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Remembering the Revelation at Sinai

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"Only guard yourself and guard your soul greatly lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen and lest they move from your heart all the days of your life; and you will make them known to your children and to your children's children, the day you stood before Hashem your God at Chorev..." (Devarim 4:9-10)

The Ramban counts this as one of the 613 mitzvot: a prohibition against forgetting the Sinaitic experience. Even those authorities who do not count this as a separate mitzva recognize that we are obligated to remember this event.

There are two components to this command: a) teaching Torah to one's children – "And you will make it known to your children and to your children's children;" b) actually remembering the event itself. It is therefore very important to examine and analyze what exactly took place at Sinai and how Am Yisrael received the Torah, especially on this festival commemorating the giving of the Torah.

Upon inspection, the events at Sinai turn out to have been very complex. On the verse, "And you shall ascend, and Aharon with you, and the kohanim and the nation shall not break through to ascend to the Lord" (Shemot 19:24), Rashi comments:

"Lest we understand this as meaning that [Aharon and the kohanim] too should ascend with him, the Torah teaches, 'You (singular) shall ascend.' Thus, the verse means that you may ascend to one boundary, and Aharon to another, and the others to a third; i.e., Moshe could approach nearer than Aharon, and Aharon could approach nearer than the kohanim, and the nation could not [ascend] at all."

Thus, everyone experienced the revelation from a different place, and had a different point of view.

With regard to the duration of the revelation, too, there is some complexity: from the point of view of Am Yisrael it lasted one day, while from Moshe's perspective it lasted forty days. Another difference between Moshe and Am Yisrael arises from a comment of the Ramban (20:6), who explains (in accordance with the Gemara in Makkot 24a) that Am Yisrael heard and comprehended directly from the Holy One only the first two of the Ten Utterances; they heard the rest from the Holy One but did not comprehend, and they understood only after Moshe had translated for them. The Rambam, in fact, draws the logical conclusion of this approach. He explains that the great significance of the revelation at Sinai lies in the verification of Moshe's prophecy and of the possibility of prophecy at all. According to him, the experience of revelation was not necessary to teach specific laws.

If we wish, then, to understand and to remember this experience, we shall need to clarify the manner in which Moshe received the Torah. An examination of the event from the perspective of Am Yisrael can provide only a partial understanding.

One thing we can learn from Moshe is that effort and initiative are needed in order to acquire the Torah. The midrash (Shemot Rabba 28:1) teaches that the verse in Tehillim (68:19), "You ascended on high and captured a captivity," refers to Moshe. He ascended to heaven and captured the Torah by force, after doing battle with the angels. The Gemara (Shabbat 88b-89a) describes this battle and the argument between Moshe and the angels, who refused to give the Torah to a mortal. Moshe therefore needed to approach with force in order to receive the Torah. When Bnei Yisrael reached Mt. Sinai we are immediately told, "And Moshe ascended to God" (Shemot 19:3) – God did not call him; he ascended of his own initiative.

However, this is not the entire story. In parashat Beha'alotekha, we read of how Miriam spoke badly of her brother, Moshe. In the middle of the story we are told, "And the man Moshe was extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth" (Bamidbar 12:3). What place does this verse have here? We may say that this explains why Moshe did not answer Miriam's accusations, but it seems more reasonable that this verse explains God's words later on regarding the difference between Moshe and other prophets. Moshe reached such a high level of prophecy thanks to his trait of humility.

Many aggadot and midrashim stress this trait. The Gemara (Chullin 89a) teaches,

"What is said of Moshe and Aharon is greater than what is said of Avraham, for concerning Avraham it says, 'I am dust and ashes' (Bereishit 18:27), while concerning Moshe and Aharon it says, 'And what are we?' (Shemot 16:7)."

Dust and ashes are extremely lowly, but Moshe in effect says that he is nothing – not even dust and ashes. The midrash (Shemot Rabba 41:6) furthermore teaches,

"All forty days that Moshe spent on high, he learned Torah and then forgot. He said, 'Master of the Universe, I have been here for forty days and I know nothing.' What did the Holy One do? Once he had completed forty days, He gave him the Torah as a gift, as it is written, 'And He gave it to Moshe.'"

Moshe's determination to acquire the Torah was not enough; God had to give the Torah to him as a gift. In order to receive the Torah, we must feel humility and self-effacement before God; we must approach as lowly people who are sustained by God's gift of the Torah. The verse from Tehillim quoted above likewise concludes with the words, "You have taken GIFTS for man."

Humility is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, because of how Torah is transferred: Torah moves from a high place to a low place; it can only be accepted as a gift. Secondly, only a humble person who feels himself nullified before the Holy One and recognizes his true place is worthy of receiving the Torah.

So it was at Har Sinai, and so it has always been in the study of Torah throughout the generations. The Gemara (Ta'anit 7a) teaches,

"Why are the words of Torah compared to water, as it is written, 'Ho, all those who are thirsty – go to the water' (Yishayahu 55:1)? To teach you that just as water flows from a high place to a low place, so Torah can exist only in someone who is humble."

The Rambam expands on this idea (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:9):

"Just as water cannot collect on a slope, but rather flows from it and gathers on a plateau, so the words of Torah are not to be found in one who is vulgar of spirit nor in the heart of one who is haughty, but rather in the one who is lowly and of humble spirit, who sits at the feet of the sages and removes temporary desires and pleasures from his heart and performs a little labor every day to support himself, and spends the rest of his day and night involved in Torah."

Therefore, if we wish to remember the revelation at Sinai and to follow in the footsteps of Moshe Rabbeinu, we need to remember constantly that although effort, initiative and "conquest" are needed in order to acquire Torah, one also needs self-effacement and humility so that the Torah may be given to one as a gift.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shavuot 5753 [1993].)




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