A Hasidic Matan Torah
Traditional Judaism views matan Torah (giving of the Torah) as the fateful event that endowed us and the Torah with a divine status. But even when taking the Sinai account at face value, the weighty concept of revelation is fraught with difficulties. How exactly does an infinite God communicate with finite humans? What does the experience of revelation entail? How did we know it was God speaking to us? And if revelation can’t be compared to any of our own experiences, how can we evaluate it and embrace it?
These are questions, which have been asked and addressed by quite a number of Jewish theologians, but I have a special affinity to the Hasidic approach to the account of revelation. Not the contemporary, rigid Hasidism in which I was brought up, but the romantic teachings that formed the basis of this movement, which can now be found scattered in the writings of its founders. I feel that the Hasidic concept of revelation is both elegant and profound, which makes it meaningful for all of us, regardless of whether our belief in the Sinaitic revelation sees the event as a historical occurrence or as a mythic expression of our experience of the divine in Torah.
Conceptions of God in Kabbalah and Hasidism
To comprehend the dynamics of revelation in Hasidic thought, a brief explication of Hasidic theology, itself firmly rooted in the foundations of kabbalah, is required. In contradistinction to the modern, philosophical God, of whom, in the tradition of Maimonides, nothing can be said in the affirmative, the kabbalistic God is an animate, dynamic substance or being.
According to kabbalistic doctrine, the entire universe and all its inhabitants are manifestations of God, of which we are the most important players, the pinnacle of creation. God’s true essence, which is infinite, unlike the universe as we see it, is concealed from us because it has been through so many stages from the moment it began its metamorphosis until it reached its current form. Thus, the universe is God clothed in earthly garments.
Before Hasidism came around, kabbalists mostly focused on the nature of the divine, inventing elaborate descriptions of its intricate system. Their focus was maintaining the heavenly hierarchy and keep the divine energy flowing through its countless channels. This all changed with the appearance of the charismatic Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760) in the Ukraine, who is considered the founder of Hasidism.
The Ba’al Shem Tov took the kabbalistic notion of divine revelation to its logical extreme, proclaiming that God is inherent in all existence. More importantly, he declared that God’s essence can easily be discovered: All we need to do is to uncover the divine from the numerous “garments” which obstruct it from view. Put differently, God need not reveal Godself, because God is always there. We need only open our eyes and watch God being revealed in all God’s glory.
Thus, it is not God who changes during revelation, it is we who change. We consummate the revelation that began with creation and culminated with matan Torah. Humans are bestowed with the unique gift of being able to pierce through the superficial layers of finite nature and expose the infinite divine.
Hasidic doctrine maintains that we ought to find traces of the divine in every piece of matter. What modern science calls laws of nature, Hasidism calls “divine animation”—that is what keeps the stars shining and the trees growing. But how do we detect the innermost divinity? The answer is: wherever we see such positive traits as life, generosity, beauty, wisdom etc., we discern that God is hiding there. And since such traits can be found virtually everywhere, it follows that God is present everywhere.
Our only task is to overcome our tendency to become apathetic to the marvels of nature and the magic of life, which inhibit us from seeing the divine. In order to see divinity we have to appreciate our ability to exist, to understand, to create art, to be amazed, to be alive.
Love of One’s Fellow as a Prerequisite for Receiving Revelation
A central part of Hasidism is to live in harmony and to be committed to each other’s physical and spiritual wellbeing, even for people we have never met. Although we are physically separate and may not share the same family or community, as humans we do share a spiritual commonality. We share hopes and desires, values and emotions, an appreciation for aesthetics and intellectual capabilities. Or, as translated in Hasidic vernacular: our divine life springs from the same inexhaustible fountain. To acknowledge this is to live a life imbued with deeper meaning, and hence, a life permeated with divinity.
Generosity and kindheartedness is preliminary to attain revelation. If people consider themselves separate entities, severed from the rest of humanity, it means that they do not value themselves for their divine nature but only for their physical bodies. Such people are stripped of their ability to attain revelation, because revelation starts in one’s own mind. That’s why the preparations to matan Torah began with unity of the entire nation, without strife– “as one person, with one heart.”
