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"The commandments are finite tools for reaching infinity"

The Significance of the Giving of the Torah–A Message for Shavuot

by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

After the great miracles of the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea and all of the major events that the Jewish people experienced before arriving at Mount Sinai came the Giving of the Torah.

What was the purpose of the sublime revelation itself?

The actual contents of the Ten Commandments – for instance, belief in God, honoring one’s parents, and the prohibition against murder – are the cornerstones of human morality and can be reached through logic.

Moreover, our forefather Abraham is said to have fulfilled all the commandments long before the revelation at Mount Sinai.

What, then, did the Giving of the Torah actually add to the world?

Every Jew has a “Godly spark,” which is the innermost core of his spiritual life. This spark is always there, even when we cannot see beyond the screens that hide it.

And since this spark is the “holy of holies” of the soul, we always aspire to God, whether consciously or unknowingly.

Some people seek a philosophical closeness with God; others are led to it by the events of their lives, by delving into the mysteries of nature, or by examining Jewish history.

Another way of nurturing the desire for closeness with God is by looking into oneself: “From my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:26); it is the understanding that God is the source and essence of not only the entire universe, but also of my own private soul.

However, even when the desire for closeness with God turns into a conscious, clear drive – even when it pushes us to search for God – we are in the dark: As we read in Kedushah, “Where is the place of His glory?”

In the pre-Revelation world, man strove to reach God but remained distant, despite all his efforts.

Generally, the first thing that the God-seeker wants to do is to transcend the limitations of matter and soar to the abstract and the spiritual.

Our material body and the physical world seem to be the greatest obstacles on our path.

Sometimes, one can reach peaks of love for the Divine and totally abandon the world.

But is this really the proper approach?

Furthermore, deeper thinking will reveal that whatever we do, we will never be able to comprehend God.

Whatever we may feel of God’s life-giving light is but a tiny, dim spark; in truth, the Almighty Himself is far beyond anything that even the most sublime human mind can comprehend.

To Him, not only physical matter, but even the highest degree of spirituality, is nothing.

It follows, then, that all human efforts to get closer to God are bound to fail. However high one may ascend, there will always remain an infinite, unbridgeable gap between man and God.

We feel the desire to come closer to God, yet we have no means for fulfilling it.

This is the point of the Giving of the Torah.

We, as humans, are incapable of reaching God; but God – with His infinite loving kindness and goodness – lowers Himself toward us, so to speak, in order to fulfill the purpose of Creation.

The Revelation on Mount Sinai is much more than a set of directives, instructing us what to do and how to behave; it is God’s will, as it is expressed through the Torah and its commandments.

It reveals to us the way to actually unite with God – namely, by fulfilling His commandments.

Indeed, the Hebrew word for “commandments” – mitzvot – comes from the word tzavta, togetherness – being united with God.

By “descending,” so to speak, on Mount Sinai, God “brought down” His unlimited, indefinable essence into the definitions and limitations, fences and constraints of the Torah and the Commandments that He has given to us.

The Torah is the expression of the Divine. It is God’s wisdom and will and is therefore much more than “a Torah from Heaven”: it is Heaven itself.

There is, therefore, a fundamental difference between the outward manifestation of the commandment, as we understand it, and its innermost essence as a way of connecting with God.

“Thou shalt not kill” as a human law, deduced through human reason – while a great achievement of human ethics and morality – does not go beyond the human realm.

On the other hand, “Thou shalt not kill” as revealed on Mount Sinai is a Divine commandment, part of the bond that the transcendent God forms with us.

The commandments, then, are finite tools for reaching infinity.

The Giving of the Torah opened for us the path – the Torah path – to reach God.

The Almighty Himself descended and revealed Himself through the Torah, thus giving us the way, and the possibility, to overcome the obstacles of our human nature in order to come close, and adhere, to God.

“The Significance of the Giving of the Torah – A Message for Shavuot” Syndicated column May 10, 2007