פרשת במדבר – שבועות
With Rav Avigdor Miller ztz”l
Forever at Sinai
Part I. Voice of Hashem
THE MISHKAN GOES UNDERCOVER
The most remarkable institution that the Am Yisroel were privileged to have with them as they journeyed for forty years in the midbar was the Mishkan. Immediately upon the culmination of the great event of Matan Torah, the Am Yisroel began to build the home where Hakodosh Boruch Hu would take up residence in the midst of the Am Yisroel, and the place where His privileged nation could come to serve Him.
Upon its completion, this small portable beis hamikdash became the center of the Universe, and therefore in this week’s parsha we were commanded to treat it so. Every time the nation traveled, great care was taken by the kohanim so that the aron, where the Torah was placed, should not be revealed to the public sight – וְכִסּוּ בָהּ אֵת אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת; it was covered with expensive royal techeiles cloth before the nation set out on their journey.
Yet, however much we understand the importance of these commands, we are stunned when we read the punishment for those who might breach the royal protocol. וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּגִשְׁתָּם אֶת קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים – “They shall not come near to touch the holiness and die” (Bamidbar 4:19). לֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ – “And they shall not come to see when the holiness is being covered and they will die” (ibid. 4:20).
HAR SINAI – THE SEQUEL
Now, the attentive listener will note that these pesukim remind us of similar admonitions that the Am Yisroel had only recently heard. Because at Har Sinai we were similarly warned:“Anyone that touches the mountain shall be put to death” (Shemos 19:12). “Warn the people lest they come near and break through to Hashem to look, and many of them will perish” (ibid. 19:21). And there’s no doubt that the admonitions in our parsha were expected to remind the Am Yisroel of the similar admonitions at Har Sinai.
And the Ramban says that. He tells us (Hakdama l’parshas Teruma) that the unique and unprecedented display of the glory of Hashem that we witnessed when He rested on Har Sinai, didn’t end forever with that ma’amad. The Shechina didn’t just make its way back up to the sh’mei shomayim – instead it now came to rest in the Mishkan. That is “the secret of the Mishkan,” says the Ramban; that it was expected to be the continuation of Har Sinai.
MATAN TORAH LIVES ON
It’s a remarkable thing what the Ramban is saying – and it’s a tremendous lesson for us. Hashem wants Har Sinai to live forever before our eyes; it’s not just something very important that happened; it’s not merely an event that we remember. Hashem said that He wants Har Sinai to be re-enacted in the Mishkan. The Mishkan wasn’t just a makom avodah, the place where we brought korbanos – it was Har Sinai!
And now we can understand that all of those admonitions of coming too close in the Mishkan; of touching what shouldn’t be touched, and of seeing what shouldn’t be seen, was primarily because Hakodosh Boruch Hu wants us to know that Matan Torah never ended.
And that’s what Dovid Hamelech said in Tehillim (68:18) הַשֵּׁם בָּם – “Hashem has settled among the Am Yisroel.” And how did He do that? סִינַי בַּקּוֹדֶשׁ – “Because Har Sinai is now in the Mishkan.” Dovid says here that the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai is now found in the kodesh kodoshim. The Sanctuary was the heart of the nation, and it was the word of Hashem, the stone luchos and the Torah, that were at the heart of the Mishkan.
STORYTELLING ON SHAVUOS
Hashem wants that experience of Har Sinai, the awe that we felt on that greatest day of our history, to remain forever. And actually it’s a mitzvah d’oraisah. Some people mention it every day after davening: הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ… פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ – “Be careful not to ever forget what you saw on that day,” Hashem says (Devarim 4:9). וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ – “And you should make known to your children” – now, people ordinarily fall into an error here. They think it refers to the laws of the Torah alone, that you should teach the laws of the Torah to your children. But the Rambam says no; k’pshuto what it means is that you should make known to your children what happened at Har Sinai.
If you take a look at the words of the Rambam in his Igeres Teiman, you’ll see he explains this mitzvah as follows: וְצִוָּנוּ לְלַמֵּד אוֹתוֹ לְבָנֵינוּ – Hashem commanded us that we should teach about the giving of the Torah to our children. Not only to teach the Torah to our children, but to give it over to them with the experience of how the Torah was given.
And that’s why the Rambam adds that you have to start when your children are still young – they have to grow up on it. “So that children should grow up thinking about Matan Torah” – כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּגְדְּלוּ עַל תַּלְמוּדוֹ. What took place on Shavuos should be taught so much to children that we should grow up with this idea always percolating in our minds. וְרָאוּי לָכֶם אַחֵינוּ – “It is fitting for you, my brothers, שֶׁתִּגְדְּלוּ בְּנֵיכֶם עַל הַמַּעֲמָד הַהוּא הַגָּדוֹל – you should bring up your children on that great scene.” It means you should raise them on that. Like you raise your children on vitamins, you raise them on food – you should raise them up with the picture of Har Sinai so that it should get into their blood and into their bones.