Hasidic philosophy made the divine immanent and accessible to all. Unlike the earlier generations of kabbalists, who insisted on the study of abstruse mystical texts and on leading an ascetic life in order to attain a close relationship with the divine, Hasidic thinkers espouse that the physical body and our mundane lives can equally be pervaded with divinity; we only need to transform our mentalities and our attitude towards the world. With the right mindset, even the indulgence of bodily functions can be used as a medium to get closer to the divine, because the body, as a living thing, is also an expression of divine immanence.
Revelation as a State of Being
Hasidism essentially renders revelation a subjective, personal, and active experience. While traditional Judaism attempts to place God and the Torah outside of the human realm, Hasidism attempts to place God and the Torah into our hearts and souls. If we want to see the divine, we have to dig into the innermost recesses of our souls and wash away the dirt, such as selfishness, conceit, and deception, all of which stall the divine rays, such as honesty, integrity, and kindness from shining forth.
For Hasidim, revelation ceases to be merely a belief in something that once occurred; instead, it becomes an activity, a state of being. Love, unity, and happiness are faith; hatred, pessimism and indifference are heresy. The Talmud teaches us that arrogance is akin to heresy. In fact, Hasidism tells us that arrogance IS heresy, because arrogance entails an illusory separation from God. A haughty person may be committed to all Jewish beliefs and commandments, and yet he or she is as far from God as can be. No amount of dogma can help arrogant people until they change their attitudes.
A central part of Hasidism is devekut. This is akin to what William James calls “experiences of the divine presence,” and what contemporary psychologists would call “a state of flow.” This state can be induced by prayer, meditation, study, or just by focusing on one of the positive forces that runs through our daily lives, even the most trivial and insignificant one. Upon reaching such a moment of transcendence, a person overflows with emotion. He or she stands in rapture and awe of the all-pervasive unity, goodness, and beauty that is inherent in the universe. This is the essence of true revelation, in which one goes beyond his or her physical limitations to grasp the inner divinity of all being. It is with this experience that Hasidic teachers came to understand the revelation of matan Torah.
Matan Torah in Hasidic Literature
The action of receiving revelation has to be initiated by its subject. That’s why the revelation of matan Torah began with kolot—a wakeup call. In Hasidic thought, this refers to the sudden, inner awakening after our deep slumber as slaves in Egypt, the yearning of our divine spark to return to its source. The lightning, which was the splendor of God that shined through our physical shells and ignited the fire inside our souls, came as a result of our initiative. The dim spark erupted into blazing flames, our hearts burning with an insatiable urge for unity with the sublime godliness.
R. Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (1823-1900) makes this point succinctly:
בהתחלת התגלות, קודם מתן תורה, נאמר ויהי קולות, היינו ראשית הרעש בלב האדם להתדבק בו יתברך, ואחר זה באו הברקים, היינו שזכו להבהקת התגלות אורו יתברך. (פרי צדיק לשבועות אות ט”ז)
In the beginning of the revelation, before matan Torah, it says: “And there were sounds.” That is the beginning of the uproar in a person’s heart to become attached to God, blessed is He. Then came the lightning, which means that they experienced the gleam of God’s light (Pri Tzadik, Shavuot 16.)
Instead of our being passive observers of the divine revealed, we were, and continue to be, active participants in the act of revelation. This way, Hasidic theology solves the problem posed at the beginning of this essay: how did we know it was God’s voice? The answer: since we comprise a part of the divine, we simply recognized our own, inner godly voice from within the clouds.
