By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We have something unique that no other nation has. We have the Torah that empowers us with the ability to soar above all, to transcend everything and touch eternity.
On Shavuos, the Creator shared with us His essence, the Torah. He began proclaiming the Aseres Hadibros and called out, “Anochi. I am your G-d.” Through those divine words at Sinai, we were given the means to connect to the eternal Source of life. Torah is a unique gift. It is our national and personal identity and credo, as well as our birthright.
The malochim wanted to keep the Torah in shomayim, but Hakadosh Boruch Hu declared that Torah would descend to the lower realms and find a home amongst His mortal creations of flesh and blood who are challenged with shallow desires. And until this very day, it’s the light of our lives, the length of our days, the only meaning in a hollow world. We have the means to reach the heavens if we tap into the power of Torah.
The Torah (Shemos 20:14) writes concerning the sounds that were heard and seen at Har Sinai, “Vechol ha’am ro’im es hakolos,” in the present tense. Those who apply themselves and study Torah properly can channel those sounds and sights until this very day.
Hashem offered the Torah to the world. It was rejected by all before it was presented to Am Yisroel. When the Jewish people were asked if they wished to subject themselves to the strictures and blessings of Hashem’s written word, they responded as one, “Naaseh venishma.” With those two immortal words, they rose beyond the level of angels and became Hashem’s eternal people.
Following that response, malochim placed two crowns upon the head of every Jew, one corresponding to the proclamation of “naaseh” and the other for their resounding cry of “nishma” (Shabbos 88a).
We might understand why we merited a crown for proclaiming that we would follow Hashem’s commandments when we said “naaseh,” but what is so great about the response that we would listen, expressed by “nishma,” which doesn’t convey any obligation to accept what we hear?
We often find the words “vayishma” and “tishme’u” in the Torah. For instance, in Parshas Re’eh, Hashem says, “Behold I am setting before you today blessings and curses. Es habrocha asher tishme’u… Vehaklalah im lo sishme’u…” Those who listen will be blessed and those who don’t will be cursed. Obviously, we are required to do more than hear in order to earn the Divine blessing.
In Parshas Yisro, the Torah tells us, “Vayishma Yisro,” Yisro heard what transpired to the Jewish people as they left Mitzrayim and in the battle with Amaleik. What was so great about the fact that Yisro heard the news? He wasn’t the only one who heard what happened. In fact, the entire world heard about it.
There is another place where the Torah uses the word “vayishma” to indicate that a person heard something that should have also been heard by others. Describing the chet ha’Eigel, the posuk (Shemos 32:17) states, “Vayomer Moshe kol anos anochi shomeia.” Moshe Rabbeinu told Yehoshua that he heard terrible sounds when he descended from Har Sinai with the Luchos in his hands. The Meshech Chochmah (ibid.) cites the Gemara (Taanis 21a) that relates that Rabi Yochanon and Ilfa were together, and “Rabi Yochanon shoma, Ilfa lo shoma.” Rabi Yochanon heard something that Ilfa didn’t hear. Rabi Yochanon told him that it was incumbent upon him to act, since he was the one who heard it.
The Meshech Chochmah explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was telling Yehoshua that although they were standing there together, since only Moshe heard the sinful sounds, it was incumbent upon him to take action.
In this context, vayishma doesn’t just mean to hear. To be a shomei’a is not only to hear, but to act upon what one has heard.
Many people heard about Krias Yam Suf and milchemes Amaleik, yet only one person took the news to heart and decided to do something about what he had heard. Yisro left the comforts of his home and went to visit the Jewish people in their desert encampment. By doing so, he earned the eternal reward of having a parsha in the Torah named for him.
In Parshas Re’eh, Hashem promises the Jewish people that those who take His words to heart and act upon them will earn brocha. The people who ignore the words of Hashem will be cursed. Everyone heard what Hashem said. Some observe the mitzvos and others choose to ignore them.