THE ZEIDY’S JOB
And not only to your children! וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ – “And to your grandchildren as well.” You hear that zeidehs? You hear what you should be talking to your grandchildren about? Tell him all about Ma’amad Har Sinai. At least once in your life fulfill the p’shuto shel mikra – tell your grandchildren about יוֹם אֲשֶׁר עָמַדְתָּ לִפְנֵי הַשֵּׁם אֱלּוֹקֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב – “About that day when you stood before Hashem at Har Sinai.”
And he’ll ask you, “How do you know, Zeidy?” So you’ll tell him the truth, “Because my zeideh told me.” And when you do that, the gemara says that it’s כְּאִילּוּ קִבְּלוֹ מֵהַר סִינַי – it’s as if the child himself was standing at Har Sinai accepting the Torah; because you’re not only teaching him Torah, but you’re recreating that great event in his little head – and it’s Hashem’s desire that Har Sinai should live forever in our minds.
INCREASE THE PROPAGANDA
When the Rambam writes that Ma’amad Har Sinai is the most important lesson that we should be giving over to our children and that we should make that day greater in our eyes than all other day, he’s referring to much more than just the fact that we received the Torah – it’s the experience, the change that the experience made in their neshamos and in their attitudes towards the Torah. The greatest accomplishment of all that they achieved at Har Sinai was that they gained an awe, a pachad, for what Kabolas Hatorah means for the Am Yisroel.
And therefore we have our work cut out for us. We’re expected to speak about, to propagate, to propagandize, this great principle of how the Torah was given at Har Sinai in the presence of our forefathers. And actually it’s of the utmost necessity for ourselves! It says הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, you be on guard, וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד, be very very careful! The most important of all guards you have to create for yourself is to make certain in your mind about what took place that great day. And not just to give lip service to it – but to be imbued with that picture of the whole Am Yisroel gathered together at the foot of the mountain.
WHEN WAS THE WORLD CREATED?
And the Rambam says, therefore גִּדְלוּ הַמַּעֲמָד הַהוּא עַל כָּל גִּדּוּל, you should make that scene more important than any scene in your life – more important than any scene in the entire history of the world! So although the creation of the world certainly is a very important event – what could leave a person more awestruck than the creation of the world from nothing? – But the scene that our nation witnessed on Har Sinai must be emphasized and aggrandized even more than briyas ha’olam.
That’s what the gemara (Avodah Zarah 3a) says: וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי – “And it was evening and it was morning, and it was the sixth day” (Bereishis 1:31). It doesn’t say yom shishi, like yom sheini, yom shlishi. It says yom ha’shishi, the sixth day, a special sixth day – that was the sixth of Sivan. וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר – “The creation of day and night,” that means the creation of the world, you know when it was? יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי – “It was on yom hashishi,” on the sixth day of Sivan. When the Torah was given that’s when the world was created.
WAS THE WORLD CREATED FOR BACTERIA?
The world wasn’t created so that trillions of bacteria should crawl over the surface of the soil. And it wasn’t made so that billions of human beings should live like bacteria and crawl around and live and die. The world was created so that the Am Yisroel should stand at Har Sinai and become the Am Hatorah – that was the purpose of the world!
And therefore, are we going to let that tremendous event recede into the background of our minds, something we celebrate once a year by eating cheesecake?! Of course not, says the Rambam: “You should make that day great above all greatness, k’mo sh’gidlo Hakodosh Boruch Hu, the same way Hashem did. He’s the One who made that day so great, like He told us: כִּי שְׁאַל נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים – “You should inquire of the ancient days that were before you, הֲנִהְיָה כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה – did such a thing ever happen אוֹ הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ – was it ever heard of? Was there ever a nation who heard Hashem speak to them from the midst of a fire, as you heard, and they remained alive?” Hashem is emphasizing to us that we should internalize the greatness of that unique day!
THE GREAT ARGUMENT
And you should speak about that day not only to your children and grandchildren – וּתְסַפְּרוֹ בְּתוֹךְ קָהָל וְעֵדָה – And you should relate the great scene of the Ma’amad in gatherings, in meetings. You hear that?! Tell your cousins, your friends and neighbors about it too. Next time you come together with your extended family, next time you’re at some gathering, try to speak about Ma’amad Har Sinai. Speak about גְּדֻלָּתוֹ, the greatness of that occasion, says the Rambam, וְהִדּוּרוֹ, and how splendid it was, שֶׁהוּא עַמּוּד שֶׁהָאֱמוּנָה סוֹבֶבֶת עָלָיו, that’s the pillar upon which the whole emunah turns, וְהַטַּעֲנָה הַמְּבִיאָה לִידֵי הָאֱמֶת – and that’s the biggest argument of all for the truth of the Torah.
