By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In the Torah, there are several references to mountains that are central to Yiddishkeit. The first is Har Hamoriah, which Avrohom saw from the distance as he approached it to offer his son Yitzchok as an akeidah, following the word of Hashem. Although he saw the mountain and recognized it as his destination, those who had journeyed with him did not see it. Those belonging to the am hadomeh lechamor were blind to the hallowed peak destined to play a leading role in Yahadus until this very day.
It was on this very mountain that the angels appeared to Avrohom Avinu and that Yitzchok almost became an olah temimah. It was at this spot that Yaakov Avinu experienced kedushah and, ultimately, the Bais Hamikdosh was built.
The mountain of such holiness also possessed the potential for destruction and experienced its share of the latter. Though it beheld so much kedushah, during the period of churban its kedushah was defiled and it became a place of tumah.
There are the mountains near Sh’chem, Har Gerizim and Har Eivol, which face each other. On one, eternal brachos were delivered, while on the other, eternal damnations rang out for those who don’t follow the path that Hashem laid out in the Torah. One mountain was covered with green growth, while the other was desolate and barren. They remain this way until today.
In Nach, we learn of the peak where Eliyohu Hanovi faced off against the nevi’ei habaal.
But there is no mountain more central to who we are than tiny Har Sinai. Though small as far as mountains are concerned, its glorious summit towers over the landscape of Jewish history. As far as we are concerned, it is the tallest and most monumental peak in the hemisphere.
On Shavuos, we are reminded of that mountain as we conjure up the image of millions of soon-to-be Yidden camped around its perimeter, experiencing the tangible awe of the moment. They had journeyed for forty days, following their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, through a hot, dusty desert. In actuality, they had been journeying since the beginning of time, a nation headed towards its destiny – a world created for yom hashishi, which Chazal explain refers to the sixth day of Sivan. Bereishis – bishvil haTorah shenikra reishis.
There were thunder and lightning. The sound of a shofar boomed out, growing increasingly louder. Smoke rose up from the mountain, which sat under a heavy cloud. The Divine Voice resonated throughout the universe, shaking the earth’s foundations. The Bnei Yisroel were very fearful. Then, they watched as their leader approached the cloud and disappeared from view as he ascended the mountain. As the posuk says, “U’Moshe nigash el ho’arofel.“ At that dramatic moment, the nation’s leader walked up the mountain, breaking through the smoke and entering into the cloud.
Chassidishe seforim explain that Moshe Rabbeinu represents “daas.” The bechinah of daas understands that in order to reach the Ribbono Shel Olam, we must courageously forge ahead through darkness, represented by the arofel, and not permit ourselves to be deterred by the enveloping darkness.
Wherever there is kedushah, there is tumah seeking to break through and destroy. The more we build, the larger we grow, the more the forces of tumah seek to seep in and spread their poison.
Throughout the ages, inspired Yidden who yearned to raise and purify themselves, would not be weighed down by fog, smoke and loud noises that surrounded them. Rather, they courageously pressed forward towards kedushah.
It is as true now as it was then. Like our forbears throughout the ages, Jews are confronted by darkness and fog. Initially, we get lost, we fumble around, we freeze in our place, and we become cynical, negative, and fearful of the future. We become fearful of change, fearful of what we are facing behind the fog and darkness. The urge is to shirk from the challenge and to fall back in retreat. But it is the Moshe, it is those with daas, who proceed forward into the arofel. They are drawn towards kedushah, towards taharah, towards Hashem, and are not deterred by the tishtush hamochin that affects the majority. They show the way for the rest of us. Klal Yisroel is inherently good. They hear Moshe and follow him so that there will be no “venofal mimenu rov.”
Chazal derive from the posuk of “Af chochmosi amdah li” (Koheles 2:9) that “Torah shelomadeti be’af,“ Torah learned through suffering, stands the test of time. Rather than serving as a hindrance, hardship is an aid to Torah study. This phenomenon may have at its roots in Moshe Rabbeinu’s ascent into darkness.
Rav Elozor Menachem Mann Shach writes in the hakdomoh to his classic sefer on the Rambam, “How can I repay Hashem for all His mercies towards me? Beginning with the days of my youth, I went through periods when I had nothing at all… from the beginning of the First World War, when all the Jews were exiled from the Lithuanian towns and I didn’t know where my parents were, for I was alone in Slutzk and I had no contact with them. I spent several years suffering much.“
Rav Shach describes the travails, hardships and loneliness that he endured. He concludes on a somewhat nostalgic note, longing for the Torah he learned during those years. “The Torah that I learned during the period of wrath endured,” he writes.
There is a posuk that Rav Shach adopted as his mantra, reflecting the value and connection with the Torah formed through hardship. As a young couple in Vilna, the Shachs lost a beloved daughter. The famed Vilna Rov and the rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, had lost his own only child. He consoled and counseled Rav Shach, citing the posuk, “Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, oz ovadeti be’onyi.“
It is said that Rav Chaim Ozer would greet the yungerman and say to him, “Rav Shach, gedenk, remember: lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai…“
Rav Shach and the Tchebiner Rov, Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, were contemporaries, with different paths in learning. Yet, there was a sugya that they both learned the exact same way.
After the Rov lost his wife and five children during the Second World War, he arrived in Eretz Yisroel with two daughters. One night, there was joy in the Rov’s apartment when word came that his daughter, the wife of Rav Boruch Shimon Schneerson, had given birth to a son.
