This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta, and my great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
יִתְרוֹ ~ Yisro
“Boundaries and Breaches”
Parshas Yisro features history’s greatest scene of Divine Revelation, the event of Kabbalas HaTorah, the acceptance of the Torah, at Har Sinai [Shemos 20]. Kabbalas HaTorah marks the B’nei Yisrael’s entry into an eternal covenant with Hashem. It is their relationship with and their commitment to Him and His Torah.
But, it didn’t just happen all on its own. The B’nei Yisrael were not completely passive in the experience. They did not merely sit their and receive the Divine Presence. The Torah indicates that they had to actively prepare themselves—sanctify themselves—and actively mold themselves into fitting receptacles for the Divine experience. They had to become active and willing participants in making their observance of the Torah a reality. Thus, the Torah explains that the B’nei Yisrael had to wash their clothes [Shemos 19:10], wait for a three day period [19:11], refrain from marital relations [19:15], etc. Certainly, it was a very holy and delicate matter.
But it was not just the people themselves that had to be prepared. Apparently, for this experience to work, Hashem required certain boundaries, literal boundaries actually. The Torah says that Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu [19:12], “V’Higbalta Es HaAm Saviv Leimor Hishamru Lachem Alos BaHar…”-“And you shall set [for] the nation a boundary around saying: ‘Guard yourselves from ascending the mountain…’” The people were not allowed to go up on Har Sinai, and as such, Rashi tells us that Moshe needed to prepare boundary markers to prevent anyone from going up on the mountain. Why were such boundaries in order? Perhaps it was just a really sensitive matter, as every other preparation so far would suggest.
And yet, it was not just that the B’nei Yisrael could not ascend the mountain, but G-d also specified [Ibid.], “…U’Nego’a B’Katzeihu Kal HaNogei’a BaHar Mos Yumas”-“‘…and [guard yourselves from even] touching its edge, for whoever [even] touches the mountain will surely die.’” And just in case you didn’t think Hashem was serious, He warned again and more specifically [19:13], “Lo Siga Bo Yad Ki Sakol Yisakeil O Yaroh Yiyareh Im Biheimah Im Ish Lo Yichyeh…”-“Not [evet] a hand shall touch it for he shall surely be stoned or he shall be surely cast down, whether an animal or person, he shall not live…”
Certainly, G-d is serious about this boundary thing, but if we may ask such a question, isn’t it a little extreme? Right—it’s apparently a really sensitive matter. There are sacred things happening on this mountain. But death, especially by stoning, seems like a major sentence for someone who puts his hand on a mountain. Moreover, who could blame an animal for touching the mountain? The animals don’t have intellectual ability or any real free choice. Perhaps, as the people had livestock in their possession, they were responsible for their own animals, just like any parent would have to be responsible for his or her own child’s behavior and safety. But even so, we’re not talking about crossing the street without looking both ways or touching a stovetop while the flame is on. Yes, the mountain will soon be engulfed in flames and touching it would be physically dangerous, but that’s not the reason for this boundary. If you cross this boundary, you are sentenced to stoning. That’s not a law of nature, but a seemingly harsh death sentence.
Looking a little further along these preparations for Kabbalas HaTorah, the theme of boundaries is highlighted once more as Hashem warns Moshe that even the Kohanim, the priests, must be sanctified and ready [19:22], “Pen Yifrotz Bahem Hashem,” which literally means, “lest Hashem make a breach against them.” He echoes this threat to the nation as He urges them not to ascend the mountain yet again [19:24], “Pen Yifratz Bam”-“lest Hashem make a breach against them.” What’s strange about this threat, or this sentence, is that its oddly specific terminology. G-d doesn’t say here that they will die, or that they will be given lashes, or even that they will be spiritually cut off. He says that there will be a “Paritzah,” a breach, against them. The reason why this matter is significant here is that the theme of breaching, or making a hole in something, is in exact opposition to theme of setting boundaries. In essence, Hashem is responding to the possibility of people violating His boundaries, as if to say, “If you make a breach in My fence, I will make breach in yours in a big way.”
