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26 Iyar 5766 - May 24, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Might and Joy in His Place

A Shmuess from the Mashgiach HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, zt'l

In this previously unpublished shmuess, the Mashgiach carefully builds a panoramic exposition of some fundamental lessons. It contains many profound yet practical ideas. A word of advice — it is not casual reading; each section should be read slowly and carefully and digested before continuing.

Part I

The Paradox of Matan Torah

"`Your neck [is comely] with strung pearls' (Shir Hashirim 1:10).

"When they discussed a sequence of divrei Torah, going from divrei Torah to Nevi'im and Kesuvim, fire burned around them and the discussion was as joyous as when the Torah was given at Sinai. Was there not fire when the Torah itself was given from Sinai, as it says (Devorim 4:11), `and the mountain was burning with fire to the heart of the Heavens?' " (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1)

When Chazal threaded together divrei Torah, burning fire appeared around them and their discussion filled them with great joy. Matan Torah is identified as the source of both the joy and the fire. It was a supremely joyous occasion and fire burned all around.

Chazal cite a further manifestation of the joy at matan Torah. "Every utterance went around to each and every member of Yisroel . . ." As soon as the Israelite accepted it, the utterance kissed him on his mouth (para. 2 of Shir Hashirim Rabbah on posuk 1:2, `He will kiss me . . .')."

The pesukim in the Chumash reveal a very different picture however. "And the people saw and they moved and stood far away. And they said to Moshe, `You speak to us and we will listen but let Hashem not speak to us lest we die' "(Shemos 20:15-16). The Mechilta adds that they recoiled, retreating a distance of twelve mil, the entire length of their encampment.

The sights they witnessed at Sinai were so awe-inspiring that "they did not have the strength to remain standing. When they came to Sinai and He was revealed, their souls flew from their bodies when He spoke to them, as it says (Shir Hashirim 5:6), `My soul went out when he spoke' " (Shemos Rabboh 29:4).

Matan Torah was traumatic. The people were frightened to death. Where was the joy when they fled the entire length of the camp? Where were the "kisses of the utterances" when their souls flew from their bodies?

The Paradox of Prophecy

The same paradox is found elsewhere too. The Rambam sets out the halochos governing prophecy, in the seventh chapter of Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah. "The only way any of them see a prophetic vision is either in the form of a dream, a nighttime vision or, during the day, after a deep trance comes over them . . . When they prophesy their limbs tremble, their physical strength collapses and their thoughts are thrown into confusion, as it says about Avrohom, `Lo, dread [and] great darkness fell upon him' (Bereishis 15:12) and Daniel, `And my luster [of face] was ruined; I could not retain my strength' (Daniel 10:8)" (Halochoh 2).

Here the Rambam portrays prophecy as an awesome experience that leaves the prophet drained of strength, limbs shaking and thoughts run amok. Prophetic revelation is so awe- inspiring that it cannot take place when the prophet is awake and alert; it would be too much for him to bear. It can only be revealed in a dream or in a nighttime vision — and even then, he trembles, his strength vanishes and his mind is thrown into turmoil. To encounter prophecy is to experience "dread and great darkness falling . . ."

Yet, on the other hand, in Halochoh 7 the Rambam writes the following. "None of the prophets can prophesy at will. They channel their thoughts and sit [waiting] in joy and with a glad heart, in solitude, for sadness or laziness will not bring on prophecy, only joy." Joy is the sole preparation. "Therefore, before the disciples of the prophets are lyre, timbrel, flute and harp and they seek prophecy . . ."

Once prophecy rests on the prophet, "his soul merges with the level of the angels who are called Ishim, and he becomes a different person. He comprehends that he is no longer as he was but has risen above the level of other wise men" (Halochoh 1). Here we are told about exaltation and sublime levels, joy and gladness of heart.

Apparently, this is the essential nature of encountering Hashem's word. However it is being revealed, whether at matan Torah or as prophecy, it is accompanied by fear and dread on the one hand, and joy and exaltation on the other. Tremendous fear grips the recipient while within, in his innermost self, all is joy and gladness.

Further explanation is needed in order to understand this.

Subduing the Body

The body cannot withstand the revelation of Hashem's Shechinoh! The dread that comes over it causes it literally to collapse. It is the body that experiences the trauma of the revelation of Hashem's word that Chazal describe. The more a person's physicality holds sway over him, the more pronounced the traits of sluggishness and depression are in his personality — and the greater will be the shock to his body of the revelation of Hashem's word.

