ESSAY: The Breakthrough
No new document was unveiled at Sinai, and no hitherto
unknown code of behavior was commanded there. What, then,
was given to us at The Giving of Our Torah?
Freedom in focus
And it came to pass on the third day, when morning came,
that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud
upon the mountain, and the sound of the shofar exceeding loud;
and the entire people within the camp trembled. And Moses
brought the people out of the camp to meet with G-d, and they
stood at the foot of the mountain...
And G-d came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the
mountain. And G-d called Moses to the top of the mountain,
and Moses ascended.
The most momentous event in Jewish history took place on
Shabbat, the sixth day of the month of Sivan, in the year
2448 from creation (1313 bce). On that day, the entire people
of Israelmore than 2 million men, women and children, as well as the souls of all future generations of Jewsgathered
at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G-d.
Ever since, the event has been marked on our calendar as the
festival of Shavuotthe Time of the Giving of Our
But the Torah we received at Sinai had already been in our
possession for many generations. Shem, the son of Noah, headed
an academy for the study of Torah together with his great-grandson,
Eber; the PatriarchsAbraham, Isaac and Jacobestablished
yeshivot for Torah study;
all through the Egyptian exile, the tribe of Levi (who were
not enslaved) occupied themselves with the study of Torah.
Our ancestors fulfilled the entire Torah even before
it was given, observing its every law and ordinanceincluding
the obligation to make an eiruv tavshilin when a festival
falls on the eve of Shabbat. No new document was unveiled at Sinai, and no
hitherto unknown code of behavior was commanded there. What,
then, was given to us at The Giving of Our Torah?
explains the significance of the event with the following
Once there was a king who decreed: The people of
Rome are forbidden to go down to Syria, and the people of
Syria are forbidden to go up to Rome. Likewise, when
G-d created the world He decreed and said: The heavens
are G-ds, and the earth is given to man. But when He wished to give
the Torah to Israel, He rescinded His original decree, and
declared: The lower realms may ascend to the higher
realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms.
And I, Myself, will beginas it is written, And
G-d descended on Mount Sinai,
and then it says, And to Moses He said: Go up to G-d.
For the first twenty-five centuries of history, there existed
a gezeraha decree and schismwhich
split reality into two self-contained realms: the spiritual
and the material. Torah, the divine wisdom and will, could
have no real effect upon the physical world. It was a wholly
spiritual manifesto, pertaining to the soul of man and to
the spiritual reality of the heavens. While its
concepts could, and were, applied to physical life, physical
life could not be elevatedit could be improved and perfected
to the limits of its potential, but it could not transcend
its inherent coarseness and subjectivity. Nor could the spiritual
be truly brought down to earthits very nature defied
At Sinai, G-d revoked the decree which had confined matter
and spirit to two distinct realms. G-d came down
on Mount Sinai, bringing the spirituality of the heavens down
to earth. He summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, empowering
physical man to raise his physical self and world to a higher
state of existence. The Torah could now sanctify physical
The encounter between G-d and man at Sinai introduced a new
phenomenonthe cheftza shel kedushah or holy
object. After Sinai, when physical man takes a physical
coin, earned by his physical toil and talents, and gives it
to charity; or when he bakes flour and water as unleavened
bread (matzah) and eats it on the first night of Passover;
or when he forms a piece of leather to a specified shape and
dimensions, inserts into it parchment scrolls inscribed with
specified words, and binds them to his head and arm as tefillinthe
object with which he has performed his mitzvah
(divine commandment) is transformed. A finite, physical thing
becomes holy, as its substance and form embody
the realization of a divine desire and command.
The mitzvot could be, and were, performed before the revelation
at Sinai. But because they had not yet been commanded
by G-d, they lacked the power to bridge the great divide between
matter and spirit. The mitzvah could have its spiritual effect
in refining the soul of man; it could even, to a certain extent,
perfect its physical object by making it the agent of a good
and virtuous deed. But only as a command of G-d, creator and
delineator of both the spiritual and the physical, could the
mitzvah supersede the natural definitions of these two realms.
Only after Sinai could the mitzvah actualize the spiritual
and sanctify the material.
Thus Maimonides writes:
Pay attention to the major principle expressed by this
Mishnah when it says, It was said at Sinai ...
For everything from which we refrain or which we do today,
we do only because of G‑ds command to Moses at
Sinai, not because of any communication by G‑d to earlier
prophets. For example, that which we do not eat a limb
from a live animal is not because G-d forbade this to Noah,
but because Moses forbade it to us by commanding at Sinai
that the prohibition of eating a limb from a live animal should
remain in force. Similarly, we do not circumcise ourselves
because our father Abraham circumcised himself and the members
of his household, but because G‑d commanded us through
Moses that we should circumcise ourselves as did Abraham...