It was a burst of comfort, a bit of nechomah after horrific tragedies. The baby was the first grandson of the Rov and represented hope for a better tomorrow. Then, when the baby was but a few days old, the doctors grew concerned regarding a developing illness. After a few hours, the dreadful news came. The baby had passed away.
The symbol of rebirth was gone.
Rav Boruch Shimon went to inform his father-in-law of the news, fearing how the devastating besurah would impact his shver. The Tchebiner Rov looked at him and asked, “How is the child?”
An expression of grief crossed the son-in-law’s face and the Rov understood.
Again, he was in mourning.
The Rov reached out and steadied himself against the doorframe, leaning his head against it. Then, he spoke and said, “Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, az ovadeti be’onyi.“
The reaction of Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Shach and the Tchebiner Rov. The reaction of Yidden throughout the ages. The reaction of Dovid Hamelech to his own suffering. Just as the mekabel haTorah, Moshe Rabbeinu, confronted the dark cloud, nigash el ho’ arofel.
Rather than stepping away, they moved forward.
No lofty madreigah, this attitude is intrinsic to our personal kabbolas haTorah each day, each moment. We make choices in life. We have to be bocher in chaim. The Torah is eitz chaim. We have to be able to look past the arofel and dedicate ourselves to achieving life.
We can offer an explanation based upon the Ohr Hachaim, at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai, who explains the posuk of “Im bechukosai teileichu” to mean that if you will be oseik in Torah, then “ve’es mitzvosai tishmoru,” you will be able to properly observe the mitzvos and separate yourself from aveirah.
If you will be oseik in Torah, if the Torah will be your shaashuah, then you will be able to be a proper Jew and observe and follow the mitzvos and not get lost be’onyi, in the arofel.
The posuk recounts that when Hashem appeared to the Bnei Yisroel and offered them the Torah, they responded in unison, “Na’aseh venishma – We will do and we will hear.” The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (88a) relates that Rav Simai explained that when they said, “Na’aseh venishma,” malochim placed two crowns on the head of each Jew, one for na’aseh and one for nishma. Rabi Elazar says that a bas kol rang out, stating, “Who taught my children this secret that is used by the angels?”
Many commentators question what was so extraordinary about the two words of na’aseh venishma that the Jews were so richly praised for enunciating them. Many different answers are offered. Perhaps the greatness of the response was that by responding in that way, they were declaring, “Na’aseh, we will follow the message of ‘im bechukosai teileichu ve’es mitzvosai tishmoru.“ We will act according to the dictates of the Torah and follow all its directives. And how will we do that? Venishma, through dedicating ourselves to its study. We will not act on our own and we will not shirk our responsibility. We will not get lost be’onyi and thrash about in the arofel. Rather, we will proclaim, ‘Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, oz ovadeti be’onyi.'”
Na’aseh. We are a nation of action, not just words. We are people who recognize our obligations in this world, not just a group that offers platitudes.
Na’aseh venishma. We have been reciting that pledge of allegiance to Hashem and his Torah for thousands of years. Jews, wherever they are, and whatever language they speak, and irrespective of geographical distance from Sinai, irrespective of the ravages of the exile, of golus, of churban and of pogroms, all proclaim together the same doctrine: na’aseh venishma. That is what sets us apart and that is what has kept us through the age. We have been guarded by the Torah and our fidelity to it and what it demands of us. All the other nations of the world from that period and throughout our history have long since petered out and are basically forgotten, but we persevere because of those two words.
Heading into the Yom Tov of Kabbolas HaTorah, it’s these two words, na’aseh venishma, that carry us. Despite everything we’ve been through, we proclaim it again and again, and this week we did it louder and more publicly than we have in a long time.
At this past weekend’s inspiring Torah Umesorah convention, attended by over 1,600 people who dedicate their lives to passing on na’aseh venishma to future generations, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, shared a similar message. We live in an age of impurity and immorality unlike any in modern history. Arofel fills our streets and we fight mightily to protect our homes, our little islands of sanctity.
Rav Levin said that there is an inclination for us to comfort ourselves by thinking that we are better than the others, shelo osonu kegoyei ha’aratzos. He declared that it is not sufficient to think that we are doing our jobs simply because we have not sunk as deeply as society has.
Rav Levin recalled a sad period in Telz when an incident provoked the ire of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch. As Rav Elya Meir began his shmuess to the yeshiva, the entire yeshiva had gathered, expecting a severe lecture about the depths to which some had sunk.
Rav Elya Meir entered and faced his talmidim. “We all know how low a person can fall,” he said, “but now let’s focus on how high man can soar.” He then delivered a shmuess about the limitless potential to grow, leaving his talmidim with the mussar message of gadlus ha’odom. He made them realize the heights to which they can reach and what is expected of them.
Rav Levin concluded by telling the gathered mechanchim, “We can’t limit our focus on protecting our talmidim, and ourselves, from the darkness that surrounds us. We also have to inspire them to rise.”
We are a great people. We have the Torah. We have a neshomah, a cheilek Eloka mima’al. The fire of Torah has the ability to glow in our souls, incinerate the tumah which seeks to envelop us, and light our path through the darkness. We have to kindle that spark that lies within each one of us and set it aflame, so that we will have the ability to walk through the arofel, become kedoshim, and reach for the heavens.
Shavuos is the day when the Torah was given to us 3,324 years ago, and every year we celebrate that anew on this Yom Tov. Let us resolve to fully accept it, proclaiming, “Na’aseh venishma,” dedicating our lives to it, and remembering our mantra, “Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, oz ovadeti be’onyi.”
A gutten Yom Tov.