By Yochanan Gordon
One of the interesting features of the event of Mattan Torah, which we read about in last week’s parashah, was the description of the nation seeing the sounds and hearing the sights. I have heard an attempt to suggest that they had experienced some form of synesthesia where a person’s senses become interconnected, but I am not fond of attempts to explain the miracles of the Torah naturally. People, over time, have sought to explain krias yam suf naturally due to a seeming discomfort and insecurity with chalking it up to an open miracle of G-d, but that is a study for another time.
The event of the giving of the Torah achieved peace throughout all of creation. Our sages teach that sounds did not collide, thus there was no echo by the giving of the Torah; all of creation was completely at one and inter-included within each other. And so, in a world where there is no hierarchy or compartmentalization, there is no such designation as seeing or hearing, touching or tasting. All the senses are enmeshed within each other, transcending identification or definition. Our sages teach us that Torah is a path of sweetness that brings peace among those who study it and the world that it encounters and so it follows then that the giving of the Torah be the one time when the world was fully at peace.
One of the noticeable changes in Israel since the events of October 7 is the unity that has ensued, which everyone is awed by and is still talking about. My wife and I landed in Israel for the first time in 16 years a day after sending 4 of our 6 kids off to sleepaway camp. My in-laws stayed at our Cedarhurst home, watching our two youngest, while we jetted off to the airport and ultimately, ten hours later, into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Thankfully, my parents set us up with an express airport service who expedited the airport and luggage pickup process, and we were on our way to Jerusalem in no time. This was significant because as we made our way out of the airport and into the car, the anti-Netanyahu mob started assembling and would ultimately cause hours-long traffic delays. People who had been only slightly more delayed than us in getting out of the airport were stuck for hours, unable to navigate through the protests that were happening at Ben Gurion airport.
Israel was then as close to a civil war as it had ever been and many at the time were wary of the vulnerability to such a high-scale attack. Others pointed, retrospectively, at the discord as a reason both politically and spiritually precipitating such a cataclysmic attack that we as a nation experienced on October 7 and continue to reel from all these months later. Because of this and in light of the great unity and spiritual awakening that global antisemitism has been inspiring, I wanted to use the allotted space to talk about the nature of peace and to expound upon the symbolism of the Jewish people seeing the sounds at the giving of the Torah and how that manifests itself nationally as well as in Torah.
There are varying degrees of peace. Opposing people and nations can sign a treaty that exposes their oppositional positions but at the same time reveals their mutual commitment towards cooperating with each other. Then there is a higher level of peace where the ideas that initially wedged themselves in between the warring parties completely fell away, allowing these people or nations to coexist harmoniously.
To be sure, the notion of peace isn’t just an ideal that we strive to achieve between people. The very fact that the world achieved peace at the giving of the Torah expresses that discord manifests itself in every realm of creation. The Torah too suffers from hierarchy and compartmentalization and idealistically seeks the coming of Moshiach wherein it will become truly one. As the world is today there are four parts of Torah: pshat, remez, derush, and sod; in English they are the straightforward interpretation of Torah, the allegorical understanding, exegetical, and the mystical. These four levels within the Torah mirror the four elements in the creation of the world: fire, wind, water, and dust, which correspond to the four levels of creation: inanimate, vegetative, animal, and human; the letters of G-d’s name: Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei; as well as the basic four levels of the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshamah, and chayah. There is clearly a hierarchical nature to these four stages in every realm, from the most physical to the most spiritual.
However, there are really five levels to creation. Beyond the human is the Jew, as Reb Yisrael Salanter was quoted saying. Beyond the chayah, the fourth level of the soul is the yechidah. Beyond the mystical interpretation of Torah is that of Chassidus, the founder of which was Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov.
The uniqueness of the path of the Baal Shem Tov was that he had an uncanny love for the simple folk, which was a foundation of becoming a member of the Chassidic movement. Notwithstanding that, however, the core group of the Baal Shem Tov’s students were comprised of 60 disciples, compared to the 60 warriors who surrounded the bedside of King Solomon who were each unique in their mastery of the length and breadth of the Torah in all of its facets. The Baal Shem Tov’s main disciple was Rav Dov Ber Friedman, known as the Maggid of Mezeritsch, who prior to coming under the tutelage of the Baal Shem Tov was a student of the Pnei Yehoshua.
In their initial encounter, which was repeatedly delayed for a number of reasons, it was almost a touch-and-go, underwhelming experience for the Maggid. He said that the Baal Shem Tov taught everything through parables, characterizing even the most ethereal ideas in the most rudimentary and basic stories. The Maggid had left the Besht’s presence for his lodgings to collect his bags and return to where he had come from. The Baal Shem Tov sent a messenger to bring him back whereupon he asked the Maggid if he had learned the sefer Etz Chaim, which were the teachings of the Arizal as recorded by his main student Rebbi Chaim Vital, to which he responded that he was indeed proficient in all of the Arizal’s teachings.
The Besht went on to ask him questions from all over the Kabbalistic tome and then looked at him sternly and declared, “Indeed you have learned it, but without a soul.” The Maggid then testified that the room filled with a great light, he immediately lost consciousness, and was revived a while later whereupon the Baal Shem Tov asked him to remain to learn with a soul, which he ended up doing.