A prophet must raise himself above his own physicality and banish sadness and laziness completely. Preparation for encountering Hashem's word involves overcoming the "earthbound" element within his character makeup from which these traits arise, for "the Shechinoh does not come to rest where there is sadness or laziness . . ." Sadness is the manifestation of being under the control of physicality. It is imperative that he rise above it.

How to achieve this? The key is joy. Happiness enables a person to break the grip of the "earthbound" element and its attendant traits, allowing the light of the soul to radiate from him and Hashem's word to rest upon him.

"All the prophets . . .sit [waiting] in joy and with a glad heart, in solitude, for sadness or laziness will not bring on prophecy, only joy and gladness at the Creator's closeness." With the body's physicality no longer interfering, man can encounter the Shechinoh! "Therefore, before the disciples of the prophets are lyre, timbrel, flute and harp and they seek prophecy . . ." (Rambam).

Once he has elevated himself and prophecy has come to rest on him, a further, enormous elevation awaits him. "His soul merges with the level of the angels, who are called Ishim" (Rambam). He feels that he has become a different person; he is no longer the person that he was.

The body cannot bear any part of this process, from the preparatory stage to the actual revelation; it must recede completely. No prophet is capable of receiving prophecy with his body awake and senses alert. The demand that receiving Hashem's word makes to rise above oneself is so strong that the body is compelled to collapse; the only options are a dream or nighttime vision, or in a trance by day.

Impossible to Maintain

"Hashem spoke to you face to face from the fire . . ." (Devorim 5:4). At Sinai, Klal Yisroel merited the tremendously high level of receiving prophecy while they were awake and alert. On receiving the Torah they arrived at the level on which Moshe Rabbenu, father of all prophets, lived all the time — "I speak to him mouth to mouth, with clarity, not in riddles" (Bamidbor 12:8). This brought boundless joy and love; each of Hashem's utterances attached itself to each member of Klal Yisroel.

But, standing there fully alert, in a way that no other prophet (besides Moshe) ever received Hashem's word, they felt their bodies giving way and their souls flying out of them — they felt that they were dying. They felt incapable of meeting such a demand — of having everything ascend to a totally spiritual plane, with the body of each and every one of them becoming [purged of the yetzer hora] like that of Odom Horishon before he sinned. This was the source of the fear and dread. This was why they fled and moved far away.

This demand for elevation of both body and soul, while still together, explains the "fire burning on the mountain to the heart of the Heavens . . ." Fire leaps upward. The fire at Sinai was the expression of the elevation and uplifting that every single being in creation, without any exception, underwent. To continue being bound by the body's physicality was now impossible — yet the body was incapable of attaining such heights. The result was that their souls flew out of them.

Coming Too Close

The pesukim at the end of parshas Mishpotim show how far these effects reached. Nodov, Avihu and the elders began ascending the mountain with Moshe and Aharon. "They saw the G-d of Yisroel and beneath His Feet was akin to the sapphire brick and like the essence of the Heavens in purity." They were witness to wondrous revelations of how the Shechinah suffered with each and every Jew during the period of slavery and of the light and the joy that were before Him at their redemption (Shemos 24:10 and Rashi there).

"And He did not harm the nobles of Yisroel; they saw G-d and they ate and drank." They incurred death for gazing upon Hashem with over-familiarity, as though they were eating and drinking — like someone who takes a bite from his bread while speaking to the king. Not wanting to mar the joy of giving of the Torah, Hashem waited until a later time to punish them (posuk 11, Rashi).

These pesukim are not speaking about the ordinary people who were scared and ran away when their souls started leaving them. They are speaking about the nobles — the nation's very greatest men.

What was their shortcoming? They were so happy at hearing Hashem's words that they longed to hear more and to draw closer and closer. Their bodies were of no consequence to them. Let them collapse! Let them expire! All they wanted was to get closer, to see more . . .

For this they incurred death. They got too close, dismissing their bodies entirely. When the body becomes irrelevant, it upsets the delicate balance between joy and fear and there is only joy. This is what Chazal refer to as "over- familiarity." They became too familiar as a result of the tremendous closeness, for which they became liable to die.

Nodov and Avihu died when, "Fire went out from before Hashem and consumed them" (Vayikra 10:2), while the elders were punished when "Hashem's fire burned among them and consumed the upper echelons of the camp" (Bamidbor 11:11). This was the very same fire.

End of Part I

In Part II: Finding the balance between the two.

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