Preparing for the Giving of the Torah


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The year is 2448, the year of the exodus from Egypt. The Jewish people left Egypt on the 15th day of Nisan and began their journey to Mt. Sinai, where they would receive the Torah en route to the Land of Israel. The Torah relates that on the first day of Sivan (45 days later) they arrived at the desert of Sinai, at the foot of Mt. Sinai,

On the third month of the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they came to the desert of Sinai. They traveled from Refidim and they came to the desert of Sinai; they camped in the desert and there Israel camped, facing the mountain.1

One of the most respected commentaries on the Torah dating from the last few hundred years is that of Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, the holy Or Hachayim. From the second verse, he learns that there are three stages in preparing for receiving the Torah.

Analyzing the second verse we see that it contains three parts:

  1. They traveled from Refidim and came to the desert of Sinai
  2. They camped in the desert
  3. They camped facing Mt. Sinai.

Though the giving of the Torah was a singular event, the Torah is given anew every single day. Every day the Torah should feel fresh and new as if we had just received it today. We especially connect with this idea on Shavu’ot, the festival that commemorates the original giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

In effect, preparing for receiving the Torah (then and today) requires readying an appropriate vessel in which to place the Torah that God gives us. Every vessel is composed of three layers, as explained by the Arizal, so the stages of preparing for the giving of the Torah can be likened to the proper preparation of all three layers, the external, the middle, and the inner layers.

Leaving Refidim – Commitment to Torah

The obvious question is why the Torah repeats that we came to the Sinai desert twice. The sages explain that the second time (in the beginning of the second verse quoted above) is coming to teach us something by association (היקש ). Just as when they left they came to the Sinai desert they did teshuvah and were as one person (indicated by the singular form of the word “camped,” ויחן , at the end of the second verse), so when they left Refidim they did so in a state of teshuvah. Specifically, it was in Refidim that the nation of Amalek came to annihilate the Jewish people. The only reason that Amalek had any chance of harming Israel was because they introduced doubt into the hearts of the people—doubt regarding the Presence of the Almighty in their midst. They started with those who to begin with were weak in their faith and worked inwards.2 The sages explain that Amalek was successful only because, as the name of the location suggests, the Jewish people had weakened their hold on the Torah and its study.3 The teshuvah that they did then was to recommit to Torah study.

One might still ask, if they had done teshuvah in Refidim why did they have to doteshuvah again when they arrived in the desert of Sinai? This is actually an example of the principle that there are two levels of teshuvah called lower teshuvah and higherteshuvah in the Zohar, as explained in length in Igeret Hateshuvah in the Tanya.4 In this context, it is the higher teshuvah that they performed upon coming to the Sinai desert that united them so perfectly.
This stage of the preparation corresponds to readying the external shape of the vessel, making sure that is indeed useful for the purpose for which it is meant. The task of every Jew is to study Torah. As the sages say, “If you have learnt a great deal of Torah, do not think you have done something special, for this is what you were created for.”5

Camping in the Desert – Lowliness

We might think that if someone has removed himself from all worldly interests and invested himself totally in Torah, there is nothing more that he need do. The Torah will now simply be his. But, this is not the case. The sages relate this to us in an unusually harsh statement, “One who says he only has Torah, even Torah he does not have.”6 A person can spend a lifetime devoted solely to Torah study and still not have rectified his character (a necessary requirement for internalizing the Divine wisdom of the Torah). What in particular is missing?

The Or Hachayim learns that there is a second stage of preparation in order to truly receive the Torah from the words, “They camped in the desert.” Their coming to the desert of Sinai was already mentioned twice. Why is it necessary to state explicitly that “they camped in the desert,” mentioning the word “desert” for the third time? He answers that to make a camp in the desert metaphorically suggests that a person has to be lowly like the arid land of the desert. Because they seem to have no value, the desert sands are trodden upon without a second thought, by everyone. Likewise, a person preparing to receive the Torah must come to a state of lowliness in which he feels no sense of self-importance. We end the Amidah by praying that we merit attaining this state, “And my soul should be as dust to all.”

