Some people imagine the event at Sinai as a transmission from heaven, recorded on two tablets and in five books, frozen in time, never to occur again.

Others see Sinai as an opening of a portal through which the divine could now begin to pour into our world, into the minds of students of many generations, for each generation according to the needs of its time.

Neither is correct; both are true. At Sinai, a voice beyond time began to flow into the world,At Sinai, a voice beyond time began to flow into the world. to unfold and to be revealed through those who receive it, toil with it, shed tears over it and give their life for it. Because of them, nothing changes, and yet it is new every moment.

“There was a great voice v’lo yasaf.”1

The words v’lo yasaf means this great voice never occurred again. It also means that the great voice never stopped sounding. The Midrash explains:

Whatever the prophets were destined to prophesy in each generation, they received from Mount Sinai . . . and not only the prophets, but also all the sages that arose in every generation, each one received that which was theirs from Sinai. So is it said, “All these things G‑d spoke to all your congregation, a great voice v’lo yasaf.”2

And so, in every generation, in every place where Torah is studied, Sinai occurs again, and again, and again, with each new discovery, each flash of wisdom and insight that was never known before. Each is an unfolding of that same voice, each as needed for that time and place.3

Creative Souls

There is an ancient saying, oft repeated, “Scriptures, Mishnah, Talmud, Aggadah . . . any innovation of any salted student of Torah—all was given to Moses at Sinai.”4

If it was given at Sinai, why do we call it an innovation of this student? As the Midrash above tells, all he did was to recite that which his soul had heard at Sinai.

But this student, through toil and tears, exhausting every tool and tradition his teachers had given him, drilling into the innermost powers of his soul, unraveled yet another fold in the voice heard at Sinai. And with that unfolding, a spark of wisdom that was utterly concealed, A spark of wisdom that was utterly concealed now entered openly into the world.utterly unknowable and beyond the grasp of any mind, now entered openly into the world.

It is not simple. The Zohar warns that one who says something is Torah when it is not true Torah has created an idol—for Torah is one with the One who gave it.5 Who, then, are those that dare to unfold this great voice? Who can reveal the hidden wisdom of the divine?

Each one of us can—if we only would put in the effort.6 Each soul holds a fractal of the whole, something of that voice that it alone heard at Sinai. And each soul comes to this world at the time it is needed to reveal its piece of the puzzle.7

But how does a person find that authentic treasure and reveal it?

As Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus did:

The Story of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus

This is the story of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, whose father had workers plowing the soft soil while he was put to plow the rocky soil.

Eliezer sat down and cried to himself. His father said, “Why are you crying? Perhaps you’re upset because I put you to plow the rocky soil? Now I will put you to plow the soft soil.”

Eliezer sat on the soft soil and cried to himself. His father said, “Why are you crying? Are you upset that I put you to plow on the furrowed soil?”

“No,” he answered.

“So why are you crying?” his father asked.

Eliezer answered, “Because I want to learn Torah.”

His father said to him, “But you are twenty-eight years old, and now you want to learn Torah? Rather, marry a woman and she will bear you children, and you will send them to school to learn Torah.”

Eliezer went for two weeks without tasting a thing, until Elijah, Eliezer went for two weeks without tasting a thing, until Elijah appeared to him.may he be remembered for good, appeared to him.

Elijah said to him, “Son of Hyrcanus, why are you crying?”

Eliezer answered, “Because I want to learn Torah.”

Elijah said to him, “If you want to learn Torah, go up to Jerusalem, to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.”

Eliezer stood up and went to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. He sat there and cried to himself.

Rabban Yochanan said to him, “Why are you crying?”

He answered, “Because I want to learn Torah.”

Rabban Yochanan asked him, “Whose son are you?” But he did not tell him.

Rabban Yochanan asked him, “In all your days, you never learned to say the Shema? To pray? To say the blessings after a meal?”

“Never,” Eliezer answered him.

Rabban Yochanan said to him, “Stand up, and I will teach you all three of them.”

He stood up, and Rabban Yochanan taught these three to him.

And then Eliezer again sat and he cried.

Rabban Yochanan asked him, “My son, why are you crying?”

“Because I want to learn Torah,” he answered.

So Rabban Yochanan would teach him two halachot each day of the week, and he would review them and treasure them.

Eliezer went for eight days and he did not taste a thing, to the point that the bad smell of his breath became apparent to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, and he moved him away.

Eliezer sat and he cried.

Rabban Yochanan asked him, “Why are you crying?”

He answered, “Because you have pushed me away from you as one pushes aside a leper.”

Rabban Yochanan replied, “My son, just as the odor of your mouth has risen before me, so will the aroma of the laws of Torah rise from your mouth to the heavens!”

Then Rabban Yochanan asked once again, “Whose son are you?”

Eliezer answered, “I am the son of Hyrcanus.”

Rabban Yochanan replied, “So you are a child of great people in the world, and you didn’t tell me! By your life, you will have supper with me.”

He said, “I have already eaten by the host where I board.”

“And who is your host?” Rabban Yochanan asked.

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya and Rabbi Yossi HaKohen,” he answered.