Naaseh venishma omru k’echod. Each member of the Bnei Yisroel responded in unison, “Naaseh venishma,” they would make every effort to hear Hashem’s words with the intention of acting upon those words. It wouldn’t be merely cursory listening. They would follow and act. Hence the greatness of naaseh venishma.
We can reinforce this interpretation with the Zohar quoted by the Bais Halevi in Parshas Mishpotim that “nishma” was an implicit acceptance to study the Torah. We can explain that they were promising to hear and study Hashem’s words so that they may properly follow them.
Rabi Shimon ben Elozor teaches (Megillah 31b) that Ezra Hasofer instituted that the klalos of Parshas Bechukosai would always be read before Shavuos and those of Parshas Ki Savo to be lained before Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara explains that Shavuos is considered a Rosh Hashanah, because on that day we are judged on “peiros ha’illan,” the fruits of the trees.
Many seforim, based upon the Shelah Hakadosh (Shavuos 30b), discuss the idea that just as the world is judged on Rosh Hashanah because it marks the completion of creation, so are we judged on Shavuos, because on that day the Torah was delivered to us. Every year on Shavuos, Hashem reviews whether we have kept our promise of naaseh venishma, properly studying and following the Torah He gave us on this day.
Hashem created a world for the sake of the Torah. By dedicating ourselves to its study, we affirm our role in creation and in Torah. Just as on Rosh Hashanah we seek zechuyos to be granted life, so too, on Shavuos, we must examine our actions, because on Shavuos we are judged on what we will be able to achieve in Torah.
In their response of naaseh venishma, the Jewish people indicated that not only would they faithfully follow the word of Hashem, as indicated by naaseh, but they would also work to understand what He would tell them, nishma, dedicating their lives to studying His Torah and observing its commandments.
The Torah proclaims, “Vayichan shom Yisroel neged hahar.” Chazal emphasize that the Torah uses the singular verb vayichan, because the people stood as one at Har Sinai, ke’ish echod beleiv echod. They gathered not as hundreds of thousands of individuals, but as one mass of people. A prerequisite for Torah is that we be unified. When Jews are split, when Jews fight and squabble it interferes with our ability to connect with Hashem and His Torah.
The Medrash Tanchuma Hakadum states that when Hashem saw the people who were about to become Am Yisroel standing at the foot of Har Sinai in complete unison, He declared that they are worthy to receive the Torah.
At this time, while we are recovering from the severe wounds we suffered during the ongoing pandemic and seeking to safely break out of our quarantines and imposed isolation, we need to embrace our brethren to merit an end to the virus and renewed invigorating Torah study.
In our times, along with the assault on decency and values, middos, refinement, tznius, modesty and gentleness are seen as archaic. Arrogance and intemperance are hailed as virtues. We must ensure that we do not dilute that which makes us great or take refuge in the land of easy excuses for inaction. We must treat each child as if he were our own and treat our own as we wish to be treated ourselves.
In good times and in those of difficulty, we should never become embittered and turn to hatred and rancor.
Excellence should be our goal and motivator in all we do. The way we conduct ourselves, with middos tovos, is the prerequisite for receiving the Torah. Those values ought to govern the language we speak and the way we act, as well as what lies unspoken but is felt in our hearts and minds.
Rav Chaim Vital famously asks why, if good middos are so important, there is no specific commandment in the Torah to behave properly. He answers that the Torah was only given to baalei middos, those who display a tzelem Elokim. Middos are the hakdamah, the precondition, to making oneself worthy of the Torah.
This, explains the Maharal, is what is meant by “Atem kruyin adam.” Adam Harishon embodied the properties of tzelem Elokim, as the Mishnah says, “Choviv adam shenivra betzelem.” However, when he sinned, Adam fell from that lofty plateau. Tzuras ha’adam had been defiled.
