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 Israel—more than 2 million men, women and children, as well as the souls of all future generations of Jews—gathered 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 Shavuot—the “Time of the Giving of Our Torah.”
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 Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—established “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 ordinance—including 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”?
The Midrash explains the significance of the event with the following parable:
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-d’s, 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 But when He wished to give the Torah to Israel, He rescinded His original decree, and declared: “The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms.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 begin”—as 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 gezerah—a “decree” and “schism”—which 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 elevated—it 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 earth—its very nature defied actualization.
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 life.
The encounter between G-d and man at Sinai introduced a new phenomenon—the 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 tefillin—the 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‑d’s 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 mankind’s 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 voice’s “unceasing” nature: the divine voice at Sinai was unique in that it had no echo.
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 world.
At Sinai we were charged to serve as a “light unto the nations”—to 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 Torah’s precepts does not “fit in” with the prevalent reality. So the Torah tells us that the voice which sounded G-d’s message to man had no echo.
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 (or in the analogy, “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-d’s descent upon Mount Sinai; b) “The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms,” achieved by G-d’s 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 one—a 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 mitzvot—the times for the onset of the weekly Shabbat and for the morning reading of theShema, the place of the altar in the Holy Temple, the dimensions of thesukkah 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 spiritual’s boundlessness and purity; and in sanctifying the physical, it employs the tactility and finiteness of the physical object as the vehicle of its sanctification.
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 and soul.
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, man’s 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 and immanence.
Only in the collision of these counter—and contrary—strivings 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 Rebbe’s talks on numerous occasions
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. A census taken eleven months later counted 603,550 males between the ages of 20 and 60 (excluding the tribe of Levi).
. Rashi on Genesis 26:5.
. Talmud, Yoma 28b.
. Rashi on Genesis 46:28; Chizkuni on Exodus 5:4.
. Talmud, ibid.
. Midrash Tanchuma, Va’eira 15; Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 12:4.
. Psalms 115:16.
. Exodus 19:20.
. Ibid., 24:19.
. Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah, Chullin 7:6.
. Deuteronomy 5:19.
. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 28:4.
. Isaiah 42:6.
. 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 Eliezer—the 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 over Me.’”
. 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” and union.
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.