An Absorbent World
Therein lies the significance of a curious detail related
by our sages regarding the revelation at Sinai.
The Torah tells us that G-d spoke the Ten Commandments, which
encapsulate the entire Torah, in a great, unceasing
voice. The Midrash
presents various meanings for the word unceasing.
One explanation is that the divine voice did not confine itself
to the holy tongue but reverberated in mankinds seventy
languages. A second interpretation is that the voice did not
cease on that particular Shabbat morning some 3300 years ago:
throughout the generations, all prophets and sages who taught
and expounded upon the wisdom of the Torah are the extension
of that very voice, for they added nothing that was not already
inherent in the Ten Commandments. Finally, the Midrash offers
a third explanation of the voices unceasing
nature: the divine voice at Sinai was unique in that it had
The first two interpretations obviously point to the universality
and timelessness of Torah. But what is great and unceasing
about the fact that the voice had no echo? Why should it have
been distinguished in this manner from all other sounds?
In truth, however, the echoless nature of the divine communication
conveys the very essence of what transpired at Sinai. An echo
is created when a sound meets with a substance which resists
it: instead of absorbing its waves, the substance repels them,
bouncing them back to the void. Prior to Sinai, the voice
of Torah had an echo. Belonging to the spirituality
of the heavens, it could not truly penetrate the physicality
of the earth. The world might hear of Torah and
be affected by it; but there remained a certain degree of
resistance, as each remained bound in its respective higher
and lower realm. At Sinai, however, G-d rescinded
the decree which had severed the heavens from the earth. The
world could now fully absorb the divine voice; a physical
object could now become one with its mission and role.
Therein lies an important lesson to us as we pursue our mission
in life to implement the ethos and ideals of Torah in our
At Sinai we were charged to serve as a light unto the
actualize in our own lives, and to teach all of humanity,
that no matter what the conditions of a particular time, place
or society may be, there is an all-transcendent, unequivocal,
divinely ordained truth and moral code of behavior to adhere
to. At times, however, we might be confronted with a seemingly
unresponsive and even resisting world. It may appear that
one or another of Torahs precepts does not fit
in with the prevalent reality. So the Torah tells us
that the voice which sounded G-ds message to man had
The voice of the Ten Commandments permeated every object
in the universe. So any resistance we may possibly
meet in implementing them is superficial and temporary. For
at Sinai, the essence of every created being was made consistent
with, and wholly receptive to, the goodness and perfection
which G-d desires of it.
Up and Down
The divine edict which had originally separated the spiritual
from the physical is described by the Midrash as a double
decree: the heavens were proscribed from descending to earth,
and the earth was prevented from rising to the heavens (in
the analogyor, The people of Rome are forbidden to go
down to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to go
up to Rome). The annulment of the decree at Sinai was
likewise two-fold: a) The higher realms may descend
to the lower realms, effected by G-ds descent
upon Mount Sinai; b) The lower realms may ascend to
the higher realms, achieved by G-ds summons to
Moses to ascend the mountain.
Both are necessary if a true union of spirit and matter is
to be achieved. If the Torah only brought heaven down to earth,
or only raised the earth to the heavens, the resultant union
would be a one-sided onea marriage that is defined by
the nature and character of only one of its partners. If only
the heavens had descended, their union with earth would be
typified by the ethereality and transcendence of the spiritual;
if only the earth had ascended, its union with the heavens
would be characterized by the finiteness and tactility of
the physical. A true marriage is a two-way relationship, in
which each partner not only relates to and connects with the
other, but also participates in defining the nature of the
relationship between them.
The Torah is a true marriage of the supernal and the earthly
because it is at the same time spiritual and physical, transcendent
and tactual. It is the wisdom and will of G-d, but as apprehended
by the human mind and actualized in the physical life of man. It is timeless and universal, but detailed and precise in defining
the particulars of the mitzvotthe times for the onset
of the weekly Shabbat and for the morning reading
of the Shema, the place of the altar in the Holy Temple,
the dimensions of the sukkah to be constructed for
the festival of Sukkot and the quantity of matzah to be eaten
on the first night of Passover. While actualizing the spiritual,
the Torah retains the spirituals boundlessness and purity;
and in sanctifying the physical, it employs the tactility
and finiteness of the physical object as the vehicle of its
Our sages tell us that Man is a miniature universe. Within man, too, there is a
heaven and an earth, a spiritual higher realm
and a material lower realm. In man, too, these
were once separate and distinct. And in man, too, the revelation
at Sinai empowered us to unite substance and spirit, body
Through the mitzvot of the Torah, the soul of man finds purpose
and utility, inspiration and majesty in physical deeds and
material achievements. And through the mitzvot of the Torah,
mans mundane, everyday pursuits become holy and divine.