Now, we can bring a lot of arguments – there’s no lack of proofs we could bring for the Torah – but here is the most important one. Not just that the Torah was given, and not just that we accepted the Torah – but that scene of the entire nation looking up at the mountain – thunder and lightning, a mountain that was shaking, with the furnace-like fire burning on top – and then they heard the Voice of Hashem.
ROYALTY, MAJESTY AND TERROR
At that moment when the heavens opened up and they began to hear the words of Hashem, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha,” the words were not what they were expecting – they thought that the words of Hashem would be sweet and noble words – and they were! But they came out of the sky with a terror; Matan Torah was not merely poetry, sweet sentiments about righteousness and ahavas Hashem. There was a fear to it! Like the gemara (Shabbos 88b) says on the possuk (Mishlei 8:6): שִׁמְעוּ – “Listen to Me,” כִּי נְגִידִים אֲדַבֵּר – “Because I am speaking royalty.” What does that mean that Hashem is speaking words of royalty? So the gemara says, מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר, every word, every utterance of Hakodosh Boruch Hu was crowned with a majestic crown. It wasn’t just a word of Hashem – even that would have been too much – but it was a word that was crowned with the majesty of royal bearing.
Let’s say a girl was marrying a certain chossid; she didn’t know his yichus but she was told he was a nice young man from a nice family, a chosson with good character, so she agreed. But when the time came to go to the chuppah, she saw that he was waiting there wearing a royal crown on his head. “I’m marrying a king?! For that I didn’t bargain. That’s too much gadlus for me.” Now, our nation was ready for the Torah – we were ready to accept everything! We were ready for yei’hareig v’al ya’avor – to let ourselves be killed for the word of Hashem. Na’aseh v’nishma – We’ll keep everything in the Torah. We’ll never bow down to an idol no matter what! They Am Yisroel was committed to do it all!
But when the words began to issue m’pi ha’Gevurah, from the mouth of Hashem, and they saw how scary it was, that they weren’t expecting. How exactly they felt, it’s hard to give over in words – it’s something you have to think about; you have to review the scene in your head as often as you can, in order to understand what it was. But one thing is for sure – when they heard the words of Hashem it put a terror into their hearts; it was something they never could have imagined.
IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?
It was the first time that a nation had such an experience to see that Hashem can speak to a man and live. That’s what it says: לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי – you can’t see Hashem and remain alive (Shemos 33:20). We’re so built that we can stand only a certain amount of excitement. Let’s say, someone would suddenly come in here and grab you by the lapel, and say I’m coming as a messenger for this and this law firm to tell you that I just received news that you inherited five million dollars from some great-uncle you weren’t even aware of – so we’d have to call out, “Is there a doctor in the audience?” No doubt about it!
Up until now, nobody ever believed that could be; that Hashem should speak to a man is such a trauma, it’s so contrary to the organization of his body, to the functions of his body, to his instincts; it’s such a shock to the human system that it was unbelievable that they could survive. And actually, they didn’t survive.
THE AM YISROEL IS FRIGHTENED TO DEATH
The possuk in Shir Hashirim (5:4) describes it: נַפְשִׁי יָצְאָה בְדַבְּרוֹ – “My soul went forth from me when He spoke.” They fell into a swoon, a death swoon; their souls passed out of their bodies and they were lying lifeless and had to be revived. And Hakodosh Boruch rained upon them a tal shel techiyah, a dew of life – what it was I cannot tell you – but something happened then that restored to them their lives. And the angels were involved as well: מַלְכֵי צְבָאוֹת יִדֹּדוּן יִדֹּדוּן – there were malachim moving among them (Tehillim 68:13). It was a phenomenon that nobody else ever experienced. And it was intended that way by Hashem so that the experience of terror and awe should be so engraved on the souls of the Am Yisroel, that never again could they forget it.
And so when they finally arose on their feet – and they were still wobbly; they weren’t steady on their feet yet, and the second dibur came out of the mouth of Hashem. They were about to pass out again, and they said, “We can’t take it any longer! We won’t be able to survive!”
וְעַתָּה לָמָּה נָמוּת – “Why should we die? כִּי תֹאכְלֵנוּ הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת – “This great fire will consume us.” They weren’t afraid of an actual conflagration; but it was a Voice that burnt your nerves, a Voice that destroyed the feelings. אִם יֹסְפִים אֲנַחְנוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת קוֹל הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹקֵינוּ עוֹד וָמָתְנוּ – “If we shall continue to hear the Voice of Hashem our G-d any more we shall perish.” They would become numbed from the experience and perish.