As the Sfas Emes (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) puts it:
וכל העם רואים את הקולות, פירש מו”ז ז”ל כעין דאיתא בגמרא דאיכא טביעות עינא דקלא. פירוש הדברים שהכירו והבינו שהם דברי אלהים חיים. כי נפשות בני ישראל הם חלק אלוה ממעל, וכשנתלבשו בכח הטבע נכבה כח האלהות, וכשעמדו על הר סיני ושמעו הדברות הרגישו בנפשותם התקשרות (שפת אמת, שבועות, תרס”א).הנפשות אל הבורא
‘And the entire nation has seen the voices.’ My grandfather [the Chidushai HaRim] interpreted it as the recognition of the voice. The explanation is that that they recognized and understood that it was the voice of the living God, because Jewish souls comprise a part of the divine. When they were dressed in the garments of nature the divine power was extinguished, but when they stood on Mount Sinai and heard the commandments they felt that their own souls were connecting to their Creator (Sfas Emes, Shavuot 5661).
God Is Under Our Noses
Some Hasidic masters take it a step further, amplifying the human role in matan Torah. For example, R. Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshicz (1760-1827) quotes his teacher, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (1745-1815), to the effect that God only pronounced the first aleph of anochi. He then explains that the letter aleph represents the name of God, Yahweh, because the א is written as a combination of two yods and one vav, which is the numeral equivalent of י-הוה. The human face also represents the same numeral equivalent: the two eyes stand for the two yods, and the nose stands for the vav. This indicates that humans are a reflection of the divine. During matan Torah, God only uttered the letter aleph. As if to say, “you want to see me? Here I am, literally right under your nose.”
This, the Zera Kodesh claims, threw the Israelites into such a phenomenal ecstasy, that they suddenly realized that God is their own essence and the life of all being. They found themselves engulfed by the dazzling radiance of the divine, and they broke out in a choir, their voices united in a heavenly symphony with the entirety of creation to exclaim their inner divinity:
לכן נראה לי שזה היה עיקר מתן תורה הקדושה, שנתעורר חלק אלקותו בכל העולם: אצילות, בריאה, יצירה, עשיה. ובכל נברא: דומם, צומח, חי, מדבר. ובכל היסודות: אש, רוח, מים, עפר. וכולם הרגישו ונתחזק אצלם הכח הק’, החלק אשר האציל מכבודו ית’, על דרך: בדבר ה’ שמים נעשו וברוח פיו כל צבאם. ויצא החלק הקדוש הזה מהעלם אל הגילוי, ובפרט עם קדושו אנו, כאשר זכינו לגילוי אלקותו ית’ שטמיר ונעלם, ונתגלה עלינו בנועם צוף ידיד, אמרו אנכי ה’ אלקיך, שנתעוררו נשמות ישראל ונתעורר קדושתם, וצווחו מתוך גרונם אנכי ה’ אלקיך, שהחלק נמשך אחר שורשו…
It seems to me that this was the main element of matan Torah, that the divine part was awakened in the entire universe… and in every creature: in matter, in flora, in animals, and in humans, as well as in all foundations of the universe: in fire, in wind, in water, and in the ground. All things felt this and it strengthened the divine part in them—the part that God caused to emanate from His glory… The souls of Israel awakened and their inner holiness awakened, and they yelled at the top of their lungs: ‘I am the LORD, your God!’ For the [divine] part extends out from its source…
ומכל ארבע רוחות שמעו זה הקול, שכל העולם תלוי בחיותו, וכולם צעקו אנכי ה’ אלקיך, וז”ש והקול יוצא אנכי, שיוצא מעצמיות חלק אלקי מכל בריה שבעולם (שם עמוד מ”א).
And from all four corners of the world they heard this same voice, for the entire universe is dependent on the living God. And all screamed: “I am the Lord your God!” (Zera Kodesh, Shavuot, p. 41).