The Alter Rebbe, the first Rebbe of Chabad, who was a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, records an autobiographical detail within his own life of the time he was unsure whether to go to Vilna or to go to Mezeritch. He quipped, “In Vilna they teach one how to learn and in Mezeritch they teach one to daven. I know how to learn already.” He decided to travel to Mezeritch.
I was always struck by this anecdote of the Alter Rebbe’s life. In general, this distinction between learning and davening is something that I believe many people are not too cognizant of. Even in the Shulchan Aruch it is clear that there was a beis hakenesses and a beis hamidrash where learning and davening were done respectively. This itself should lead us onto the fact that there is a spiritual distinction between learning and davening as well. For one thing, davening is us talking to G-d while learning is G-d communicating with us. The earliest instance where the roles of learning and davening were crossed is when Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai resolved a drought by getting rain to fall because of Torah. He said, “Hinei mah tov umah na’im sheves achim gam yachad.” What’s interesting is that not only did he cross Torah and tefillah but the Torah that he said was on a verse in Psalms that is historically recited as prayer rather than Torah study.
This is unique because Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai was the author of the Zohar, which is the main mystical text. However, in a sense you can say that it is the threshold between Kabbalah and Chassidus, which in its being the fifth level or the quintessence unites the other four hierarchical realms into one unified whole. In light of this, when Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi resolved to go to Mezeritch to learn how to daven since he already knew how to learn, what I believe he meant was that he was going to Mezeritch to learn how to manifest his learning in the form of davening, which is an idea that is emphasized in the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and his main student Rebbe Nosson Sternhartz.
The revealed Torah, Torah Shebaal Peh, is full of questions and answers, initial suppositions and then conclusions, proofs, and rebuttals, all for the purpose of arriving at the truth of the matter. However, the arduous process of having to contend with the darkness in order to discover the light led King David in Psalms to characterize the entire Babylonian Talmud with the verse, “You returned me in darkness, like the eternally dead.” By contrast the Jerusalem Talmud and the works of Chassidus and Kabbalah are all about the light of G-d. Even the darkness that it describes at times is darkness that is a higher unappreciable level of light that manifests itself as darkness.
However, at its quintessence, the designations of darkness and light fall away. There are no longer questions and answers or initial statements and conclusory restatements. Consider the following story with Rav Pinchas Hirschprung, the late chief rabbi of Montreal and student of Rav Meir Shapiro of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, about his first meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe to highlight this point.
Rabbi Hirschprung was by all accounts from the greatest geniuses of the previous generation. And as geniuses are apt to do, he traveled around to test the genius of many of the other proclaimed geniuses of the generation. He had visited Italy and stayed by one of the shluchim there prior to a half-hour scheduled meeting, only to talk Torah the following week with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He mentioned the scheduled yechidus with the shliach, who it seemed was overwhelmed by the workload that he and his family had to endure and he begged Rav Hirschprung to mention his name and ask if he can come back to reside in NY and leave his shlichus. Rav Hirschprung mentioned that he officially had a Torah only meeting with the Rebbe but if he saw an opportunity then he would certainly mention it. Rav Hirschprung was bothered by a question in a Yerushalmi that he had presented to many of the gedolim that remain unresolved. His objective was to present the question to the Rebbe. He noticed though that as he was laying out the question the Rebbe was listening with half an ear. He then presented the question and the Rebbe pointed out that his question was based on a misreading of the Yerushalmi. He then proceeded to read it alternately and to demonstrate that there was no longer a question. He then mentioned the plight of the shliach in Italy and then the Rebbe became extremely focused and serious. He said that the shliach had been sent by the Friediker Rebbe and that he could not undo it; but he showered him with blessings of strength and Divine assistance to be able to carry on with his holy work and then the meeting ended.
There is one level wherein there are questions and resolutions to those questions. There is a higher level though wherein we realize that there are no questions, darkness, or ambivalence, only light. In Torah Shebaal Peh it says “Ta shema,” come and listen. In Zohar, the Kabbalistic text, it states “Ta chazi” come and see. When a person sees, they see the big picture. When we hear, we hear details first and only based on which we can piece together the full picture.
Davening is about sound whereas Torah is about vision. Uniting sounds and sights by the giving of the Torah is uniting Torah and tefillah, the mystical part of Torah together with Chassidus, which is essentially adding the fifth part that unifies the first four.
Rav Itche Meir Morgenstern in his sefer of shiurim on Chayei Moharan has a piece where he writes that the way to conquer Eretz Yisrael is through unifying Chassidus with Kabbalah. That is essentially uniting Torah and tefillah and one Jew with another Jew based on the fact that they are Jewish and nothing else. That is what the Baal Shem Tov sought to build his movement based on.
Fears have been sparked with all the talk of premature hostage release deals and a temporary end to the war. The other day Netanyahu sought to quash the fears, reassuring the world that Israel remains committed to absolute victory, which includes obliterating Hamas and bringing all the hostages home. That term “absolute victory” set off a light in my mind. To me absolute victory is unifying the sights and the sounds to the point where there are no sights nor sounds—just complete oneness in Israel and across the world, which we pray for with the coming of Moshiach. n
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.