Part II. Accepting a Messenger
THE OTHER NA’ASEH V’NISHMA
They were so full of awe for what they had just seen that they made a special request; they said to Moshe Rabeinu, “You speak to Hashem for us! You speak because “We don’t want to die; we won’t survive it.” קְרַב אַתָּה – “You come close to Hashem, וּשֲׁמָע – and listen. You should hear אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹקֵינוּ – everything that Hashem will say, וְאַתְּ תְּדַבֵּר אֵלֵינוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹקֵינוּ אֵלֶיךָ – and you’ll tell us all that Hashem spoke to you, וְשָׁמַעְנוּ וְעָשִׂינוּ – and we will listen and we will do. (ibid.5:24) We promise we’ll accept everything.
That’s similar to the famous na’aseh v’nishma; only that you’ll notice that they were talking to Moshe Rabeinu: “We will listen and we will do whatever you Moshe Rabbeinu will tell us from now on. Because we already heard Hakodosh Baruch Hu speaking to us through you, and we’re in such awe, such fear, of the dvar Hashem, that we accept forever that you are authorized from now to pass on to us the word of Hashem. That’s what the proposition was, that from now on Moshe Rabbeinu should be the go-between, the one we turn to for the continuation of Har Sinai.
THE BATON IS PASSED TO MOSHE RABEINU
Now, the question is, did they do right? Maybe they should have persisted – they should have continued to hear with their own ears the words of Hashem from Har Sinai? Was it an error to back out and have Moshe come in as a go between?
So we look at the next verse and we see that Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave His stamp of approval to their request: וַיִּשְׁמַע הַשֵּׁם אֶת קוֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶם בְּדַבֶּרְכֶם אֵלָי – Hashem heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, וַיֹּאמֶר הַשֵּׁם אֵלַי – and Hashem said to me, I heard the voice of this people, and what they spoke to you, הֵיטִיבוּ כָּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּרוּ – they did well in all that they spoke.” All that they said, Hakadosh Baruch Hu agreed with them. Everything.
And Hashem said, מִי יִתֵּן – “If it would only be, that they should have the same mind to fear me, and to keep all my commandments, all the days of history. Would that they would continue forever in the same frame of mind, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָהֶם וְלִבְנֵיהֶם לְעֹלָם – in order it should be good for them and for their children forever” (ibid.5:25-26).
THE VOICE IN THE MISHKAN
And forever is what we did! Even though they left Har Sinai to continue their wandering in the midbar, Har Sinai never left them. Moshe Rabeinu continued learning the Toras Hashem in the Mishkan in the same way he learned the Torah on top of Har Sinai. Even the Voice of Hashem in all of its thunderous majesty of Sinai was repeated every time Hashem spoke to Moshe from between the two Keruvim: “And Moshe heard the Voice speaking to him” (Bamidbar 7:89). “Whenever Moshe entered the Mishkan to hear the Voice of Hashem, he heard that same powerful Voice that he had heard in Har Sinai” (Ramban, ibid.).
The same way that Moshe Rabeinu heard Hashem’s words from the midst of the fire on the mountain, וּדְבָרָיו שָׁמַעְתָּ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ, that’s how Moshe Rabeinu heard Hashem’s word in the Mishkan emanating from between the keruvim on top of the aron. The Ramban says that the keruvim were a red-gold for that reason, so that they should correspond to the red-gold fire that the Am Yisroel had witnessed on Har Sinai. Thus Hashem demonstrated that the function of Sinai as the source of the Word of Hashem was now transferred to Moshe Rabeinu and the Mishkan.
THE VOICE CONTINUES FOREVER
And later on in our history, the Sanhedrin in the Lishkas Hagazis, the Marble Chamber in the Beis Hamikdash, was the successor of Har Sinai: “Ki m’tziyon teitzei Torah – “For from Zion shall go forth Torah” (Yeshayah 2:3). The Rambam writes: “The Beis Din Hagadol in the Lishkas Hagazis is the source of the Torah we have today… and anyone who believes in Moshe Rabeinu and his Torah is obligated to rely on them for all decisions in Torah, and to lean on them in all matters” (Hilchos Mamrim 1:1).
And it didn’t end there – the culmination of Ma’amad Har Sinai and the moving of Har Sinai to the Mishkan and later the Lishkas Hagazis meant that a tremendous change was taking place. From now on the Torah would be transmitted through Moshe and his successors, the unbroken chain of chachmei hatorah who until today are our direct line to Har Sinai. And that is the ratzon Hashem, that we should accept the dvar Hashem as it comes to us through the chachmei hatorah. We are to lead all the facets of our lives according to the words of the gedolei Torah who are our Har Sinai.
