention of leaving Egypt is a little strange. Is this really necessary to mention? Why is the date of arrival at Har Sinai defined by when they left Egypt?

Thirdly, what is the reason for mention of the journey from Refidim in pasuk 2? In Pasuk 1, the Torah tells us that Bnei Yisrael arrived at the desert, and yet in pasuk 2 it describes their leaving Refidim and again arriving at Sinai. Why the order reversal, mention of refidim and repetition of arrival in the desert?

Finally, we have the famous question of why the pasuk changes from plural to singular in the words "and he encamped there"? It should have said "and they encamped".

In answering these questions the Ohr HaChaim reveals some of the foundational steps one needs to take to be ready for the receiving of the Torah. As Shavuot comes around, and we re-receive the Torah anew, let's see what we can learn from his insights.

In answer to the first two questions the Ohr HaChaim writes that although Hashem certainly wanted to give the Torah as soon as possible, we were not ready to receive it immediately after the redemption. After sinking to the 49th level of impurity in Mitzrayim, we needed to climb up the 49 levels of purity through the 7 weeks of sefira, slowly preparing ourselves to be true vessels for the Divine wisdom that is Torah. This therefore explains why the Torah mentions the date of arrival at Sinai in reference to leaving Egypt, in order to underscore the fact that Matan Torah was delayed and only given "in the third month" because Bnei Yisrael first had to "leave/exit Egypt", leave behind the impurity of Mitzrayim .

In answer to the third and fourth questions, the Ohr Hachaim writes that the Torah is teaching us 3 fundamental preparations needed for Matan Torah.

Firstly, he explains the mention of "and they travelled from Refidim" not to be referring to any physical geographical location but rather to refer to their readiness and strengthening in Torah (presumably the Torah that they already had been taught before Sinai).  "Refidim" he says, is a word that can be broken up into the two words "Rifayon" and "Yadayim" which means 'weakness of the hands" implying that that they left behind any laziness or lax approach to Torah and readied themselves for the hard work and effort that a true acquisition of Torah requires.

Secondly, the seemingly superfluous mention of the arrival in the Midbar comes to teach us that they made themselves into a midbar, an empty vessel ready to receive. This, he says, is the foundational trait of humility which is a prerequisite to Matan Torah.

Finally, the third preparation is hinted at in the singular expression of encampment as "And he encamped there" teaching us, as Rashi comments on that verse that they encamped with peace and unity, as “one man with one heart”.

Thus in summary, the Ohr HaChaim mentions four overarching preparations for receiving the Torah:

  1. Leaving behind the Impurity of Mitzrayim
  2. Strengthening one’s resolve to rise above the tendency to be lax and lazy in Torah study
  3. Humility
  4. Unity

Let us briefly explore two of these preparations and take of what we learn with us into our own preparations for this Shavuot.

Firstly the trait of Humility - Why is this trait seen as a prerequisite for true acceptance and acquisition of Torah?

For this we look to the beginning of this week’s parashah, Bamidbar. The sefer begins with the words “And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Midbar ( Desert) of Sinai . . .”. The Midrash here asks why the Torah needed to mention the place in which this conversation took place and answers with the following interesting teaching: Only those who make themselves empty like a midbar can hope to acquire the wisdom of Torah.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot asks the famous question: Who is wise? And while the answer we would expect would be “He who knows the most” or “He who studies the most”, the answer the Mishna gives us is “He who learns from everybody”.  Amazingly, the Torah measure of wisdom is not quantitative, nor qualitative, but rather dependent on one’s character; are you able to open yourself up to learn from others? If not, you may have learnt enormous amounts of information, you may be a professor or PHD in your field, but if you are not willing to admit that you still have what to learn, then you cannot don the crown of ‘wisdom’.

Humility in Judaism is the prerequisite for wisdom. This is why our leader and master teacher Moshe was the most humble man to walk the earth. Were he not, he simply could not have been the great receiver and disseminator of Torah that he was. As the first Mishna in Avot teaches - Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, Sinai, the lowest mountain, Sinai, the symbol of humility. Moshe received the Torah because of his Sinai like humility.

While all of the Jewish people witnessed the revelation and received the Torah, specifically Moshe was chosen to be the ultimate receptacle as, in order to hold the Divine wisdom, you need to be empty of ego. Ego fills us up with ourselves until there is no room for other. Like a glass that is full to the brim, there is no sense in trying to add more liquid. The humble person on the other hand, empties out the ego and leaves vacant space for wisdom.

