The Challenges of Accepting the Torah

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a Sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Dov Karoll


It is well known that although we refer to Shavuot in our prayers as "Zeman Matan Toratenu" (the time of our receiving the Torah), the Torah itself associates Shavuot only with the barley harvest, and not with any historical event. (See Shemot 23, Shemot 34, Vayikra 23, Bamidbar 28 and Devarim 16.) Is there any connection between the agricultural holiday of "Chag Ha-katzir" (the festival of harvest) and the spiritual commemoration of "Zeman Matan Toratenu?"

Although it is possible that the linkage is arbitrary - the Torah happened to have been given in the same season as the beginning of harvest - it seems much more likely that the two are connected.

In the two above-mentioned parashiot in Shemot, the time of "katzir" (harvest), when Shavuot falls, is contrasted with the time of "asif" (gathering), indicating the holiday of Sukkot. What is the difference between katzir and asif? Katzir is the first point in the agricultural process at which some sort of usable item emerges from the field. At this stage, the grain has developed to a point where it can begin its humanly controlled processes. However, it is still far from being a finished product. At the time of harvest, much potential has yet to be realized before the time of ingathering.

This same principle can be applied to the giving of the Torah. At Sinai, the Jewish People received the word of God, a code to live by. God gave them an objective, set text - the Torah she-bikhtav (Written Law) - as well as a set of principles, traditions, and explanations - the Torah she-be'al peh (Oral Law) - which required human input. God gave, so to speak, an "unfinished" gift. Through faithful transmission of the masora (tradition), as well as intense and creative study of it, the relatively amorphous oral law would take form. The Beit Ha-levi (Parashat Yitro, s.v. Ve-ata) explains:

"The Written Torah now is identical to the one given at Sinai. One may not add anything to it. If a Torah scroll has one extra letter, it is disqualified, just as if it were missing a letter. The Written Torah was given in a set form, to which you cannot add and from which you cannot detract. However, the Oral Torah has no bounds or limits, and in every generation new laws are developed. Each time a person touches it, he discovers a new insight which was previously unknown...."

The demand to develop the Torah she-be'al peh is not placed upon a single generation or a single individual, but rather upon the entire Jewish people for all time. Thus, at Sinai God set before the people both the objective text, the raw material of the grain, and the requirement to develop the oral law to its fullest potential - the obligation of every Jew.

In addition to the task of learning and developing the Torah, God presented the Jewish People with additional challenges at Sinai. First, we are faced with the challenge of translating the precepts that we study into action. At the most basic level, this means recognizing the significance of keeping the mitzvot. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:2) has harsh words on this subject:

"R. Yochanan says: If one studies Torah with the intention of not fulfilling it, he would have been better off having died in his mother's womb and never having entered the world."

This extreme statement comes to emphasize that the Torah is not simply a literary text, but rather a book of laws. Rav Yochanan proclaims that a person who does not appreciate this principle has no appreciation of the Torah, and has made no contribution to the world. This concept is central to all Torah study - the Torah is not merely a matter for intellectual curiosity, but rather a guide to life.

Another less-than-ideal attitude, though not as problematic as the first, is described in a mishna in Avot (4:5).

"He who learns [Torah] in order to teach it - [God] enables him to learn and to teach. He who learns [Torah] in order to fulfill it - [God] enables him to learn, teach, observe and fulfill."

It would seem that if the latter person is described as learning in order to fulfill, then presumably the first person described in the mishna does not learn to fulfill. If so, do not Rav Yochanan's strictures apply to him? Why does he merit divine aid in learning and teaching? Does he not also lack the appreciation of the need to apply the Torah in practice?

I believe we must draw a clear distinction between the person described in the first part of the mishna and the one described in the Yerushalmi. The mishna in Avot describes two types of people who already possess an appreciation of the significance of mitzvot. Neither one learns "in order NOT to fulfill." Given a choice between fulfilling a mitzva or rejecting it, both will choose to fulfill it. The difference between them is the way that they apply this principle to their learning. The person described in the first part of the mishna does not focus in his learning upon proper observance. While he fulfills mitzvot when they come before him, he does not seek them out. In his learning, he does not seek to know the proper mode of action. While this attitude is not an anti-Torah viewpoint, it too is lacking something. While such a person does merit to study and even to teach, he does not reach the highest level of Torah observance. His learning is a positive experience, but it still lacks the flavor and fervor that it should possess.