EZRA DOESN’T MAKE ALIYAH
In Mesichta Megillah (16b), the gemara is bothered by something puzzling. In the days of Ezra the Am Yisroel was beginning to build the second Beis Hamikdash in Eretz Yisroel. Now, to build a Bais Hamikdash is a very important event – nothing could be more important, it seems. And so we would think that everybody should have been there – who wouldn’t come to Har Sinai for Matan Torah?!
But what really happened? Not everybody came; most of the sages didn’t come. Most of the chachmei haTorah did not come to be present to give advice and to participate in the building of the Bais Hamikdash. They stayed in Bavel.
Isn’t that a puzzle? Those building the Beis Hamikdash should have sent messengers to Bavel to say, “Come join us! What are you staying in chutz la’aretz for? We’re building the Bais Hamikdash and you’re still sitting in Bavel?!”
But do you know why they didn’t come? Because Ezra didn’t go. Ezra, the chief sage, refused to budge! He wouldn’t leave Bavel and all of his disciples said, “If Ezra stays, then we stay.”
WHERE IS THE SHECHINA REALLY?
The question is, why didn’t Ezra budge? So the gemara says: שֶׁכָּל זְמַן שֶׁבָּרוּךְ בֶּן נֵרִיָּה קַיָּם לֹא הִנִּיחוֹ עֶזְרָא וְעָלָה – as long as his old teacher, Boruch ben Nayriya was still alive, Ezra refused to leave Bavel.
The Bais Hamikdash with the Lishkas Hagazis and the Sanhedrin – that’s Har Sinai – was waiting for him, but he had an old rebbi; it was a rebbi on the verge of death, but he wouldn’t leave him, because where his rebbi is, that’s where the Shechina is.
It’s true that a few years later, after his rebbi passed away, Ezra went to Eretz Yisroel and the whole Anshei K’nesses Hagedolah, 120 sages, went with him. But before that, Ezra didn’t forsake Bavel because Boruch ben Nayriya was still alive! And there is no Har Sinai, like the rebbi who lives with Har Sinai.
DON’T PASKEN ON THE COTTAGE CHEESE!
And that’s what the Gemara says in Mesichta Kesubos (60b): אֲפִלּוּ בֵּיעֲתָא בְּכֻּתְּחָא לָא לִישְׁרֵי בִּמְקוֹם רַבֵּיה – If a question comes up – this is how Rashi learns the gemara – an egg fell into a plate full of farmer cheese and the question is, are you permitted to eat the farmer cheese? Not if you’re permitted to eat the egg with fleishigs, no that’s not the question. An egg was cooked in a vessel, in a parveh vessel and then it fell into a plate of farmer cheese or cottage cheese, are you permitted to eat the cheese? Now, that’s a pretty simple question – of course you can eat the cheese.
But the gemara says that if someone asks you that question and you have a rebbi nearby, so keep quiet. Say, “I don’t pasken any sheilos when my rebbi is living nearby.” We’ll see soon that there are two reasons for this, but at first sight it seems that this is because of respect for one’s rebbi; the gemara says that it looks like אַפְקִירוּתָא – like impudence. Even though the question is one which anyone who is competent could answer, nevertheless out of deference to your teacher, you must refer the question to your teacher. Superficially, this seems to be the reason.
TORAH IS NOT WILLY NILLY
What that means is that when it comes to Torah – even the simplest things – that there must be discipline in the matter of rendering decisions; even though you are competent, you yield to the one who is more competent.
That’s because we recognize that the guidance of the Torah is not something that can be decided willy-nilly. Every question, every decision, is part of the long chain of kabolas hatorah. And the same awe and reverence the Am Yisroel had for Har Sinai and the Mishkan, continued in the Lishkas Hagazis, and that same reverence is expected of us today when we approach the Torah.
SELF DECLARED TORAH AUTHORITIES
In the newspapers today, the Jewish newspapers, there are people who are incompetent; writers, half-baked Torah scholars, self declared authorities, who answer every kind of question. Some are dangerous questions, things that could not be discussed in public without harm; things that need a great deal of deliberation. And anybody with a typewriter rushes in where gedolim fear to tread, and they not only offer their opinions, but they publicize them with fanfare, as valid Torah opinions.
Almost every newspaper has a page – sometimes more than one page – for every ploni almoni to give his opinion. Who cares what hethinks?! Did he learn Mesillas Yesharim many times?! Did he learn the Chovos Halevavos from cover to cover? Sha’arei Teshuva l’Rabeinu Yonah? The Rambam Hilchos Teshuva? Who are you to voice an opinion b’rabim? It’s only the Voice of Hashem that we care about – the Voice we heard at Har Sinai – the same Voice that Moshe Rabeinu heard in the Mishkan, and the Voice that we continue to hear from the ba’alei hamesorah, the ones who pass down to us the Torah true attitudes and ideals – that’s the only Voice we want to hear.