There can be a great Torah scholar that figuratively kills himself in his dedication to the Torah. Yet, for all his intense devotion, he is not lowly; he is full of a sense of self-worth. Put another way, everyone knows that no one is simply born a great scholar. Genius in Torah requires (like any other area) 100% dedication. But, even if an individual has traveled from Refidim, from a non-committal state towards the Torah, he may very well have not camped himself in the desert and attained a state of lowliness.

Apropos, the Or Hachayim’s observation of the difference between the rejection of the mundane necessary for commitment to Torah study and lowliness is a good example of the difference between what is called itkafya (self-discipline) in Chassidut and lowliness.7

Camping Before Mt. Sinai – Community of Sages

The third stage has to do with the sages’ famous teaching about the words, “And Israel camped facing the mountain.” The verb “camped” here appears in a singular conjugation (ויחן ) whereas, seemingly, it should have been in plural form (ויחנו ), the form of the verb that appears two words before (in the phrase “they camped in the desert”). The sages learn from this that the encampment around Mt. Sinai was unique among the camps set up during the desert travels. Here, at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people were like a single individual, united as one person with one heart.

From this, the Or Hachayim learns the third stage required in preparation for the giving of the Torah. Indeed, even if one has both committed 100% to Torah and one has attained a state of lowliness, this does not ensure that he will be able to form a community of sages and share or enjoy the company of other scholars. In fact, the very opposite may be true—such a seemingly rectified Rabbi will prefer having nothing to do with his peers.

This is without a doubt the greatest malady of our spiritual leaders today. We tend to think that this points at their haughtiness. We may be prompted to think that in their minds, only their opinion has value but no one else’s does. This is not necessarily true. The greatest Rabbis have undoubtedly attained a real state of lowliness. Still, they remain unable to create a community of sages learning together and engaging in dialogue in the same Beit Midrash (study hall).

The reason for this is that each Rabbi is (consciously or unconsciously) suspicious of the others. Each believes that perhaps the other is (at worst) concealing some hidden agenda; or (at best), that even if both of us are intending in our Torah study to discover and reveal God’s will, our approaches and underlying Torah philosophies are so different that we will be unable to interact productively. To properly engage in a Torah debate and to be able to freely share opinions, people have to trust one another. They have to believe and feel that they share a single, common objective and purpose (without clashing approaches to Torah in general). This state is described as “one person with a single heart.” In this particular idiom, the heart serves as a simile for will, or purpose. Duplicity in purpose is described in the Bible as, “with a heart and another heart they talk.”8 Sharing the same heart with others means feeling solidarity—that you all have a clear common objective.

Indeed, when scholars are comfortable with one another, they can intellectually joust, sharpening each other’s arguments.9 But, when the intellectual scrimmage is over, their fondness and love for each other is seen once more.10 The greatest beauty and the source of the Talmud’s tremendous authority is that it documents exactly such an environment of a community of sages. Reading any page in the Talmud, one is immediately struck by fact that the sages are always together, studying together, arguing together. Even if they live in distant locations, physically far from one another, they are still engaged in productive dialogue, always sharing their opinions, never afraid to hear criticism (and criticism there is). This is what really gets someone interested in Talmud. Needless to say, this is the complete opposite of how things are today. In this respect, there is no other book like the Talmud, and there is no other period of Torah study similar to it.11

The consequence of this unity was an as yet unduplicated level of spiritual alignment of the sages of the Talmud. We mean to say that even though there is a degree of holy spirit (ruach hakodesh) found in Torah works composed after the Talmudic era, the scholars who wrote those books did not attain the same degree of holiness and spiritual awareness that the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud did.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn12 put it this way. The sages of the Talmud, first they see above and then they say below. In other words, the authority of their teachings comes not from their possessing some kind of super-human intellect, but rather that they expressed in words that which was revealed to them supernally. Because of their spiritual source, the statements and arguments made by the sages all have eternal value. For this reason, even arguments that were legally rejected were not simply erased but rather documented in the Talmud.13