What is clear is that the concept of boundaries is the key here. Boundaries are important. Even if we have questions concerning the extent and strictness of the boundaries, regardless, as we’ve already begun explaining, when something is important and sacred—and certainly if G-d says it is, then it is—some kind of boundaries are in order to protect the sanctity therein. We might not understand the sanctity of the matter. We might not intrinsically value or care for the sanctity of the matter. But certainly, when there are boundaries, perforce, we will ultimately respect the sanctity of the matter and thereby start to value to sanctity of the matter. And that might be what G-d is intending to do here at the beginning of Kabbalas HaTorah, to create a basis for respecting the sanctity of the Torah and our relationship with G-d. It starts with boundaries. And if that boundary is breached, like the air escapes a pierced balloon, that respect will be instantly gone. The sacred experience is ruined.
Looking back at the boundary in our context, the threat “Do not touch it lest you die” should sound familiar as it is reminiscent of the boundary which Chavah, the wife of Adam HaRishon, made for herself back in Gan Eden, as she paraphrased and actually misquoted G-d [Bereishis 3:3], “U’M’Pri HaEitz Asheir B’soch HaGan Amar Elokim Lo Sochlu Mimenu V’Lo Sig’u Bo Pen Tamusun”-“And from the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, G-d said, ‘Do not each from it, and do not [even] touch it, lest you die.” We know that when G-d actually forbade Adam from eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, He said nothing about touching the tree; “U’MeiEitz HaDa’as Tov VaRa Lo Sochal Mimenu Ki B’Yom Achalcha Mimenu Mos Tamus”-“And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil do not eat from it, for on the day you eat from it, you shall surely die” [Ibid. 2:17].
In this scene, a boundary was definitely present, and certainly for good reasons, but it would prove to be useless, and according to the Midrash, even destructive, as the Serpent ultimately used Chavah’s own boundary to trip her up, by demonstrating to her that since she could touch the tree without suffering, she could eat from it too without worry [Bereishis Rabbah 19:3]. But this obviously happened because, as far as the Midrash is concerned, Chavah apparently mixed up the command of G-d and the human-made boundary. The only acting authority, G-d Himself, did not mandate the boundary. He did not empower any Rabbis or Prophets to set boundaries. Chavah, perhaps “knowing herself,” made her own boundary, unless of course, Adam made this boundary. Either way, this boundary did not stem from the Authority.
But this point of contrast here, between Har Sinai and Gan Eden, is glaring. In Gan Eden, G-d did not forbid touching the Tree of Knowledge for the fear of man’s eating from it. Yet here, G-d adamantly forbade touching the mountain for the fear of the peoples’ ascending it. So the question is why G-d Himself did not set a boundary in Gan Eden, while here at Har Sinai, He did. Who knows? Perhaps, if G-d decreed a death penalty for touching the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, perhaps it might’ve worked! It seems to have worked at Har Sinai; as far as we know, nobody who was unfitting ascended or even touched Har Sinai. As such, it seems as though the boundary, when G-d made one, was actually helpful. So, what’s the basis for the difference?
When it comes down to it, these two experiences, Gan Eden and Har Sinai were created for different reasons. Now, Har Sinai and Gan Eden are certainly similar in that both represent realities of in-your-face, Divine Presence. But there is a major difference between G-d’s command to Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and all of His preparations to the B’nei Yisrael at Har Sinai. In Gan Eden, the perfect world before sin, the real test of mankind was to embrace his power of free will specifically by refraining, on his own, from violating G-d’s Will. G-d said not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, not because He was “afraid of the result,” but, in fact, to gage the result. It was a test. Certainly, G-d knows beforehand what all results in life would be, and although man and his wife ultimately succumbed to sin, they had the tools available to succeed. Contrary to the non-Jewish concept of “Original Sin,” the Torah assumes that sin was not a given. The choice, and thus, the ability to do otherwise, was always there. For G-d’s plan, that was required, namely, free will, this concept that man has the power to do what he pleases. For such a “plan,” G-d would not emplace any boundaries, because, in a perfect world, boundaries are not required. Just don’t sin.