Even if someone could quote one authority, but there are many others who may differ with that one sefer which he quotes. If we would rely on an individual opinion, we would be in a sorry state. It’s only the gedolim who are able to collate the different opinions. They’re the ones who are competent to choose. Many times, even when one opinion is intrinsically correct, but it has to be weighed carefully. And it’s only those who have the fear of Har Sinai in them who can be trusted to make decisions – even those that do not seem significant – for Klal Yisroel.
ONLY GEDOLIM HAVE SI’YATTA DISHMAYA
However, the Gemara makes a statement that explains this whole matter in a different light. לֹא מִשּׁוּם דְּמִחְזֵי כְּאַפְקִירוּתָא – not because it looks like impudence, meaning not only because it looks like impudence, אֶלָּא מִשּׁוּם דְּלָא מִסְתַּיְּעָא מִלְּתָא – but rather because he won’t be aided by Hashem to speak correctly. That’s an important part of what we’re saying here tonight.
The Torah is much more than information; it’s much more than se’ifim in the Shulchan Aruch and dafim in Shas. What it really is, is Har Sinai all over again! And the same Shechina that came to rest in Har Sinai and then moved into the Mishkan and the Lishkas Hagazis, continues to rest on the gedolei Yisroel – and anyone who speaks out of turn, and doesn’t consult them for Torah attitudes is turning away from Har Sinai and he is going to stumble and fall into error. Hakodosh Boruch Hu desires that the Jewish people be loyal and humbled toward the chachmei hatorah, just like they stood in fear and humility at the foot of Har Sinai.
Part III. We Rely on Them
THE BIG MISSTEP IN LIFE
Now, if we want to understand what this lesson means, what it means that Matan Torah is taking place even today, so we’ll first make the following statement. It’s not something you’ll want to hear, but I’ll say it anyhow: One of the biggest missteps a man can make is to use his own judgement to make decisions. Because to come to a decision in Torah; Torah attitudes, Torah ideals, or a decision in public policy, you must use all the facilities at your disposal, and the most important facility is the direct line to Matan Torah.
Suppose a person is lost. He’s sitting in his car on the side of a highway lost. So, the common sense procedure is, the first gas station or the first policeman he meets, he asks directions. He can look at a map that he has in the glove compartment; maybe he’ll understand it a little bit, but he doesn’t know which highway he is on and where he’s trying to get. So he must get advice. And to ignore such a simple expedient of going to those who know, means that this man is reckless – and he’ll wander the highways all day long thinking he knows what he’s doing!
MT. SINAI ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE
Now in Torah matters it’s common sense that the great Torah authorities are the ones most competent to guide the people. But here we have to add, not only in Torah matters, but in all matters of public policy, the gedolei yisroel are the ones most fitted for this function. People don’t understand that it’s the gedolei yisroel who should be making public policy. We’re not accustomed to that idea. Oh sure, we recognize a gadol. A gadol is someone who sits quietly somewhere in his study and when you have a difficult question in issur v’heter, a question in kosher or treifeh, you go to him – that’s as far as we understand a gadol.
People think, let’s say, that Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky in Monsey or Rav Moshe Feinstein on the Lower East Side, they are good for asking a question in halacha, especially when you want a leniency. You call him up and he says, “Yes,” so now you can say “Rav Moshe Feinstein said it’s muttar.” That’s all you want. But to ask him about a matter of public policy? “It’s not necessary,” you think, “because my head is as good as his head.” You won’t say that, but that’s what you’re thinking.
HIS HEAD IS BIGGER THAN YOUR HEAD
And I’m being generous when I say that because many people think that their heads are better than Rav Yaakov’s head or Rav Moshe’s head. But it’s a fallacy! Because the gedolei Torah have tens of thousands of precedents that they are studying. The Torah is full of precedents; the gemara is full of precedents. And each precedent teaches a lesson.
And even if they don’t think of the source – let’s say you ask Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky: Should the State of Israel do this or that, then, even though he doesn’t think of the blatt gemara, or the chapter that it is, but he has patterns in his mind. The gadol has Torah patterns in his mind, established according to the precedents he studies. And when he advises, he’s following the patterns in his Torah mind, the ultimate source of wisdom. He is thinking according to that great day on Har Sinai.
Now, it could be when you call him up on the phone you won’t hear loud booms of thunder. He’s a quiet old man. But if you understand what Matan Torah was, you stand in awe of this great man, the same way the Am Yisroel were awed when they heard the Voice of Hashem speaking at Har Sinai.
