The 613 mitzvot are the only vessels that can contain the great spiritual lights of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai
The past few portions of the week are replete with wondrous miracles. In Parashat Bo we read about the plague of the firstborns and the Exodus from Egypt; in Parashat Beshalach, we read about the Splitting of the Red Sea; and now, in Parashat Yitro, we reach the biggest miracle of all: the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. At the Exodus from Egypt we are taught that, “The King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself and redeemed them”; at the sea, “A maidservant at the sea saw what the Prophets did not see,” and the entire Jewish people exclaimed, “This is my God, and I will beautify Him.” But, it was only at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai that the entire Jewish people attained the level of prophecy, so much so that “All the people saw the sounds.” At Mt. Sinai, God removed the veil of nature that hides His Divine light, and revealed Himself to us by giving us His essence—the Torah.
Each miracle of the Redemption was also accompanied by new commandments. In Parashat Bo, the plague of the Egyptian firstborns and the Exodus were accompanied by the mitzvot of sanctifying the New Moon and all the laws relating to the Passover sacrifice. In Parashat Beshalach, immediately after the Splitting of the Red Sea, the verse states, “There He gave them statute and law.” Rashi elucidates that this refers to the mitzvot of Shabbat, the Red Heifer and other laws. At the Revelation at Mt. Sinai we heard the Ten Commandments, and “Moses received the Torah at Sinai,” including all the 613 mitzvot that the Jewish people are required to observe.
The relationship between the miracles of Divine revelation and the Torah’s commandments can be explained using a basic pair of Kabbalistic concepts: lights and vessels.
As mentioned above, every miracle is a revelation of Divine light, a lightning bolt that flashes into reality to illuminate our souls. Even today, thousands of years later, the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah illuminate us with their light, and “In every generation one is obliged to see oneself as if they themselves left Egypt.” Similarly, we are commanded to recall on a daily basis the Exodus from Egypt, the Splitting of the Red Sea and the Giving of the Torah. As explained in the previous article on Parashat Beshalach, we experience these great lights every day anew in our morning prayers.
But, without a vessel to contain it, light is prone to disperse until nothing remains of its great potential. Creating an appropriate vessel to collect the tremendous energy released, guards it so that we can benefit from it. This is why we need the mitzvot, which allow us to integrate the light at every stage of the proceedings. Following this reasoning, the sages state that in order to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt, God gave them the commandment of the Passover sacrifice and had them circumcise themselves—otherwise the light of redemption would not have been properly integrated in their souls.
A similar need arose after the Splitting of the Red Sea. As they left the shores of the Red Sea, the Jewish people arrived at Marah, where they could not find drinking water. The name Marah literally means “bitter,” which not only illustrates the fact that the only water to be found was undrinkable, but is also a reference to the psychological bitterness that accompanied the spiritual nose-dive that followed their climactic experience at the Red Sea. Psychologically speaking, this type of bitterness often results after the energy accompanying a spiritual high disperses, and we are left with nothing more than the drudgery of everyday life, leaving us with a bitter taste that can sometimes lead to full-blown depression. To alleviate the bitterness that ensues and to sweeten it, we need to occupy ourselves with new Torah insights.
At Mt. Sinai, the revelation was so powerful that the people were unable to bear it, so much so that they entreated Moses, “You speak to us and we will hear, but let God not speak to us, lest we die.” According to the sages, with every commandment they heard from God, their souls departed from their bodies. The spiritual light that descended to the world at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai was so great that most of it dispersed immediately and could not be integrated. The only way we can contain that enormous energy is by keeping the mitzvot, which are the most appropriate vessels for Divine energy.
Another way to describe the relationship between lights and vessels is to see them as general rules, and details, respectively. The light revealed at Mt. Sinai constitutes the general rule, while the 613 mitzvot are the abundance of details that contain it, as the verse states, “For a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.” Every commandment is a candle; a well-defined vessel into which the Torah’s great light can be integrated.
But, the commandments with their myriad details and precise requirements, are liable to appear to us as “dark” and detached from the great spiritual light of God’s Revelation. Indeed, some people make it their task to search for that original light by constantly seeking new and exhilarating spiritual experiences, and they find it difficult to comprehend why we need the mitzvot at all. What purpose does the vast world of halachah (Jewish law) serve us in our quest for spirituality? A common mistake is to believe that we can experience Jewish spirituality better by singing songs with friends while strumming on guitar strings than, for example, by keeping Shabbat according to the Shulchan Aruch. But the truth is that here in our mundane, materialistic world we need an abundance of mitzvot to contain the light. They are the only appropriate vessels to integrate it into physicality, which is God’s ultimate purpose in revealing His essence to us.
In the words of the Zohar, the 613 mitzvot are 613 pieces of “advice.” Just as appropriate practical advice can aid an individual in a moment of distress, so too every mitzvah is a vessel that contains light like no other mitzvah. If you want to find the lights that illuminate reality, just calculate the value of the word “lights” (אוֹרוֹת) and you will find that it is 613, the exact number of mitzvot in the Torah. Meaning that if you are looking for spiritual “lights” the place to find them is in the Torah’s 613 mitzvot!
