Receiving the Torah Anew

The Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai is not only an event of the distant past. Every Shavuos, and — to a lesser extent — every day, we relive that experience. This is reflected in our praise of G‑d as “the Giver of the Torah,” using the pre­sent tense,1and in the mandate of our Sages2 that we always view the Torah as “something new which we received today.”

In this light, the physical setting of the Giving of the Torah becomes prominent, for its metaphoric significance shows us how to approach the Torah at all times and in all places. Mt. Sinai and its surroundings symbolize the personal qualities that enable an individual to acquire the Torah.3

The Midrash,4 relating that G‑d chose Mt. Sinai for the Giving of the Torah because it was “the smallest of all moun­tains,” emphasizes the importance of humility. If then one would ask why G‑d did not give the Torah on a plain or in a valley, the answer will be that the choice of a mountain indi­cates the need for a certain degree of self-esteem. For both these qualities — humility and self-esteem — are necessary to our acquisition of Torah.

Synthesizing Opposing Attributes

An individual who is possessed by egotism cannot con­nect with G‑d. As the Talmud5 states, “[In regard to] any per­son who possesses haughtiness of spirit, the Holy One, blessed be He, declares, ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world.’ ” In our daily prayers, we express the link between humility and Torah study by requesting in direct succession,6 “Let my soul be as dust to all; open my heart to Your Torah.”

Nevertheless, humility alone is insufficient for the ac­quisition of Torah. A person who lacks strength of character and self-esteem will be unable to overcome the many obsta­cles which can obstruct his way to the observance of the Torah.

Humility and pride need not be mutually exclusive. Pride and self-esteem do not always stem from self-concern, nor are they always the result of an individual’s perception of his per­sonal virtues. A positive self-image and feelings of self-esteem should arise from our awareness of the connection to G‑d we establish through the Torah. The knowledge that we can ful­fill G‑d’s will through the observance of mitzvos is the greatest possible source of personal strength.

From this perspective, the qualities of humility and pride may be seen as complementary. Humility encourages the de­velopment of an ever deeper connection to G‑d, which, in turn, increases the above-described kind of self-esteem.

The feeling of pride produced by a connection to G‑d is more powerful than the feeling generated by the appreciation of one’s positive virtues. Self-centered pride is limited by the scope of one’s qualities and can be dampened by a formidable individual or challenge. The personal strength derived from a commitment to fulfill G‑d’s will, however, partakes of the in­finity of its objective. No obstacle is able to stand in its way.

Humble Pride; Self-Assured Humility

The combination of these two qualities was epitomized in Moshe Rabbeinu. On one hand, he was the leader of the Jew­ish people. He received the Torah on Mt. Sinai and studied with G‑d for forty days and forty nights. He himself wrote the verse, “And there never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe.”7 Nevertheless, he was “more humble than all the men on the face of the earth.”8

Moshe realized that all of his gifts had been given to him by G‑d. Furthermore, he believed that if these gifts had been given to someone else, that person would have achieved more than he.9 The awareness of his great potential did not spur Moshe to egotistic pride, neither did his humility prevent him from appreciating and utilizing his capacities.

An Unowned Land

Mt. Sinai is situated in a desert. Every year the relation­ship between the Torah and the desert is reestablished by the reading of Parshas Bamidbar (“in the desert”) before Shavu­os.10 Our Sages11 point out that the desert has no owner. By giving the Torah in the desert, G‑d showed that no one per­son or tribe can control it; every Jew has an equal claim to Torah.

The ownerless desert teaches us another lesson. To ap­proach Torah, we must reflect this ownerless state; i.e., we must step beyond our individual personalities. The Torah, reflecting G‑d’s infinite nature, transcends our limited human potential. In order to relate to G‑d’s infinity, we must leave the confines of our personal selves.12 At Mt. Sinai, our ances­tors expressed such a commitment. When asked whether they would accept the Torah, they replied, “We will do and we will listen.”13 Instead of first listening to G‑d’s command­ments and then deciding whether or not to accept them, they showed no hesitation and promised to obey them regardless of what would be entailed.

In the Face of Barrenness

A further lesson can be derived from the fact that the Torah was given in a desert. Not only is the desert ownerless, it is also barren and desolate. When our ancestors received the Torah, they thus had to depend on G‑d for food, water, and clothing. Yet far from worrying, they received the Torah with loving trust. Indeed, their devotion serves as a source of eternal merit for the Jewish people, as it is written,14 “I have remembered for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, your following after Me in the desert, in an unsown land.”

There are times at which earning a livelihood is prob­lematic, when our surroundings may appear to us like a bar­ren desert. These hurdles should not, however, dampen our dedication to the study of the Torah and the observance of its mitzvos. Instead of giving primacy to our material concerns, we should consider the Torah our priority, and remain confi­dent that G‑d will provide us with our needs as He provided for our ancestors.

The Desert Can Blossom

The desert can also be understood as a metaphor for feelings of spiritual barrenness and emptiness. A person who experiences such feelings would do well to remind himself that the Torah was given in a desert; that in his present cir­cumstances, G‑d descends and gives him His most precious possession, the Torah. No matter what an individual’s state, let him recognize that he is constantly given the opportunity to relate to G‑d through the medium of the Torah.

This concept also applies in our relations with others. We can — and must — share Torah with all Jews, even those who appear as barren as a desert. Our Sages15 urge us to “be counted among the disciples of Aharon,... loving [your fel­low] creatures and bringing them close to the Torah.” In Tanya,16 the Alter Rebbe explains that this wording teaches that we must love every Jew, even one whose only redeeming characteristic is that he is G‑d’s creation.

Our Sages17 relate that during the Jewish people’s forty years of wandering, they were able to transform the desert into “settled land” to the point where trees flowered and gave fruit. Our study of Torah can produce a similar effect. Those aspects of ourselves and of others that are seemingly barren can become productive through the influence of Torah.

This recalls the Era of the Redemption, when even “shade trees will be laden with fruit.”18 At that time, the fruits of the Jewish people’s divine service throughout the exile will blos­som forth and all of mankind will be able to appreciate that the world is G‑d’s dwelling place.19 May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, pp. 276-280; Vol. VIII, p. 237