THE SIGHETER RAV VISITS MOUNT SINAI
And it’s only when a person has that yirah, that awe for Matan Torah, that he knows what it means to come to the chachmei hatorah. The wise men know that. I once stayed in the country in the summer and I saw how the Sigheter Rav – he was a yungerman then, a talmidim chochom – and I saw how he would stand bent over in front of Rav Moshe Feinstein; he stood there with hachna’ah, making sure to catch every word that came out of Rav Moshe’s mouth.
Of course, if you want to ask how you can repair your leaking radiator, don’t go to the gadol. But if you have questions relating to matters of public policy, of behaviors of communities, or of how to deal with people, where to move, when to go out to work, what type of work, what Beis Yaakov to choose for your daughter, shidduchim – there’s so much we need guidance in – so we go to the gedolim.
DON’T DRAW UP PLANS
The proper way would be, not that people should initiate the plan and then go to a sage to have it approved. They should ask the sages, “What plans should we initiate?” That’s the way to ask. “We don’t know anything,” they should be thinking, “What do you say?” And really they don’t know anything. Because all of the best advice, all the best plans, and the best attitudes for success are found in the Torah. Because it all goes back to the source – Har Sinai.
But what do we see? That the ba’alei batim come to Matan Torah with all the plans ready to go. You draw up a whole plan, a whole outline, and then you bring it to your sage, and you say, “What do you say to this?” What do you expect from the sages? They see who they’re dealing with. “Am I going to fight with you?” They’re happy they have Orthodox Jews who are loyal to them – they might even lose these. So they say, “Yes.” That’s not asking.
Let’s say there was an Orthodox organization – they even have a company of sages whom they consult. But they consult them in such a way that the sages see it’s the only way. The ba’alei batim are saying, “It’s our way or the highway.” Of course, it’s done with kavod and hachna’ah, but that’s really what they’re saying in their hearts. And so, when the sages say “Yes,” it’s like they were forced in one direction.
THE POLITICIANS LEAD US AWAY FROM HAR SINAI
You have to go to them and be explicit, “What do you say? What should be done?” Not, “Do you approve of this?” It should be the sages who draw up the plans. And if they don’t want to draw up the plans, it means no plans should be drawn up.
It’s like people who want to make a day of a demonstration, for a certain cause. So who signs the proclamation? Politicians and District Attorneys, a newspaper man, and a rabbi you never heard of. And there are many Orthodox Jews who become excited. They have to go out and demonstrate! And then after they printed up all the signatures already, some of them go to a gadol and say, “What do you say?” And this gadol – a kind-hearted man – that’s why they picked him out to be a gadol! So they go to him with the plan, and he says farvuss nisht? – Why not?
Did this gadol tell the talmidim in his yeshiva to go? No! He didn’t tell his yeshiva to go out and demonstrate. Isn’t that the best proof that he doesn’t approve of it? But these people are only looking for what they want, so this kind hearted man gives them what they want. That’s not called asking from Har Sinai – that’s not called kabolas hatorah.
SHOULD I GO TO ERETZ YISROEL?
It’s not enough to ask, because sometimes asking merely means that you want a confirmation of your own desires. Here’s a man who comes to the rabbi, “I’m going on a hunting expedition in the Canadian Rockies; would you give me a bracha?” The rabbi sees that this fellow is not going to listen to him anyhow. He sees the man has already bought camping equipment, and he has a big trailer already. He has fur coats, everything; he’s only asking out of formality. That’s what people do; they go to Har Sinai with their mind made up already. So the rabbi says, “Go.” He means, “Go, even though you might get killed.” That’s what it means. “I’m giving you permission to go and risk your life, because you don’t really want to know what the Torah thinks.”
And I say the Rockies because at least that maybe you’ll understand what I’m saying. But even to Eretz Yisroel; did you ever ask, “Should I fly to Eretz Yisroel for my nephew’s wedding?” “Should I take my son to Eretz Yisroel for his bar-mitzvah?” No, you don’t ask; you do, and do, and do more, and that means you’re abrogating the the transmission of Torah from Har Sinai for yourself. You’re big enough, you think; you don’t need the opinion of Har Sinai. Or even worse, you think that the Torah has nothing important to say about the Canadian Rockies.
SHOULD I LEARN KABALAH?
The person who chooses to make his own way in life, without following the chachmei hatorah, will chas v’shalom be led further and further away from Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Even if he thinks he’s walking on the path that was paved for us at Har Sinai, if he’s not subjugated to the chachomim who stand in the place of Moshe Rabeinu, if he’s not walking the path that the chachmei hador want him to walk on, so he’ll go lost. There’s no such thing as one or two people making a shittah that is opposed by the chachmei Yisroel.