But if this is all true, why would G-d, at Har Sinai, seem to superimpose His Will by emplacing, not just a boundary, but an extremely harsh one? What happened to free choice?
So, when we fast-forward to the post-Gan Eden world, we are looking at a dangerous world that is still empowered with free choice, but has now tasted and developed a leaning, perhaps an addiction, to sin. How does such a world ever hope to succeed? How can anyone in such a world enter into a commitment where one subjects himself to a Higher Will, or any will other than his own for that matter? It is quite difficult, and can hardly happen without boundaries. This is not to say that G-d removed free choice, but quite the opposite. Without boundaries, there would hardly be any free choice, because there would be only one influence, desire itself, which would govern a person’s decisions. Har Sinai was the great and necessary equalizer. Until one is shaped up and channeled properly, he will not use his “free will” to subject himself to what He truly wants to do—to serve G-d. Until one is trembling, absolutely awe-inspired, or sobered into curbing his desires, one’s influence will be skewed. The free choice would actually be hindered.
Thus, G-d did not merely give a Torah or a set of commandments, but He prefaced with a boundary—not just around the mountain, but the entire display at the mountain itself was a part of creating the basis for respecting the sanctity of the Torah, a possibility for the B’nei Yisrael to withhold their natural inclination and fulfill the Torah. It’s for this reason as well, that the Gemara says [Shabbos 88A], that G-d so-to-speak, held Har Sinai over the heads of the B’nei Yisrael! Because without the awe-inspiring display—without the fire, thunder, lightning, the hovering mountain, and the demanding boundaries—there would be no competition, no foil, for the Evil Inclination. There would be no chance for the B’nei Yisrael to lean themselves in the right direction. That’s exactly what is meant when Moshe explains to the B’nei Yisrael, after the declaration of the Aseres HaDibros (Decalogue; ‘Ten Commandments’) [19:17], “Al Tira’u Ki L’Va’avur Nasos Es’chem Ba HaElokim U’Va’avur Tihiyeh Yiraso Al Pineichem L’Vilti Sechetu”-“Do not fear for it is in order to exalt [test] you that G-d came, and in order that His awe be on your faces so that you do not sin.” In other words, not to superimpose His Will, but to give His Will a free, fighting chance, G-d needed to set certain boundaries to make a point to the B’nei Yisrael. That was a prerequisite for Kabbalas HaTorah!
It may be for his reason as well that G-d’s boundaries were set for the animals as well. We argued that targeting the animals couldn’t be “fair” because they do not have free choice. Yet, they’re paired with humans in this ban against ascending or even touching the mountain. The answer is, though, that indeed, no less than the animals who have no other choice but to follow their natural instincts, a world and certainly a young nation who have tasted sin would need to directed, curbed in a sense in order to be set straight. The inclusion of animals in the ban is an indicator that the B’nei Yisrael needed a boundary to channel and essentially enable their free choice. Because without that boundary, or should the boundary be breached, all awe and self-control would be lost and all sin would break lose.
Considering all of the above, we have to be aware the existence of these same challenges that exist in all generations. We like to think that we “know ourselves” and that we have the self-control to handle ourselves against the Evil Inclination. Yet, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us “Do not [merely] believe in yourself until the day you die” [Avos 2:4]. In that same vein, the very first Mishnah in Pirkei Avos writes [Ibid. 1:1], “Asu S’yag LaTorah”-“Make a fence for the Torah.” Chazzal are authorized to make boundaries for us. Even the Torah itself includes various commandments which, themselves, are boundaries, for other commandments! But if we’re brazen enough to scoff and shrug off those commandments and enactments and make a breach in the fence, the awe is lost and sin free to run wild. We will be forgoing our free choice to the forces of desire. We will have already lost before the fight had even begun. We will have missed the point of our standing at Har Sinai for Kabbalas HaTorah.
May we all be Zocheh to truly accept the Torah, be awe-inspired, respect the boundaries, uphold the Will of Hashem, and Hashem should not only enter us into His covenant, but into the days of the Geulah with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