For example, the Rabbi considered to have the sharpest intellect in the Talmud is Rava. In order to start learning Rava stated that he had to eat the choicest fatty meats from a bull. Was eating fatty meat simply for the sake of sharpening his intellectual faculties? No. Rava needed a very real taste of our mundane reality in order to be able to express in words what had been revealed to him above. The meat was a way of bringing down his spiritual insight and enclothing it in the proper words.

Because the unity between the sages ceased, we have not been privileged since then to merit such a high degree of spiritual insight. From then on, every single book has been written by a single individual. Take the most important book other than the Talmud in the Oral Torah—Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. He wrote it alone. He is the greatest scholar, but he did it alone. This is how all the books from the Talmud and on are. No other book documents (tells a story of) what happened in the house of study.14

The book of the Written Torah is of course the Pentateuch (and to a lesser degree the rest of the books of the Bible). The book of the Oral Torah is the Talmud. Just as the written Torah is (externally) a document of events, so the Talmud is a document covering 700 years of the sages’ lives.

(based on a lecture given 1 Sivan 5769 in Jerusalem)


1. Exodus 19:1-2.

2. A tactic employed today by Christian missionaries who focus their efforts on those Jews who are least connected to their tradition and the Torah.

3. The Hebrew name of the location, Refidim (רפידים ) is a notarikon of the words “they weakened their hold” (רפו ידיהם ). Even though at that time the Torah in its entirety had not yet been given, the people had already received portions of the Torah before leaving Egypt and while camping in Marah after the splitting of the Red Sea, before reaching Refidim.

4. See particularly chs. 5, 9, and 10.

5. Avot ???

6Yevamot 109b.

7. The issue comes up in relating the Tanya, written by the Alter Rebbe, with the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s teaches that transformation requires three stages, called submission, separation, and sweetening. But, in theTanya it seems at first sight that transformation only involves two stages calleditkafya (self-discipline) and ithapcha (overturning). In fact, itkafya must be preceded by lowliness, for without it exercising self-discipline will only lead one to feel worthy and important because one has been able to control the evil inclination, while in reality without God’s help, no one can overcome their evil inclination (as explained explicitly in Tanya).

8. Psalms 12:3.

9. Rabbi Chanina says: What is the meaning of the verse “Iron with iron, together” (Proverbs 27:17)? This verse teaches us that just as one piece of iron can sharpen another, so two scholars sharpen each other (Ta’anit 7a).

10. See Kidushin 30b.

11. The Talmud documents the Torah study of sages who lived over a time period of approximately 700 years, from 200 BCE to 500CE.

12. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak (1878 – 1944) was perhaps the greatest Kabbalist of his generation. For many years, he was the chief Rabbi of Dniepropetrovsk. His commentary on the Zohar and his lengthy letters to his son, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, have been printed.

13. Building on his father’s insight, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that though we halachically (legally) do not make use of the medicinal remedies documented in the Talmud, because the nature of the human body has changed over the generations, these remedies still have spiritual value. Though they may not be applicable at present to cure physical ailments, they do still harbor important spiritual insight into the nature of the maladies they address.

14. The one book of the Oral Torah other than the Talmud which is universally accepted is the Shulchan Aruch, this in spite of the fact that its author, Rabbi Yosef Karo was not considered the “sharpest mind” of his generation (the Maharshal was). Even though he wrote the Shulchan Aruch alone, Rabbi Yosef Karo first wrote a commentary on the Tur in which he copied every single opinion of the sages he was aware of. When he came to write his legal work, the Shulchan Aruch, he took every one of these opinions into consideration. This indeed is an exhibition of tremendous lowliness, but not yet the ultimate level of unity found in the Talmud.

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