Monday, May 18, 2015

The Secret of Kabalas ha-Torah (Maharal, R. Tzadok, and Rav Y. Eibeishutz)

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

In Bava Basra (74a) Chazal tell of an Arab Merchant who brought the 2nd generation Amora Rabbah Bar Bar Chana to see Har Sinai.  The Gemara relates that when they arrived, the mountain was surrounded by “scorpions that stood like white donkeys.”  What does this image of Har Sinai teach us about Matan Torah?

Scorpions and donkeys represent two primary destroyers of man.  Scorpions are known for their sting, which has the ability to kill a human being by injecting venom into his bloodstream.  Indeed, the Mishna in Pirkei Avos 2:10 notes the danger of a scorpion’s sting, and Berachos 33a warns of the ferociousness of the scorpion.  The nature of the scorpion’s attack is that it kills a person from within, without causing any outward physical destruction of the body. 

In contrast, donkeys are known for their harsh bite, which has the ability to crack a person’s bone structure.  Indeed, in Pesachim 49b we read how R. Akiva reminisced about his wayward youth when he sought out opportunities to attack a Talmid Chacham and bite him “like a donkey.”  R. Akiva explained that unlike a dog’s bite that merely breaks the skin, the bite of a donkey crushes one’s bones.  This nature of the donkey’s attack is that it kills a person from on the outside, destroying the physical destruction of the body.  

The eternal stationing of Donkey-like scorpions as sentries around Har Sinai reflects a certain reality of the Har Sinai experience.  Namely, that normal human existence is negated by the experience of Har Sinai.  What transpired on that mountain was so beyond humanity, it created a reality: the mountain itself negates man’s very existence.  This negation of man speaks to the totality of man’s essence, both his internal essence – represented by the scorpion – and his external self – represented by the donkey.[1]

What aspect of the Har Sinai experience caused this reality?   Chazal teach us it was the fact that Hashem himself uttered the revelation of Torah that nullified human existence.  Shabbos 88b relates that when the Jewish nation heard the commandments at Har Sinai “their souls departed them.”  

What became of those departed souls?  Chazal relate that after the souls of the Jewish nation departed heavenly dew descended that resurrected the deceased. (Shabbos 88b).   R. Yonason Eibeishutz is startled by this progression of events.  Why was it necessary for them to die if they would be immediately resurrected? 

His answer is important not only for understanding the events of Har Sinai, but also for our own avodas Hashem.  R. Eibeishutz answers that in order to be shayach to Torah, the Jewish nation needed to experience a recreation.  As they were, they were not elevated enough to connect to Torah.  Only through departing their physical bodies and leaving their insufficient spiritual station, were they able to re-emerge as entirely new creation.  Purified and reborn, they were now able to proceed with kabalas ha-Torah.[2]

And so it is with us.  To be connected to Torah, we too need to experience recreation.  Even on the individual level, the process of kabalas ha-Torah must contain an element of rebirth and redefinition. 

Chazal teach us that the Torah only abides by one who brings death to himself over Torah (Berachos 63b).  On the most basic level this means to be dedicated to Torah to a degree that we sacrifice physical comforts.  In this spirit the Rambam advises to forgo luxurious meals and limit sleep in pursuit of Torah (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:12).  Perhaps, this is also part of the reason we deny ourselves sleep, and stay up all night on leil Shevuos learning and preparing to re-receive Torah. 

But this principle of Chazal can also be understood on a more existential level.  The Chazon Ish writes that the “bringing death to oneself” described by Chazal refers to destroying our superficial perceptions of life.  In order to acquire Torah one must be willing to redefine who he is, realign his principles, and connect to a higher reality.  Only through this form of self-sacrifice can a person live a spiritual Torah existence.  The Yismach Moshe suggests that this is what Chazal mean when they tell us that righteous people “in death” are called “living.”  One is only alive spiritually, when his has successfully brought an end to his mundane existence.[3]   

[1] Based on MaharalNetzach Yisrael 31
[2] Ye’aros DevashDerush 10
[3] Yismach MosheBe-Shalach

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