I’ll give you an example. Suppose somebody chooses a derech in avodas Hashem that none of the roshei yeshiva, or that none of the Chassidisheh Rebbehs favor – they don’t do it. Let’s say this man believes in kabalah. Kabalah; there’s no question that there’s such a thing as kabalah. But the chachmei hatorah say that a man has to sit and learn – you have to learn Shas and poskim – and this man doesn’t open a gemara; he has no connection to the will of the chachmei hatorah. He just sits and learns kabalah.
Any shittah that a person adopts that is not approved by the chachmei hador so he should know that it’s pitui ha’yetzer. Anybody who sits and learns only kabalah and he never made an attempt to learn Bava Kama, Bava Metziah, Gittin, Kiddushin – at least the yeshiva masichtos, so that person is a failure, no question about it. “All the gedolim are mistaken except for I and my little group.” This man is being poreish from the important principle of na’aseh v’nishma. He’s choosing his own way in life – and anyone who chooses a different way than the chachmei hador do, should know that he’s walking further and further away from that great day of Matan Torah.
THE BLIND SHEEP LEARN TO SEE
The best way to see things in this world is by means of the eyes of greater people. The einei ha’eidah, the eyes of the congregation; that’s what the Sanhedrin is called. Because they are the ones who see.
Now, when a modern rabbi hears this, he rebels against it: “What do you mean? Are we blind sheep that others should tell us about what we see with our own eyes?” And the answer is, absolutely. That’s daas Torah. Seeing the world through the lens of the Torah is the only way to see. And it’s the chachmei hador who see.
In every generation there are people who are more gifted because of their yegiah, their labor, in Torah. And therefore even certain things that are not written openly in the Torah; you don’t see it mentioned in gemara or the Shulchan Aruch, yet they use their minds to create an opinion that ordinary people may not see.
The einei ha’eidah is an important subject when we speak about Matan Torah. It’s not merely a mashal, a form of speech. It’s a limud l’maisah, that we should consider them as our eyes. And we should look through their eyes. And if they tell us that they see this and this and we look and see nothing or we see the opposite of what they tell us, so we should know that we are the ones who can’t see.
WE ARE ALL LITTLE CHILDREN
Of course, that needs dedication. It needs what is called emunas chachomim. And what’s more is that it needs seichel. To understand that we are actually shortsighted takes wisdom. It’s like children; you know that every little boy and girl think they see everything. They think they see as much as their parents. And really he sees nothing; he’s as blind as could be. Even when he’s actually looking at something, he often doesn’t see it.
We have to understand that the hamon am, that’s us, we don’t see many things. And many times we see the opposite of what really is. And therefore it’s the einei ha’eidah, the chachmei hador, when they look and they tell us that this is the way to go – not that way, and not the other way, but this way, so it’s up to us to understand that we must look through their eyes.
DON’T PIPE UP!
And that’s why it’s so important to be in contact with gedolei Yisroel on every phase of our lives – in business, in health, in family affairs; in every matter that we experience in life. Not only because that’s how you’ll succeed in this world – that’s true too, but more than that is because that’s what Hashem wanted from us when we stood at Har Sinai; that we should always stand before the chachmei hatorah the same way the Am Yisroel stood at Har Sinai, with trepidation, with awe, with hachna’ah; subjugation of our thoughts and ideals.
And just like at Har Sinai no one would pipe up while Hashem was thundering His words, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha,” – nobody would pipe up and say, “We’ll, maybe it should be like this or that,” or “I think that this is the right way,” That’s the way we should approach the Torah today.
THE MISHKAN RECREATES SINAI
And so we come back to the warnings in Parshas Bamidbar, the admonitions about how we’re expected to approach the Mishkan, and we understand that, among other things, they were intended to create the feeling of Har Sinai. And that’s because Hashem insists that the sublime feelings of awe and fear which we gained there should continue always. Although the passage of time tends to blunt the clarity of those feelings, Hashem wants the Ma’amad Har Sinai to continue forever – in the Mishkan, in the Beis Hamikdash, and then by the chachmei Yisroel who continue to be the source of Torah today.
And therefore we approach the gedolei Yisroel today with the same reverence and fear that we approached Har Sinai. It’s a common misconception that the greatest accomplishment that took place at Har Sinai was that we received the Torah. Although it’s true, that’s what we came to Har Sinai for – but Hashem had other plans too. Hakodosh Boruch Hu wanted to instill in us an awe of Kabolas Hatorah that would last forever.
And so, Shavuos becomes a most important yomtiv, because it’s the day we relive that experience of nafshi yatza b’dabro, and we inscribe in our neshamos that great scene of Kabolas Hatorah with all of its awe and fear. And we thereby prepare ourselves and our families for the kabolas hatorah that we are expected to experience all year long, as we turn to the chachmei hatorah in all the details of our lives, attempting to live according to the will of Hashem that He revealed to us at Har Sinai.