Then, at Mattan Torah, man returned to those original heights of tzelem Elokim. Thus, Chazal state that only you, Yisroel, are referred to as adam, because only you, Yisroel, protect and project the tzelem Elokim, once you have received the Torah. On Shavuos, after we had forgiven each other and became united as one, we were returned to the heights of the Avos and Imahos. We were embraced by the Creator and given the means – the Torah – by which to remain in His embrace. On this day every year, we are judged anew on our potential for greatness in achieving the levels of naaseh and nishma and earn for ourselves G-dly crowns if we have successfully modeled ourselves in Hashem’s image.
Remaining connected to Har Sinai means remembering why that mountain was chosen as the location to deliver the Torah to the Jewish people. Hakadosh Boruch Hu overlooked towering peaks and soaring crests, instead selecting a humble mountain on which to transmit his treasure to the Chosen People. He chose as his messenger Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest of men.
To become one with the Torah, we must achieve the 48 steps that Chazal teach are prerequisites to Torah study. Many of them involve the way we deal with our fellow man. To rise in Torah, we must be humble and kind, elevated and refined. Ostentation and the pursuit of honor and glory must be anathema to us. If we become conceited, we squander everything. If we look down at other people and treat them with disdain and arrogance, we demonstrate that we are not motivated by the Torah, but by physical temptation. The conceited are neither great nor worthy of greatness.
The late rosh yeshiva of Tchebin, Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, reflected on the famed success of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky as Ponovezher rosh yeshiva.
“Do you know why Rav Shmuel Rozovsky became the supreme teacher of Torah of his time?” he asked. And he answered with a story.
Rav Genechovsky was one of the early students of the Ponovezh Yeshiva. Alongside the yeshiva, the Ponovezher Rov established a bais yesomim, a home for children orphaned during the Holocaust. He said that the foundation of Torah is chesed, and in order for the yeshiva to succeed, it needed to be grounded in chesed. What greater chesed could there be than providing a home for children with no parents and no home, refugees in a strange land?
During the day, there were various classes and activities, designed to educate the children and emotionally rebuild them, but they were lacking a parent with whom to review their lessons in the evening.
Rav Genechovsky recounted that every evening, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky would arrive at the orphanage and sit with the children, reviewing with them in a sing-song voice, “Kometz alef, oh. Kometz bais, boh.”
This would continue until the Ponovezher Rov would arrive to bid the children good night, telling Rav Shmuel, “Ihr kent tzurik gein in bais medrash,” that he could return to the yeshiva.
“Can you imagine how pleasing Rav Shmuel’s Torah was when he went back to the bais medrash?” exclaimed Rav Genechovsky. “The special chein of his learning with the Aibishter’s kinderlach stamped his learning and made it beloved to his own eventual talmidim.”
By combining his Torah greatness with humility, kindness and love, Rav Shmuel achieved the highest levels of greatness. Because it wasn’t beneath him to learn Alef-Bais with fatherless children, he merited to be quoted by the greatest Talmudic minds.
That has always been the mark of Torah.
On Shavuos, we reaffirm our commitment to Torah and its ways, accepting it with gratitude and joy, reminding ourselves of what Torah living entails. Let us reaffirm to treat everyone, of all ages and backgrounds, the way we want to be treated. Let our ambition be to achieve greatness in Torah. Let us resolve for our intensive labor to be in perfecting ourselves and observing the mitzvos.
May Hashem look down upon us now and witness our dedication to the Torah and each other. As we approach Shavuos, we ask Hashem to look at how Jews helped and are helping each other during this awful period of the coronavirus and declare us worthy not only of Torah, but of His ending of the plague He brought upon us. Let Him look down upon us and see how dedicated we are to learning and davening, going out of our way and, despite inconveniences, obstacles and barriers, continuing our commitment to that which sustains us and our people.
May all the sick be granted a refuah sheleimah, may those suffering be comforted, and may the people in desperate financial straits be redeemed.
May we merit the geulah hasheleimah vehakrovah bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.