Here, too, the marriage of spirit and matter must be accompanied
by a descent of the spiritual and an ascent of the physical.
The soul, whose first inclination is to avoid the coarseness
and mundanity of the material, must gravitate downward and
strive to express itself in the physical life of the body.
And the physical self, which tends towards being and actualization,
must strive to raise itself higher, to transcend its selfhood
Only in the collision of these counterand contrarystrivings
can we attain a true union of body and soul, and ultimately
achieve a union of heaven and earth, of Creator with creation.
Based on the Rebbes talks on numerous occasions
There is no free man, save he who occupies
himself with the study of Torah
Ethics of the Fathers 6:2
Among the great technological achievements of the last half-century
is the development of the laser beam. The nature of light
is such that it scatters as it moves away from its source,
thereby lessening its intensity and effect. The laser overcomes
this limitation by concentrating its energy in a straight
line, so that it retains its potency even at a great distance
from its point of origin. Thus its utility (as a source of
light, heat, or other uses) can be exploited in ways previously
We often hear the argument that a life that is faithful to
the precepts of the Torah is greatly constricted
and confined. Why limit myself in any way? Why
not give free reign to my thoughts, feelings and inclinations,
and let them lead me where they may? Why categorically
exclude certain pursuits and experiences from the possible
paths my life might take?
On the face of it, any code of behavior is limitingsomething
that detracts from the great variety of possibilities that
life has to offer. In truth, however, the very opposite is
the case. A life without parameters is a life that quickly
dissipates in the cosmic heterogeneity in which we exist,
draining it of all power and impact. As the example of the
laser beam demonstrates, it is precisely the limitations
imposed on a force that extend and amplify its potential and
enable its optimal realization.
Based on an address delivered by the Rebbe on Chanukah,
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki
. A census taken eleven months later counted 603,550
males between the ages of 20 and 60 (excluding the tribe
. Rashi on Genesis 26:5.
. Rashi on Genesis 46:28; Chizkuni on Exodus 5:4.
. Midrash Tanchuma, Vaeira 15; Midrash Rabbah,
. Maimonides commentary on the Mishnah, Chullin
. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 28:4.
. As exemplified by the following incident related
in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b):
Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues were debating a point
of Torah law. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that a certain type
of oven was not susceptible to ritual impurity, while the
others disagreed. On that day, the Talmud recounts,
Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but
they were rejected... Finally, he said to them: If
the law is as I say, may it be proven from Heaven!
There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: What
do you want of Rabbi Eliezerthe law is as he says...
Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: The
Torah is not in Heaven!
(What does this mean? Explained Rabbi Jeremiah:
We take no notice of Heavenly voices, since You, G-d, have
already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to follow the majority).
The Talmud continues: Rabbi Nathan met Elijah
the Prophet and asked him: What did G-d do at that
moment? [Elijah] replied: He smiled and said:
They have triumphed over Me, My children, they have triumphed
. Thus there are, in fact, three stages to the
union of heaven and earth: a) the descent of the higher
realms to the lower; b) the ascent of the lower
realms to the higher; c) the collision
or merger of these two movements in a single marriage
On the historical level, the first millennium, which
was characterized by an abundant flow of life and nurture
from Above, was a time in which the relationship between
heaven and earth was defined exclusively by the higher
realms. The second millennium, which saw the refinement
and self-elevation of earth, was a time of upward striving
on the part of the lower realms. And the third
millennium, which commenced the age of Torah,
saw the union of matter and spirit in the convergence of
the two (see The Third Millennium, WIR, vol. V, no.
6; The Era of the Rainbow, WIR, vol. X, no. 5).
In the immediate events leading to the revelation at
Sinai, these three stages were actualized in: a) the Exodus,
which was a unilateral, divinely initiated revelation and
redemption from Above; b) the seven-week period of preparation
and self-refinement between the Exodus and the revelation
at Sinai (re-enacted each year with our counting of
the omer); and c) the Giving of the Torah,
in which G-d came down on Mount Sinai and Moses ascended
the mountain (see Running After You, WIR, vol. VII,
no. 31; The Journey, WIR, vol. IX, no. 26).
On another level, the revelation at Sinai, though it
included elements of the lower realms ascending,
was primarily a revelation from Above. This is followed
by many centuries of self-refinement and self-perfection
on our part, to be followed by the Era of Moshiach and its
ultimate union of heaven and earth.
. Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 887-892; vol.
IV, pp. 1092-1098; vol. VIII, pp. 105-113; et al.