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 mountain that the angels appeared to Avrohom and that Yitzchok almost became an olah temimah. It was at this spot that Yaakov Avinu experienced kedusha 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 kedusha, during the period of churban its holiness 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 Jews 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 was thunder and lightning. The sound of a shofar boomed out, growing increasingly louder. Smoke rose 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. They watched as their leader approached the cloud and disappeared into the fog, as he ascended the mountain.
Chassidishe seforim explain that Moshe Rabbeinu represents “daas.” The bechinah of daas understands that in order to reach Hashem, we must courageously forge ahead through darkness, represented by the fog, and not permit ourselves to be deterred by the enveloping darkness.
Wherever there is kedusha, there is tumah seeking to break through and defile it. The more we build and the larger we grow, the more the forces of tumah attempt to cut us down.
Throughout the ages, inspired people 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 kedusha.
It is as true now as it was then. Like our ancestors throughout the ages, Jews are confronted by darkness and fog. Initially, we get lost and we fumble. We risk becoming cynical, negative, and fearful of the future. We become fearful of change, fearful of what we are facing beyond the fog and darkness.
There is an urge to shirk from the challenge and to fall back in retreat. But it is the Moshes, it is those with daas, who proceed forward into the arofel. They are drawn towards kedusha and 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 its roots in Moshe Rabbeinu’s ascent into darkness.
For all time since then, Jews have sought to recreate that moment, striving to climb the mountain to become closer to Hashem and more dedicated to “na’aseh venishma,” studying Torah and observing its mitzvos.
Climbing the mountain is difficult and brings with it challenges of endurance and strength, spiritual, moral and physical. With proper faith, we surmount the dark days and climb through the rough patches and rocky ridges. With Torah as our oxygen and emunah and bitachon fueling us, we march forward in our quest for the great heights we can attain on Shavuos.
Interestingly enough, this time of year is the height of the climbing season on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. So far, in the past two weeks, more than ten people have died making the trek. Veteran climbers spend years getting in shape, dreaming about making the great climb. It has become so popular that there isn’t enough room on the ninety square foot flat of the summit for the people who have made the climb.
Witnesses report that people push and shove up there to take selfies and do other things to get in each other’s way. Because people are spending a long time there, others who have made the climb have to wait hours in line, one person touching the next, dressed in clothes designed to withstand the extreme cold, along with life-giving oxygen canisters, as they stand on a slippery ridge that has a drop of thousands of feet.
An Arizona doctor, Ed Dohring, who made the climb told the New York Times that “it was like a zoo up there.” People can’t really think straight at that height. They leave much of their gear at a lower spot and climb the last 1,000 feet with what they hope will be enough oxygen to get up and down. However, when the line is long, when people aren’t fit, and when people run out of oxygen, they die.
“The result is a crowded, unruly scene at 29,000 feet. At that altitude, a delay of even an hour or two can mean death,” the doctor said.
The Times adds, “Fatima Deryan, an experienced Lebanese mountaineer, was making her way to the summit recently when less experienced climbers started collapsing in front of her. Temperatures were dropping to -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). Oxygen tanks were running low. And roughly 150 people were packed together, clipped to the same safety line.
“A lot of people were panicking, worrying about themselves — and nobody thinks about those who are collapsing,” Deryan said.
“It is a question of ethics,” she said. “We are all on oxygen. You figure out that if you help, you are going to die.’’
She offered to help some of the sick people, she said, but then calculated that she was beginning to endanger herself and kept going to the summit, which is currently measured at 29,029 feet. On the way back down, she had to fight through the crowds again.
“It was terrible,” she said.”
Around the same time, Rizza Alee, an 18-year-old climber from Kashmir, was making his way up the mountain. He said that he was stunned by how little empathy people had for those who were struggling.
“I saw some people like they had no emotions,” he said. “I asked people for water and no one gave me any. People are really obsessed with the summit. They are ready to kill themselves for the summit.”
The Times writes, “After long, cold days, [Dohring] inched up a spiny trail to the summit and ran into crowds aggressively jostling for pictures. He was so scared, he said, that he plunked down on the snow to keep from losing his balance and had his guide take a picture of him.”
Reaching great heights is strenuous and demanding. Without the middos of Torah, we cannot fathom the peaks we aim for. Especially during these final days before Shavuos, we need to concentrate on learning Torah and following the lessons of Pirkei Avos so that we can properly accept the Torah on the day it was given to us 3,331 years ago on Har Sinai.
Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach wrote in the introduction to his classic work 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 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.”
When Rav Chaim Ozer would greet the young Rav Shach, he would say to him, “Rav Shach, gedenk, remember: lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai…”
The Tchebiner Rov, Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, 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 home 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 baby passed away.
The symbol of rebirth was gone.
Rav Boruch Shimon went to inform his father-in-law, fearing how the news would impact him. 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 responded, “Lulei Sorascha sha’ashu’ai, az ovadeti be’onyi.”
Such has been the reaction of Jews throughout the ages. They followed the example set by Moshe Rabbeinu. Determined to scale the mountain to accept the Torah, he didn’t let the darkness impede him.
Rather than stepping away, he moved forward.
No lofty madreigah, this attitude is intrinsic to our personal kabbolas haTorah each day and 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, who at the beginning of this week’s parsha 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 shaashua, 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 darkness.
The posuk recounts that when Hashem appeared to the Bnei Yisroel and offered them the Torah, they responded in unison, “Na’aseh venishma.” The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (88a) relates that Rav Simai explained that when they said those two words, angels affixed two crowns to 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.
Perhaps we can say that 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 tishmeru. 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 ages. 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 the two words, na’aseh venishma, that carry us. Despite everything we’ve been through, we proclaim it again and again.
At a Torah Umesorah convention, my dear uncle, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin zt”l, shared a similar message. He said that 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 small 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. It is not sufficient to think that we are fulfilling our missions as Torah Jews just because we have not sunk as deeply as society has.
He recalled a time in Yeshivas Telz when an incident provoked the ire of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch. The entire yeshiva gathered in the bais medrash, expecting a severe lecture about the depths to which some had sunk.
But that’s not what happened. The rosh yeshiva, who had built the yeshiva after suffering much tragedy during the Holocaust, entered the room he built with an enduring strength 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 delivered a shmuess about the potential of man to grow, leaving his talmidim with the message of gadlus ha’odom. He made them realize the heights they could 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 that 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.