Rabban Yochanan sent a message for the two hosts, asking them, “Did Eliezer eat at your place today?”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya and Rabbi Yossi HaKohen had understood that Eliezer ate with his teacher. Now they came to Rabban Yochanan and they said, “It has been eight days that he has not tasted a thing!”

Rabban Yochanan exclaimed, “Between us, we almost lost Eliezer!”

And he compelled Eliezer to eat and to drink that day and the next.

More Than Was Said at Sinai

The sons of Hyrcanus said to their father, “Go up to Jerusalem and disinherit your son Eliezer from your wealth!”

He went up to Jerusalem to disinherit his son. There he found Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai making a special celebration. The great people of the land were there: Ben Tzitzit Hakesset, Nakdimon ben Gurion, and Ben Kalba Savua.

These people told Rabban Yochanan, “Look, the father of Rabbi Eliezer is here!”

He said, “Make a place for him.” And they made a place for him, and sat him next to Rabban Yochanan.

Rabban Yochanan put his eyes upon Rabbi Eliezer. He said to him, “Tell us one thing from the Torah.”

Rabbi Eliezer replied, “My teacher, let me provide you an analogy of a cistern, from which you cannot draw more than has been poured into it. So too, I cannot say any more words of Torah than I have received from you.”

Rabban Yochanan replied to him, “I will provide you another analogy, of a wellspring that bubblesAs a wellspring bubbles and provides more water than that which entered into it, so too you are able to say more Torah than was received at Sinai. and provides water, and is able to provide more water than that which entered into it. So too you are able to say more Torah than was received at Sinai.”

Eliezer remained quiet.

Then Rabban Yochanan said, “Perhaps you are embarrassed to speak in my presence. If so, I will get up and leave.”

Rabban Yochanan went outside, and Rabbi Eliezer sat and expounded on Torah, his face shining like the light of the sun, rays of light shining from his face like the aura of Moses, until those present could not tell if it was day or night.

Rabban Yochanan came from behind him and kissed him on his head. He said to him, “Fortunate are you, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that this is your progeny!”

Hyrcanus asked those next to him, “To whom did he say that?”

They told him, “To Eliezer, your son.”

He said to them, “That is not what he should have said. He should have said, ‘Fortunate is Hyrcanus, that this is his progeny!’”

Rabbi Eliezer remained sitting and expounding on Torah and his father stood up. When he saw that his father was standing, he was embarrassed. He said, “Father, please sit! I cannot remain seated and say words of Torah so long as you stand!”

Hyrcanus said, “My son, this is not why I came here. I came here to disinherit you. But now that I see you and I see all this praise that you are given, now your brothers are to be disinherited, and you will take their portions.”

Rabbi Eliezer replied, “I am not worth more than any one of my brothers.

“If it were property that I desired from the Holy One, may He be blessed, He has the ability to provide me with such, as it says, ‘The earth and all that is within it belongs to G‑d!’

“If it were silver and gold that I desired, He would provide it to me, as it says, “Silver is Mine, gold is Mine, says the L‑rd of Hosts.’

“But rather, all I asked from the Holy One, may He be blessed, is Torah alone, as it says, ‘Because I treasured all precepts of all things upright, and every false way I hated.’”8

G‑d Quotes Man

Rabbi Eliezer went on to become one of the five great students of Rabban Yochanan, those who saved Torah and the Jewish people from oblivion after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. There were others with the name Rabbi Eliezer, so he was called “Rabbi Eliezer the Great.”

How great?

Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina:

When Moses ascended on high, he heard the voice of the Holy One, blessed be He. G‑d was sitting and occupied in the subject of the red heifer. He was saying, “Eliezer, my son, says it may be a cow in its second year . . .”

Moses exclaimed before G‑d, “Master of the Universe! The higher beings and the lower beings are under Your authority—and You sit and say halachah in the name of flesh and blood!”

G‑d replied, “Moses, in the future a certain tzaddik will arise in My world. And he is destined to have the first word on the subject of the red heifer. Before citing the opinion of his colleagues, they will say in the Mishnah, ‘Rabbi Eliezer says, “A cow in its second year . . .”’”

Moses said, “Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that he should be from my descendants.”

G‑d replied, “By your life, he shall be of your descendants.”

This is what is written, “And the name of one of them was Eliezer.” Meaning, the name of that special one was Eliezer.9

Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch explained: Rabbi Eliezer, with his tears and struggle, reached into the innermost recesses of the Divine will.Rabbi Eliezer, with his tears and struggle, reached into the innermost recesses of the Divine will. From there, he brought this teaching from a state of utter concealment out openly into the world. And so, G‑d Himself cited this teaching in his name. For without him it would never have become knowable. Not even in Divine knowledge. It was hidden beyond knowing.10

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, explained that the Torah of Rabbi Eliezer, or of any similar sages, was truly given through them when they spoke it. The same with all the enactments of the sages and all that has arisen through the struggle of our souls with Torah over 3300 years. And yet all this was included in the voice at Sinai. Since G‑d knows the future as He does the past, the voice of Sinai included within it all that would be given in the future.11

That is the power of toil and tears, of yearning for truth and cleaving to its teachers: To strike sparks out of hard rock. To turn dross into fine gold, night into day. To surprise even your Creator.