Work on humility is thus a principle preparation for the Chag of Shavuot.

What about the preparation of intensifying Torah study in general, not learning in a lazy way? Why is this so critical in readying ourselves for our own personal Matan Torah?

For this we can look at last week's parasha, Bechukotai where the Torah begins with the promise of great blessing if the Jewish people follow the Torah:

“Im Bechukotai Teileichu VeEtMitzvotai Tishmeru VaAsitem Otam . . . VeNatati Gishmechem Beitam . . .” - And if you will go in my decrees and keep my mitzvot and perform them . . . and I will give your rain in its season, etc." ( Yayikra 26:3-).

Rashi asks what the verse is referring to when it says “my decrees”. It cannot be referring to the keeping of mitzvot of the Torah as this is already spoken of when it says “keep my mitzvot and perform them”, rather, Rashi points out, based on the Midrash, that it is referring to the overarching imperative to learn Torah with all of one’s ability, what is known as being Ameilim BaTorah – laboring in Torah study.  

Why are intensity, effort and depth in Torah study so important? What is so dangerous about a 'lazy' approach to one's learning?

To gains some insight into this teaching, we need to plough a little deeper into one of the reasons given for the mitzvah and importance of Torah learning.

Perception is a fascinating field of study. Although objectively the world presents a uniform picture to all, what the beholder actually sees is always a result of his/her own unique makeup and thus we see the same things quite differently. 

The principle influence on how we perceive things is our midot, our character traits (Alei Shur). A girl, for example, with insecurities about how she is dressed, might notice two people talking and laughing and she will 'see' them talking about her.  A person with an inflated ego driving a sports car may see people looking and admiring his sports car, even if they are in fact just looking in his direction at something else. The way we perceive the world is thus heavily influenced by the personal lens of our character traits and as a result we often judge people with gross inaccuracy because our view of the truth is obscured by the personalized subjective glasses through which we see the world.  As Steven Covey taught, the main problem is how we see the problem.

In addition to our skewed vision of reality, the world that is presented to us, even before we filter it through our own lenses, is really a masked reality. Truth lies behind facade after facade, veil after veil of untruths.  Think of a pop 'star' who is idolized for their talent or looks and yet some times (not always) beyond the glitzy glamour lies a very ugly picture of alcohol or drug abuse, ego and insecurity.

The Torah teaches us that the stamp of Hashem is truth, but what type of stamp? If you imagine a hot lump of wax and a stamp with the word "Emet" ( truth) slowly pressed within the wax it will produce a stamp of truth - but the truth will be embedded while the falsehood that surrounds will stand out at you [2]. This is the world we live in, the truth is only found after searching deep within, and the falsehood is very loud and the first thing that we see.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslev said that the Yetzer Hara is like a prankster running around the shuk holding his hands closed and enticing everyone to come and see what he is holding. Everyone gathers around desiring to see what could it be that he is promising to show, and then he opens his hands and nothing is there.

How are we to not get caught up in the promise of fun, excitement and hedonistic pleasure that the Yetzer offers? How are we to have any hope of seeing with correct glasses if our own vision is skewed by our midot and the world shown to us is in fact hiding the true light? The answer is Torah. We say, in the blessing after reading the Torah, "Ve Natan Lanu Torat Emet", and you gave us a Torah of Truth. Torah learning gives us Torah lenses. And in depth, because the Torah is really Hashem's view of reality, learning it gives us a truthful vision to see beyond the veil.

But not just any Torah study. It cannot be superficial, lazy Torah learning. It has to be learning with intensity, one has to labor in it, seeking to reveal its depth otherwise one faces the danger of still being outside the wall, remaining in the superficial. Correct learning will enable a person to penetrate the veneer and access the true light in this world.

Shavuot, the festival of receiving the Torah is around the corner. As we finish the counting of the Omer, and truly leave Mitzrayim behind us, may we all be blessed to renew our commitment to learning, open ourselves up to Torah with the mida of humility, plug in to the unifying power of clal Yisrael, and experience a true zman matan Torateinu.

Shabbat Shalom


[1] Shmot 19:1-2

[2] Heard from Rav Doniel Katz


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