by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – April 1, 2014
As we consider the period following the exodus of the nation of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt up to their receiving the Torah from our Master and Creator, the G-d of the entire universe, various seemingly conflicting thoughts come to mind, the resolution of which sheds significant light on the path that we must follow in the pursuit of truth.
In one of his talks, the contemporary scholar and lecturer, R. David Orlofsky notes an apparent contradiction between two statements of our Sages. In one statement (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 84a), our Sages interpret the verse, “And they stood at the bottom of the mountain” (Sh’mot 19:17) as meaning that G-d held the mountain over the Israelites’ heads like a barrel warning that they would be buried there were they not to accept the Torah, effectively compelling the nation of Israel to adopt the Torah’s laws and commandments. In contrast, our Sages (Mekhilta, Yitro 19) explain the verse, “G-d came from Sinai” (Devarim 33:2) as referring to G-d’s coming towards the Israelites as a groom approaches his bride, intimating a loving mutual acceptance that G-d and the nation of Israel shared, rather than one by force.
In resolving the aforementioned difficulty, R. Orlofsky points out that, in fact, as the latter comment denotes, the relationship between G-d and the nation of Israel was totally mutual, wherein the Israelites fully accepted G-d’s Torah with the love and reverence that a bride accepts her husband under the wedding canopy. Nevertheless, the former statement tells us that, despite their desire to join with G-d in an everlasting bond, this union is not one of constant fun and frolic. It is a union that demands a sense of obligation and no small amount of effort to succeed, as any married couple can attest to. In fact, without maintaining this sense of obligation, our relationship is doomed, as insinuated in the first statement cited. In short, our relationship with G-d is meant to be sweet, as that of a bride and groom under the wedding canopy, yet tempered with obligation whereby that relationship can continue and blossom.
In line with the above thought is another idea expressed, in one of his lectures, by the contemporary rosh yeshiva of Baltimore’s Yeshiva Ner Yisrael, R. Yissachar Frand. We read in the Torah (Sh’mot 18:1), “Yitro, Priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that G-d did for Moses and for Israel His people.” Upon this verse, the famous medieval commentator known as Rashi cites our Sages’ question as to what Yitro heard that prompted him to come, the answer being that he heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and about the war with Amalek. This comment, at first glance, seems to be peculiar since the end of the just mentioned verse states that he heard, “That G-d had taken Israel out of Egypt,” and, if so, why add other matters like the splitting of the sea or the war with Amalek? This is explained by the fact that Rashi does not say the question is what Yitro heard but, rather, what did he hear that prompted him to come. However, it remains strange that it is not stated that he was prompted to come by news of Israel’s victory over Amalek but, rather, by the fact of the war itself. What was it about the war itself that peaked Yitro’s interest? Moreover, our Sages, in Midrash Rabbah, associate this verse with the verse (Mishlei 27:10), “Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father,” interpreting “your friend” as referring to G-d and “the friend of your father” as corresponding to our forefather Abraham. What would this verse have to do with that of Yitro above?
To resolve the difficulty with the aforementioned comments regarding Yitro, R. Frand cites an insight in the work Heimah Yenachamuni by the Tolner Rebbe of Jerusalem: Whereas Yitro heard of the exodus from Egypt, what made an impact on him and prompted him to come to the Israelites in person was the news of the splitting of the Red Sea on one hand and the war with Amalek on the other. What puzzled Yitro was that a nation that had just witnessed a miracle the likes of the splitting of the Red Sea and had reached tremendous spiritual heights, as cited by Rashi (Shmot 15:2) could after a short period of time slackened in their bond with G-d to the extent that, as a result of their weakened spiritual state, they were left open to an attack by Amalek, as pointed out by Rashi (Sh’mot 17:8). To understand this, we must look at spiritual elevation as one who climbs a mountain, as King David exclaims (Tehillim 24:3), “Who will ascend the mountain of G-d?” However, even if one succeeds in climbing to the top of the mountain, to stay on top and remain standing without falling from the powerful winds that sway him to and fro, one must work hard to maintain his strength and persist in his conviction, as King David continues in the verse, saying “And who may stand in the place of His sanctity.” Such an achievement is typified by our forefather Abraham. What set Abraham above the rest was not just that he reached such monumental spiritual heights but that he succeeded in surmounting ten great challenges (Mishna Avot 5:3) that kept him stalwart in his devotion to G-d and His principles. Yitro was perplexed by the seeming incongruity between the Israelites’ elevated spiritual stature upon the splitting of the Red Sea and their descent prior to the war with Amalek, a difficulty that was resolved upon contemplation of our first forefather Abraham from whom we learned the need for persistence and vigilance in maintaining our spiritual heights.
While our relationship with G-d is meant to be a pleasant one, as symbolized by our entering under the wedding canopy with G-d, it is also one that demands obligation. As the renown 18th century Jewish scholar and thinker R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in his famous work Mesilat Yesharim (chap. 1): “Man was created for reveling in G-d and delighting in the splendor of the Divine Presence, this being the ultimate joy and the greatest of all pleasures in existence….The means that lead man to this goal are the precepts that G-d prescribed.” Our relationship with G-d is one of true and boundless joy unequaled by any other, but it requires investment of time and energy, and often money, to flourish. In contemplating our Holy Scriptures’ and our Talmud’s insights and messages, we become elevated and can rise in a loving and pleasant relationship with G-d as we progress in the pursuit of truth and supreme joy. However, this relationship, like any marital relationship, demands obligation and commitment. Indeed, we must act positively to maintain our bond, as is done by our continuing performance of G-d’s precepts, and we must refrain from all negative trends that can bring us down, as is accomplished by heeding G-d’s prohibitions. By recognizing this obligation and commitment and, like Abraham, continually weathering all challenges in maintaining our convictions, we can continue to rise and elevate ourselves as we climb “the mountain of G-d” and we can remain standing atop the mountain “in the place of His sanctity.”
A series of thoughts and insights have been compiled in the following essays, arranged in order of their relation to the various Torah sections read throughout the year in Jewish synagogues around the world and the various holidays celebrated by Jews the world over. Hopefully, these thoughts and insights will help whet the reader’s appetite and give the reader at least a taste of G-d’s truth and splendor as presented in His Torah and related sources, whereby the reader will be further motivated to continue to study and delve into and firmly adhere to the pursuit of truth and true joy set forth in the Torah – the only pursuit that can lead to the greatest of joy and happiness.
May we all succeed, in the process of meeting our obligation and commitment, to climb the mountain as we enjoy the sweet and pleasant lessons in the pursuit of truth and the light of the Al-Mighty Creator and Master of our universe and may we maintain our lofty and elevated achievements as we build a relationship with G-d to be enjoyed in this world and in the world to come.