Using this reasoning, we can explain another issue discussed in Chassidut—the relationship between the service of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Giving of the Torah. The sages teach that each of us should ask ourselves, “When will my deeds reach the level of the deeds of my forefathers, Abraham Isaac and Jacob.” If that is our goal, can’t we reach the ultimate level of serving God without Torah and mitzvot, like the forefathers did before the Torah was given? How can we expect to outshine our holy forefathers by keeping mitzvot that they did not keep?
The answer is that the Patriarchs had abundant spiritual lights but insufficient vessels to contain them. Even the sages’ statement that the forefathers observed the entire Torah refers to the abstract-spiritual aspect of the mitzvot, and not necessarily to their observance as we keep them. At their high level of spirituality, the forefathers lived as if they were already in the World to Come, in which “the righteous sit basking in the light of the Divine Presence,” without observing Torah and mitzvot. In contrast to the forefathers who lived in the spiritual realms, in order to draw light into our very physical world, we need Torah and mitzvot as vessels to contain it. This was the great innovation of the Giving of the Torah that gave us all the opportunity to experience spirituality through our service of God.
In spite of all we have explained, the vessels still appear more lowly and mundane than the lights. The mundane reality of routine mitzvah observance appears far less inspiring than the spiritual fireworks that we experienced at Sinai. Nonetheless, since we are at such a low level of physical reality, and Divine light is so spiritual and supernal, we need to practice the mitzvot—which at face value appear as dark and physical as we are. They act as an intermediary to allow us to capture the light, contain it, and integrate it into reality.
Yet, the Torah’s inner dimension teaches us that, surprisingly, the vessel containing the light actually emanates from a higher level than the light it contains. The Zohar states, “The source of the vessels is higher than that of the lights.” Above and beyond the Divine light revealed during the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah lies the source of the vessels, which from our physical perspective appears absolutely dark. The reason for this is only because it is higher and more spiritual than the lights themselves. This source is referred to in Kabbalah as “supernal darkness,” not because it is inherently dark, but because it is so spiritual that we cannot perceive its highly illuminated state. It is from this level of supernal darkness that the vessels descend into our reality, so that we can integrate the light through their existence.
We are familiar with physical reality, which appears dark to us because it is the lowest of the low, far below any Divine light. But there is also supernal darkness which, from our lowly human perspective appears so obscure because it is above and beyond all perception. Supernal darkness lies at the essential origin that precedes any revelation, of which the verse states, “He made darkness His hiding-place.” It is from this darkness that the roots of the vessels are carved. Once the great light is revealed, these vessels appear to absorb it.
The light that appears to us, like the miraculous revelation of the Divine at the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah is of a very high level. But, even higher than this light is the supernal darkness from which the vessels are made—all the 613 commandments with which the light can be integrated.
This is exactly how the Torah relates to the experience at Mt. Sinai. The entire Jewish people stood at the foot of the mountain, saw the voices and heard God’s light—an incredible experience of Divine revelation. But, after those miraculous moments, Moses had to enter the place of darkness to draw the Torah down from there into reality! Mt. Sinai was shrouded in “darkness, cloud and fog,” three screens, one inside the other, and each progressively darker than the last. “Moses approached the fog where God is,” and it was from this “thick cloud” that we received the mitzvot.
In Isaiah there is an amazing expression that illustrates this idea, “And I shall give you the treasures of darkness and the hidden caches.” Like a king who hides his most precious treasure in a dark, secret hiding place, the greatest spiritual treasures are also hidden in darkness. These treasures were not even revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but were stored away especially for the generation that was enslaved to Egypt, so deeply ensconced in the physical darkness of this world that they were worthy of receiving the “treasures of darkness”; the Torah that descended from Heaven to be captured in the 613 vessels of the mitzvot.
When comparing this format to the human psyche, the lights correspond to the soul’s attributes and innate faculties, the essence of one’s personality, and the vessels manifest as three garments of expression: thought, speech and action. Here too, the soul’s expressive garments (or, vessels) seem much lower than its essential faculties. Nonetheless, the three garments descend from the soul’s highest root, the three super-conscious heads of the crown, as explained at length in Chassidut.
The greatest Divine treasures are present in the vessels, the mitzvot, which we apply through thought, speech and action, the three garments of the soul. This means that the vessel that eventually captures and integrates the light, although dark by nature, is not merely subordinate to the great light that is above it, but actually expresses the “fog where God is”; that very same darkness that is far beyond the lights.
Indeed, when we contemplate the word “treasures” (אוֹצָרוֹת) we see that it is composed of the word “lights” (אוֹרוֹת) with an additional letter tzadik (צ). Like Moses in his generation, the tzadik, the righteous leader of the generation, is not content with the lights experienced during moments of spiritual exhilaration, but enters deeper into the thickness of the cloud to enrich us with the “treasures of darkness,” the 613 mitzvot. These are the 248 positive commandments and 365 prohibitions that we keep with the 248 limbs and 365 sinews of our physical bodies.
From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class 13th Shevat 5773