Torah for the Times

Friday, February 10 , 2012 - 17 Shevat, 5772

Torah Reading: Yitro (Exodus 18:1 - 20:23)
Candle Lighting Time: 5:05 PM
Shabbat Ends: 6:07 PM

License To Climb

Getting Ready

This week, the Torah discusses history’s most momentous event—the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. No important event happens in a vacuum. It is axiomatic in Judaism that every holy experience and milestone must come through intensive preparation and soul searching.
The question is, why are all the preparations necessary?
In other non spiritual areas of life we can easily understand the need for practicing before you perform or execute a difficult task. But spiritual matters seem to be different. If G‑d would want to give us a spiritual experience without any preparation on our part he could easily do it.
We don’t necessarily need to prepare for G‑d to reveal His Torah to us. He could have unilaterally revealed it to us and we would feel great. The problem would be that it would not be ours; we could never internalize it. Our relationship with the Torah would be superficial and its effects would dissipate in no time.
Indeed, the entire Egyptian bondage is seen by our Sages as a form of preparation for nationhood and their acceptance of the Torah.
Similarly, for the last two thousand years we’ve been preparing for the ultimate period of Redemption. All of our experiences in exile are a prelude to the coming of Moshiach.
One of the final steps the Jewish people had to take in preparation for the giving of the Torah was to avoid coming close to the mountain for three days. This procedure is referred to as hagbalah, creating boundaries. The Jews had to know how far they had to situate themselves or how close they could get to the mountain.
There is an anomaly in the way these boundaries are phrased in the Torah. Commentators point out that in one verse where G‑d commands Moses to tell the people how to prepare for this event He says, “you should set boundaries for the nation.” In a later verse, G‑d tells Moses, “Go down and warn the people (they should not go on the mountain – Rashi).” Moses responds to G‑d and says, “The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.” Initially G‑d tells Moses to set boundaries for the people but Moses quotes G‑d as saying that He required setting boundaries for the mountain. Why the different ways of expressing ostensibly the same thought?
Perhaps we can answer this as follows. When G‑d initially told Moses to set boundaries it was for the people who had not yet prepared themselves for the revelation of G‑d on that mountain. There, the emphasis was on prohibiting people who were ill prepared to not trying to climb a holy mountain.
However, after three days of intense purification and sanctification, there were those who might have entertained the notion that now they were ready to touch the mountain because they were now on a much higher level. For these people, the emphasis was not on their lowliness but on the recognition that no matter how high they may have risen, the mountain was still beyond them. The emphasis has to be placed on the exaltedness of the mountain rather than the lowliness of the people.
There were thus two reasons why they could not go on to the mountain: one because of their initial lowliness, and two, because of the exalted level of the mountain.
The lesson from this might be: we have to know our limits and not try to prematurely climb to heights when we are not yet suited for the venture. With regard to Torah study, we must understand our limitations and also the true exalted nature of Torah, which is a G‑dly teaching, and approach its study with humility, respect and awe.
Boundaries Removed
However, G‑d then continued to instruct Moses that “when the shofar sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain.”
The question can be asked if the mountain was so holy, how could they be allowed to climb it after the shofar is blown? The conventional answer provided by Rashi is that once the shofar sounded, it was an indication that the divine presence departed from the mountain. All holiness left the mountain and it reverted back to a mundane location.
There is another approach taken with regard to the prohibition and subsequent “license” given to climb onto the mountain. But first a word of introduction is in order: When a person is told by G‑d that they may not engage in a certain activity, there is a need to discern between two distinct circumstances. The first is that the prohibition is meant as a permanent order to keep away from certain behavior. You may never enter this area; don’t trespass. In this category we can place most of the Torah’s prohibitions that are meant to get us to cease and desist from engaging in harmful activity. “Do not commit murder” and “do not commit theft” are obvious examples of the permanent nature of most of the Torah’s demands of us.
There is, however, a second form of restriction G‑d imposes upon us that was meant to be a temporary measure and was not intended to be institutionalized. The analogy of a stop sign on the road conveys this idea. While one is required to stop as a precautionary measure—so as not to be hurt by a vehicle crossing the intersection—it was never intended to make you turn around and retreat or just stay there idly forever. The stop sign doesn’t mean stop forever, it really means to simply pause.
