In preparation and anticipation of the giving of the Torah, the following is an excerpt from HaRav Meir Tzvi Bergman's classic work, Sha'arei Orah explaining how Torah must be transmitted. This was originally published in 5760 (2000), but the content is universal and classic. He explains that Torah transmission is not just knowledge, but experiential. This is something that is important to us every day.
Transmitting the Mesorah
In Parshas Bo it is written: G-d said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I may demonstrate these miraculous signs in his midst, and so that you may relate in the ears of your children and grandchildren how I made a mockery of Egypt, and how I placed My signs among them" that you may know that I am G-d." (Shemos 10:2)
Ba"al Haturim explains that the mitzvah of relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt applies in particular to one"s "children and grandchildren," as opposed to later generations. And the reason for this, the Ba"al Haturim goes on to explain, is because this [i.e., two generations] is the extent of fatherly love.
Ba"al Haturim's comment is difficult to fathom. We first encounter this concept of two generations being "the extent of fatherly love" in Midrash Rabbah, in connection with the verse, "Now swear to me by G-d that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my grandson . . . " (Bereishis 2:12 and Rashi) Here Avimelech and Fichol his general sought to make a pact with Avrohom stipulating that neither side would deal treacherously with the other.
Commenting on the fact that Avimelech did not demand that the pact be extended beyond his grandchildren, Chazal say, "Because this [i.e. two generations] is the extent of fatherly love." Within this context, the idea is perfectly clear.
But why does Ba"al Haturim cite it in relation to this verse in Parshas Bo? What could fatherly love possibly have to do with the mitzvah of relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt to one's descendants?
To reach an understanding we must elaborate upon two verses in Parshas Voeschanon : "Only take heed and greatly beware for your soul, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes saw and that you do not remove them from your heart all the days of your life. Teach your children and grandchildren about the day you stood before the L-rd your G-d at Horeb." (Devorim 4:9"10). The day you stood before the Lord your G-d at Horeb — "when you saw the thunder and the flames. (Rashi on Shemos 20:15)
Not only must we remember the actual laws of the Torah and teach them to our children, we must also remember — and what is more, transmit — to our children the actual sensation of standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah amidst the sounds of the shofar, thunder, and flames. Indeed, the Torah continues in the very next verse, "You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire to the heart of heaven, darkness, cloud, and mist" (Devorim 4:11) — further corroboration of this thesis that we are obligated to convey to our children the full intensity of our experiences in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, in all its vivid imagery.
The underlying concept of all this is the very essence of mesorah. As is well known, the author of Sefer Hachinuch writes in his introduction that the tradition handed down from father to son through the generations comprises the foundation of our belief in Hashem and in the giving of the Torah.
At first glance, it would seem that not everyone agrees with the Sefer Hachinuch on this score. We find, for instance, many great Torah scholars throughout the generations, Rishonim and Acharonim alike, who take a different approach: instead of merely citing the tradition that has been handed down to us by our forefathers, they go to great lengths to demonstrate the reality of G-d"s existence by means of concepts and proofs.
Indeed, the Torah itself seems to acknowledge the validity of this approach, as it is written, "Know this day and ponder it in your heart: G-d is the Lord in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other." (Ibid., 4:39) Rambam and Chovos Halevovos even go so far as to view striving for and attaining an intellectual appreciation and understanding of the reality of G-d's existence as a Torah-ordained positive commandment.
Some suggest that there is no difference of opinion here, and that both approaches — that of Sefer Hachinuch and that of the Rishonim — are valid. It all depends on whom we are talking about. Exceptionally wise individuals, who are capable of independently devising logical proofs of Hashem's existence, are enjoined to do so and they may dispense with the oral tradition of our forefathers. Such tradition, they maintain, is necessary only for individuals with limitations who are incapable of delving into philosophical queries.
In truth, however, they are mistaken. Though Rambam and Chovos Halevovos consider it a mitzvah to logically prove G-d's existence and the Divine nature of the Torah (as mandated by the verse cited above, "Know this day and ponder it in your heart: G-d is the L-rd . . . ") that is only one aspect of the entire picture.
In addition, we must fall back on the tradition that has been handed down to us by our forefathers. For besides knowing, we are also enjoined to "ponder it in your heart" — to perceive the concept on the experiential level. And the only way to fulfill this aspect of the command is by internalizing the generational wisdom which has been handed down from father to son.
Emotions and feelings are not aroused by intellectual analysis, but rather emerge from the beliefs which we absorbed from our parents in our youth. A parent who instills in his children at a young age the belief that G-d exists and that the origin of the Torah is Divine, ensures that they will also feel these concepts in their hearts as adults.
The vital role that tangible, experiential knowledge plays in the life of a Jew was clearly evident during the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Hashem did not deem it sufficient to speak to the Jewish people; in order to heighten the effect and cause the Jewish people to feel the event, He created a surrealistic atmosphere consisting of "darkness, cloud, and mist," (Devorim 4:11) as well as "thunder and lightning . . . and the very powerful sound of a horn." (Shemos 19:16)
Man is a corporeal being and hence, intellectual comprehension alone is not sufficient. If a message is to remain eternally engraved upon his being, man must have tangible experiential exposure to that concept. Indeed, we see that even the words which Hashem spoke to Israel contained such an aspect: as the Sages note, the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies from the shock of seeing and hearing G-d's voice. (Shabbos 88b)
It is this type of experiential awareness that we must transmit to our children. This is the true intent of the verse, "That you teach your children and grandchildren about the day you stood before the Lord your G-d at Horeb." The Torah is essentially saying to us: "Instill and transmit your experience to your children and grandchildren, for only in this manner will they be able to internalize its lessons on the existential level." Feelings cannot be communicated to others solely through intellectual analysis and understanding. Therefore, the only viable method is through imparting to them the oral tradition which our forefathers have bequeathed to us throughout the generations.