In addition to the challenge of observance, the giving of the Torah presents us with another challenge - to incorporate the experience of matan Torah into our very essence. Shavuot is not just the time to commemorate our acceptance of the Torah, but also the time when we remember most intensely the experience of the receiving the Torah. What was the nature of this experience? In the verses following the Ten Commandments, the people, overcome with awe, ask Moshe:

"Speak to us yourself, and we will hear [the commandments], rather than having God speak to us - lest we die." (Shemot 20:16)

In the parallel account in Devarim (5:20-24), the people's fear and awe are even more accentuated:

"When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, you came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, and said: 'The Lord God has just shown us His majestic Presence, and we have heard His voice out of the fire; we have seen today that man may live though God has spoken to him. Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we continue to hear God's voice we will surely die! For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living God speak out of the fire, as we did, and lived?'"

While there is a dispute among the commentators regarding precisely when this episode took place (Ramban believes it preceded the Ten Commandments, Rashi believes it followed them, and Chizkuni claims that it took place after the first two commandments), it clearly surrounds the experience of the receiving of the Torah.

It is Moshe's response that is crucial for our internalization of the Sinai experience:

"Fear not - for God has come only in order to 'nassot etchem,' and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray." (Shemot 20:17)

The commentators disagree as to the meaning of the term "nasot etchem." Normally, the word "nisayon" refers to a test or challenge. Rashi, however, has difficulty applying this understanding here, and explains this verse in a different light. According to him, "nasot" here means "to raise," so that the verse reads: "God has come to raise your status among the nations."

The Ramban, on the other hand, explains "nasot" in accordance with its regular usage:

"The verse means that God wants to test you to see if you will follow His commandments... As the Rabbis teach: 'Happy is the man who stands up to his challenges; fthere is no person whom God does not test. He tests the wealthy persoto be generous in helping the poor. He tests the poor person to accept his suffering, etc.' Therefore, Moshe's response to the people was: 'God has been generous to you, and shown you His glory, which He has never done for any other nation. He has done this in order to test you - to see whether you will act accordingly...'"

According to the Ramban's explanation, the Divine revelation itself presents a challenge to the Jewish People: to respond properly to God's great kindness in giving us the Torah. This challenge is relevant to the generations which follow as well: to sense God's closeness and grace in giving us the gifts of His revelation and His Torah, and to realize our tremendous obligation to Him. Incorporating the views of both Rashi and Ramban, we can say: we must live up to the challenge involved in God giving us the Torah, in order for Him to raise us up as a special nation.

There is a dual challenge involved in accepting the Torah. The Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Bi'a 13:1) draws a parallel between the laws of conversion and the Jews' experience at Sinai. As part of a convert's acceptance of the mitzvot, the court first informs him of the punishments attendant upon violating the Torah's commandments, "and afterwards [if he has not been scared off], you encourage him with the 'cords of love' [for God]" (Hilkhot Issurei Bi'a 14:2). What the Rambam says of an individual convert is certainly true of the nation of Israel as a whole - our relationship with God must be based upon both fear and love of God. This is a further application of the challenge which the Ramban speaks of - to maintain fear and awe of God while building a strong relationship of love for Him.

In light of all these challenges involved in the acceptance of the Torah, it is important to bear in mind the message of the famous gemara in Avoda Zara (2b). The gemara recounts that at first God offered the Torah to every other nation and was refused. Finally, He offered it to the Jewish People, who accepted it. The other nations were not interested in the additional challenges resulting from accepting the Torah. They preferred a simpler, less demanding existence, which is also less rewarding. They chose an existence of "asif," of the security of having a finished product, while ignoring the challenge of "katzir," of the insecure existence resulting from closer Divine providence.

As the nation which has accepted the Torah, we must rise to these challenges. Through this more challenging existence, we are able to realize fully the goal of which Rashi speaks - "I will raise you above all the nations."

Along these lines, I will close with the celebrated mishna at the end of Makkot:

"R. Chananya ben Akashya says: God wanted to bring great merit to Israel; therefore, He made the Torah and mitzvot vast, as the verse teaches (Yeshayahu 42:21): 'God brings good to His righteous; He makes the Torah large and glorious.'"


(This sicha was originally delivered on Shavuot 5757. It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)