Included in this second category are the prohibitions against engaging in certain areas of Torah study that were deemed to be too esoteric for the average person. Even some of the great Talmudic sages were not privy to these teachings. These teaching are metaphorically referred to as mountains. By no means, though, was this prohibition of climbing G‑d’s “mountain” intended to be a permanent one. On the contrary, the “stop signs” were set up were meant as ways of assisting us in safely navigating the treacherous highways of life so that we will eventually reach our destination and be able to scale these great heights.
From the days of the great Kabbalist, the Arizal, and especially afterwards, the mystical teachings of Judaism were made accessible to the human mind by the masters of the Chassidic movement, it no longer behooves us to stand at the foot of the mountain and dare not even touch it. On the contrary, once the proverbial sound of the shofar has been sounded we may—nay we must—climb that mountain.
Sadly, many conflate these two situations. They will allow their spiritual growth to be stunted by applying the two arguments the Torah uses for not climbing the mountain: either they feel they are too low for the mountain or that the mountain is too holy for them. Either way, it prevents them from growing in their spiritual lives.
Many will even invoke the words of King David in the Psalms: “Who may ascend the mountain of G‑d, and who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart who has not used My name in vain or sworn falsely.”
Perhaps the repetition in this verse corresponds to the two rationalizations we use to prevent us from ascending the mountain: The first is “who may ascend the mountain of G‑d?”—who are we? We are too lowly to climb the mountain. And the second is “who may stand in His holy place?”—Even a spiritually sophisticated person cannot stand in such a place, because the degree of holiness is awesomely great.
It is obvious that King David’s intention was not to deter or discourage us from ascending the “mountain.” On the contrary, the psalm continues with praise for the one who does venture onto the mountain and aspires to climb higher and higher: “He shall receive a blessing from G‑d, and kindness from G‑d His deliverer. Such is the generation of those who search for Him, [the children of] Jacob who seek Your countenance forever.”
The Shofar of Moshiach
What is meant by the sound of the shofar in contemporary terms?
Many commentators see the sound of the shofar of the Sinai era as an allusion to the Messianic Age. When Abraham sacrificed the ram in place of his son Isaac, our Sages tell us, the two rams horns were preserved for the world’s two most momentous events: The first horn, the smaller of the two, would be the shofar to accompany the revelation at Mount Sinai and the second one, the largerone, will be the shofar of Moshiach. Indeed we mention in our Shemoneh Esrei three times a day, Teka Beshofar Gadol, sound the large (or larger) Shofar to herald Moshiach’s coming.
The Rebbe referred to the cataclysmic events that affected the Jewish people in the last century—that jolted the Jewish nation and touched them to their very core—as the figurative “shofar of Moshiach.” These events beckoned to us to get closer to the “mountain.” These events were a wakeup call that we’ve fallen asleep at the stop sign. The horns are blaring! It’s time to wake up and get our mountain climbing gear because - whether or not we are adequately prepared - we will imminently be entering in to a new heightened phase of history. We have two choices: we can be ready and climb the mountain with confidence and joy, or we can come along unprepared. We can no longer use the excuses of lowliness or putting Moshiach on a pedestal, claiming that it is beyond our reach and our ability to withstand.
There were times in the past, when some cautionary statements were made about the degree we are to clamor for and obsess with Moshiach and Redemption. That was then, thousands of years ago, when we were far away from our goal. Then the focus was more on the preparations—the boundaries that had to be respected—as opposed to the goal. Today, after we’ve heard the “shofar” sound, we must place the greatest emphasis on our faith in, hope and prayer for and doing more and more Mitzvos to bring Moshiach.
By all means, preparation for Moshiach is as relevant as the preparations for the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, but, we’ve been preparing for too long; now is the time to say “We are ready!”

Moshiach Matters
"I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Moshiach. Even if he delays, I will wait every day for him to come." This is the 12th of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith. This does not mean that every day we should wait for Moshiach's ultimate arrival, but that every day we should wait expectantly for Moshiach to come on that very day. The Talmud teaches that "Thinking is potent." Accordingly, the very fact that Jews around the world are intensely and persistently focusing their hearts and minds on the world's urgent need for Moshiach, will in itself surely hasten his arrival. (The Rebbe)

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