A similar approach was taken by R. Avraham Dov Auerbach of Avritch (1765-1840) to explain how God’s face was revealed to us during matan Torah:
הנה עיקר התורה הוא שתהיה בבחינת פנים אל פנים כמו שהיתה בשעה שנתנה על הר סיני בבחינת פנים אל פנים, כמאמר הכתוב פנים בפנים דיבר ה’ עמכם. ופי’ רש”י ז”ל דיבור אנכי ולא יהיה לך מלא את כל העולם, דלא הוי אתר דלא מלל עמהון. ופירוש לפירושם, היינו שהיו אז ישראל בהזדככות כל כך, עד שלא היה מקום שלא ראו שם אלהות, ובכל מקום שהסתכלו בכל נברא בעין שכלם בשורשו, מאין חיותו ומקורו, והבינו שכל חיותם הוא הבורא ברוך הוא, והוא מחיה ומהוה אותם בכל רגע ורגע, והבינו באמת שתמיד עומדים אנחנו פנים בפנים עם חיותינו ומקורינו שהוא הבורא ברוך הוא, מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא. (בת עין, בשלח, עה”פ נבוכים)
It says: ‘God had spoken with you face to face (Deut. 5:4)’. Rashi says that the speeches of anochi and lo yihyeh lecha filled the entire universe, and there was no space that did not speak to them. The explanation of this is that the Jews became so purified that there was no space in which they did not see God. Wherever they looked – in every creature – with the eye of their mind to understand its source and root, they grasped that its life is God, which constantly sustains it and enlivens it, and that our own souls are also sustained by him at every moment. And they comprehended that we constantly stand face to face with our source of life, which is God itself, the king of kings.(Bas Eiyin, Beshalach.)
בשעת מתן תורה היו בהזדככות רב מאוד, עד שראו הקולות אנכי ולא יהיה וגו’ בכל מקום, ר”ל שראו בחינת אלהות בכל נברא ממש (בת עין, ויקהל פקודי, ד”ה וזהו שאמר)
During matan Torah the Jews were so refined, that they saw the voices of anochi and lo yiyeh lecha everywhere. They saw the concept of godliness in virtually every creature (Bas Eiyin, Vayakhel-Pekudai.)
In this brilliant insight, the Bas Eiyin makes it abundantly clear that the Jews did not hear a physical voice or saw a face outside their bodies exclaiming anochi. Rather, the essence of revelation was that they understood the deep concept of anochi, how God’s life abounds in the universe and overflows it, and as a result, they faced God.
This idea that the revelation tapped into the receivers’ inner core was also expressed by R. Yaakov Leiner (Izhbitzer-Radziner, d. 1878) who insists that when our ancestors heard the Ten Commandments, they did not simply hear a divine commandment what to do or not to do. It was a completely transforming experience. The voice that said “You shall not kill” had a life of its own that became ingrained in the fabric of their essence; they adored life so much that they could not even imagine killing a human being (Beis Yaakov, Yitro).
Tuning in to the Voices from Sinai Today
Many Hasidic masters not only believed that the sounds of matan Torah consisted of spiritual, inner voices; they maintained that those voices did not go still with the termination of matan Torah. The Mishna (Avot 6:2) says: “Every day a heavenly voice calls forth from Mt. Sinai that cries, ‘woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.’” The Ba’al Shem Tov famously said that it is the echo of those voices that are reverberating in our hearts and souls calling us to act and repent, to mend our ways and do justice. Hasidic sources are explicit that the voices of matan Torah are calling to us at every moment; all we have to do is listen to them:
אמנם י”ל שכל העם רואים הוא באמת לשון הוה, לרמז על כל הדורות, שכל נפשות ישראל יש בכוחם לראות בנפשם את הקולות… כי לשון כל העם רואים יורה שלדורי דורות נקלט בנפשות ישראל ראיית הקולות. (פרי צדיק שם)
‘And the entire nation was seeing’ – this can be interpreted in the present tense, to indicate that Jewish souls in every generation are capable of seeing these voices in their soul, for the words ‘the entire nation’ shows that our souls have absorbed these voices for eternity (Pri Tzadik, ibid)
על הקולות במתן תורה נאמר קול גדול ולא יסף, ומתרגם ולא פסק, והוא שהקולות המה עוד כמו שהיו מקודם, ורק לשמוע הקולות נצרך הכנות גם כן כמו אז, וכמו שנאמר: ועתה אם שמוע תשמעו בקולו, וכל הכנות כמו שהיו אז כן הוא עוד בכל עת. (שיח שרפי קודש ח”א לח בשם חידושי הרי”ם)
