Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Parsha: Why Unite Before Receiving the Torah?

Rav Turetsky

The Torah (Shemot 19:2) states that the Jewish people encamped opposite Har Sinai before receiving the Torah. Interestingly, the Torah refers to the entire Jewish people in the singular instead of plural form it usually uses.[1] Rashi (ad loc) famously cites Chazal’s explanation that the Jewish people are referred to in the singular because they united as one prior to receiving the Torah. It seems clear there is some significance to the timing of this Achdut, but it is not clear why it was important that it occurred specifically before Matan Torah.

Why did the Jewish people unite right before receiving the Torah?

1. One approach maintains that unity is a necessary prerequisite for Matan Torah. God did not desire to give us the Torah as individuals, but rather as part of a nation. The Torah is meant to elevate not only each person, but the Jewish people as a whole, to establish us as a unique and chosen nation. Only once we are together are we able to receive the Torah.[2]

Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook[3] once emphasized this point in the context of a comment found in the Talmud (Nedarim 81a). Chazal explain that the Jewish people lost the land of Israel because they failed to recite a Bracha before learning Torah. Numerous explanations are offered as to why that is such a severe offense, worthy of causing the Jews to leave the land of Israel.[4] Rav Tzvi Yehuda suggested that the Jews recognized Torah was important, and they did learn. However, they did not recite the Bracha of "אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים", the blessing that underscores the nationalistic significance of Torah. One who fails to recognize that fails to understand the true purpose and essence of Torah.

2. I once heard an additional interpretation. It was not the unity which prepared us to receive the Torah, but the opposite. The experience of receiving the Torah, of standing directly before God’s presence and recognizing His greatness, is what led us to unite. Division often stems from an unhealthy focus on minor issues, from allowing oneself to be bothered by the relatively insignificant. Standing before Hashem at Har Sinai led the Jewish people to recognize what really matters, as well as what doesn’t. No longer did they perceive as important the petty things that had bothered them until now.

Each approach highlights a fundamental idea. The first reminds us that the Torah does not only want us to be focused on ourselves as individuals. We are a nation, and our relationship to Torah learning and Torah values should reflect that. The second teaches us that a proper Torah perspective allows us to better interact with others. No longer focused on petty disagreements, we are able to appreciate the contributions of others and connect to them.

May we develop in our connections to others and the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom! (from the Alumni Shabbaton in NY).

[1] See Ibn Ezra (ad loc) for one interpretation as to why the Torah formulated it in such a way.
[2] Kli Yakar (ad loc) suggests that the Jewish people were not worthy of receiving the Torah so as long as there were fights amongst them. See Ohr HaChaim (ad loc) and Pardes Yosef (ad loc) citing Rav Yitzchak of Vorke.
[3] Sichot Rav Tzvi Yehuda, "מתוך התורה הגואלת", Vol 4. Pg. 82
[4] See Ran (ad loc) and Taz (O.C. 47:1).

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