I have found a strong proof for this concept. The Mishnah states:
The people would prostrate themselves in the Holy Temple on thirteen occasions. [However,] the descendants of R. Gamliel and R. Chananya, the deputy of the priests, would prostrate themselves fourteen times. Where did they perform this additional prostration? Opposite the room where the wood was stored, for they had a tradition from their forefathers that the Holy Ark was concealed there. (Shekolim 6:1)
The people who did not prostrate themselves opposite the room where the wood was stored were of the opinion that the Holy Ark had been seized and taken to Babylon. (Tosafos Yom Tov)
The Talmud, however, relates an incident in which a priest who was inspecting the wood for worms noticed a particular floor tile that looked slightly different from the rest. He went to tell his friend, but was struck dead from Above before he could reveal the tile's exact location. From that time on, everyone knew without a shadow of a doubt that the Holy Ark was indeed concealed under the floor of that storage room. (Yoma 54a) Indeed, the Talmud cites this incident as proof that the Holy Ark was concealed there.
A question arises: As explained earlier, the difference of opinion between the descendants of R. Gamliel and R. Chananya, and the other Kohanim lay in the question of whether or not the Holy Ark had been seized and taken to Babylon. If so, why didn't they start following the example of R. Gamliel and R. Chananya's descendants and prostrate themselves in the direction of the storage room after such conclusive proof of the Ark's presence there?
The answer would seem to be that merely knowing that the Holy Ark was concealed in the storage room was not sufficient reason for a person to prostrate himself in that direction — one also had to feel the holiness of that room. The only people who sensed this feeling were the descendants of R. Gamliel and R. Chananya for they had a direct tradition from their forefathers. The others, who merely knew that this place was holy from the incident cited above, but who did not feel the holiness of the room, could not prostrate themselves in its direction.
On the night of Passover, the Torah demands that we do more than transmit to our children an account of the Exodus as though it were merely a story; we must also convey to them the feelings that we felt in our hearts. It is for this reason that the Torah commands us to eat various types of food which symbolize the Jewish people's condition in Egypt, and also to recline during the meal, and to feel and act as though we ourselves are in the process of coming out of Egypt. Only in this manner can one convey to one's children these feelings which have been handed down from father to son ever since.
The story of Gid'on (in sefer Shofetim) provides us with an inkling of how this works in practice.
"The angel of Hashem came and sat under the terebinth that is in Ofrah, belonging to Yo'ash the Aviezri, while his son Gid'on was threshing wheat in the wine press to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of Hashem appeared to him and said, `Hashem be with you, mighty hero!' Gid'on said to him, `Your pardon, sir, but is Hashem with us? Why, then, has all this come upon us? Where are all His wonders that our fathers have told us of, saying, "Did Hashem not bring us up out of Egypt?" But now Hashem has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.' Then Hashem turned to him and said, `Go with this strength of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; for I have sent you.' " (Shofetim 6:11-13)
Rashi explains the source of his dissatisfaction and the nature of his "strength":
"That our fathers have told us of" — it was Pesach and Gid'on said to the angel, "Last night Abba read me the Hallel, and I heard him saying, `When Israel went forth from Egypt.' (Tehillim 114:1) But now Hashem has forsaken us! If our fathers were tzaddikim, let Him act for us for their merit; and if they were wicked men, as He did wonders for them out of sheer love, so let Him do for us."
Then Hashem — Himself, as it were — turned to him.
"With this strength of yours" — with the strength of this meritorious deed, that you spoke in defense of My children. This is how R. Tanchuma explains this passage.
What an amazing thing to say! Had Gid'on never in his life said Hallel? Had he never heard anyone saying the verse, "When Israel went forth from Egypt"? Had he never opened a Chumash and seen written there that Hashem took the Children of Israel out of Egypt?
The answer is that a human being is capable of reading about something and knowing all about it, without ever perceiving it as something real. Hearing or seeing something does not necessarily make a person take what he hears or sees to heart; he is always capable of letting knowledge "go in one ear and out the other." Only when he wakes up and pays real attention to what is being said — when he realizes that it is being said to him — only then does he take the knowledge to heart and feel it as something real, concrete.
This is part of the Torah's intent in couching a melamed's instruction of his students in terms of "teaching [these words] diligently to your children." (Devorim 6:7) Rashi, too, (Ad loc.) stresses that students must always be like one's own children. For when children sit and listen to their father teaching Torah, though the father may be speaking only generally, not directing his talk at any one of them in particular, still each of them, as he listens, feels that he alone is being addressed. It is an entirely different experience from attending a lecture and the effects, too, are quite different. Since the child feels that the words are directed towards him alone, they are real for him and he takes them to heart.
This is what happened to Gid'on that seder night. "Last night was Pesach," he told the angel, "and Abba read me the Hallel. And when I heard him saying, `When Israel went forth from Egypt,' I felt it as a reality, and for the first time I realized its implications. So now I want to argue with the Creator on behalf of the Jewish people."
And this is what Baal Haturim intended when he wrote that the Torah's commandment to "relate in the ears of your children and grandchildren" applies only to one's children and grandchildren, but not to later generations, "because this [i.e. two generations] is the extent of fatherly love."
Dry facts can be transmitted to anyone, but to convey one's emotions on an experiential level to another person is a much greater challenge. This goal can be accomplished only in the context of a loving and nurturing relationship between bestower and recipient such as that which exists between a father and his children and grandchildren. Hence, because two generations is "the extent of fatherly love," it is also the extent of the obligation to transmit our forefather's tradition to our offspring.
HaRav Meir Tzvi Bergman is the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas HoRashbi in Bnei Brak.