On the voices of matan Torah the Targum say: it did not stop. For these voices still exist today as they did back then, but to hear them we need the proper preparations, like then, as it says: “And now, if you will only listen to his voice.” All the preparations of then can still be done at any time. (Chidushei Harim; Siach Sarfei Kodesh 38)
Moreover, if one lives a refined life, abiding with the divine commandments, one constantly “hears” God’s voice guiding him, as exemplified in the following radical statements of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his followers:
שמעתי אומרים בשם הבעל שם טוב זללה”ה, דאם זוכים ישראל שמתקדשים ומטהרים עצמם בתורתו ובמצוותיו, שומעים תמיד קול ה’ מדבר, כמו במעמד הר סיני. (בעל שם טוב על התורה יתרו אות נ”ז בשם ספר כתר תורה)
I have heard in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov that if one purifies himself with Torah and Mitzvot, one constantly hears the voice of God, as during the revelation at Mount Sinai. (Ba’al Shem Tov, Yitro 57)
משה ידבר. דיבר אין כתיב כאן רק ידבר, בלשון עתיד. כי עתיד הוא בכל דור ודור לדבר עם כל אחד ואחד. לכל מי שבא לטהר ולקבל עליו עול תורה מדבר משה עמו. (בית אהרן פרשת יתרו)
“Moshe would say” – It doesn’t say, Moshe said [the Ten Commandments], rather it says: Moshe would say, for he is destined to speak in every generation to anyone that is willing to purify himself and to take upon himself the yoke of Torah. (Beis Aharon, Yitro)
Unless those Hasidic masters and all their disciples were schizophrenic, what they meant was that our inner voice of morality and the profound satisfaction and inner happiness that results from living a divine life is of the same nature as was the experience of hearing God’s voice at Mt. Sinai. When we feel shameful for our wrongful acts, it is the calling of matan Torah that gnaws at us. When we feel fulfilled by our good deeds, we are hearing the trumpets of matan Torah – the triumphant blasts of our satisfied souls.
Conclusion: The Warrior and the Elder
The Midrash says that when splitting the sea, God appeared as a young warrior, but during matan Torah, God appeared as a compassionate elder. R. Dov Ber (the Maggid) of Mezeritch (d. 1772) explains that we were like a son who adores his father because of his physical prowess, but as this son grows up, he realizes the deeper significance of his father’s finer character traits. Similarly, during krias yam suf (the splitting of the sea), we could only grasp God’s physical powers, but during matan Torah we realized that God is of a much deeper and transcendental nature than a warrior with a mighty arm.
The Hasidic thinker R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitza (d. 1854) suggests that even during matan Torah we did not achieve the epitome of revelation; it is possible to attain a much higher, all inclusive revelation, which will come to pass at the time of the messiah. Apparently, R. Leiner did not like the idea of revelation being confined to a specific place at a specific time. He strove to a much higher degree of revelation in which God can be seen everywhere at anytime.
In the tradition of Hasidism, I personally view revelation as a continuous process, an indispensable part of being religious and being human, and the story of matan Torah as a narrative depiction by our ancestors of this deeper truth; a passionate testimony to the time that our nation moved beyond the pagan doctrines towards belief in a single, unifying power potent enough to sustain the universe and close enough that we can hear its still voice thundering. Such a shift of thought allows me to embrace the God that resembles a compassionate elder; the God of self-reflection, of integrity, and of harmony.
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July 1, 2014
June 16, 2020
Yoel is a Satmar Hasid who has studied in yeshiva and kollel for many years and has taken an interest in academic Bible studies. See his TABS Essay, My Name is Yoel: I am a Satmar Hasid and a Bible Critic.
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