Holidays

Shavuot: The Wakeup Call

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Batya Hefter

A Contemporary Reading of Rabbi Yaakov Leiner on Matan Torah[1]

“In the morning the Torah was given, and in the evening―the mishpatim (ordinances).”[2]

Using this brief line of the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 30:1), R. Yaakov Leiner (1818-1878), Hasidic Master and heir to the Izbica-Radzyn dynasty, shows us how he envisions what occurred at the Revelation at Sinai. Based on this midrash, R. Yaakov suggests that when the Children of Israel received the Torah, the people themselves were in a state of utter clarity―their minds were enlightened, clear as the bright morning sun. R. Yaakov depicts just what that morning clarity entailed:

What this means is that at the moment Israel heard the utterance “I am the Lord Your God” (Exodus 20:2),  they knew that all creations are merely “livushin” for God’s will, only that there are gradations: higher (more refined) “livushin” and  lower (coarser) “livushin.” (Beit Yaakov, Mishpatim 4)

The term “livushin” can literally be translated as garments or clothing. In the hands of the Hasidic masters, however, it is a symbol, a code word, for a foundational principle encapsulating a subtle yet comprehensive and penetrating worldview.

According to this viewpoint, we perceive the world in various layers. Reality, everything in the world, is covered―cloaked―with a “garment” concealing its true essence. That true essence can be described as holiness, Godliness, or Retzon Hashem (the Will of God). Some things are covered in “coarser livushim,” that is, with heavy layers, greatly obscuring what lies underneath. It is hard, perhaps, to see the holiness in a rock or a grain of sand, or even a harsh personality. Other things are cloaked in a thinner fabric, “a refined livush,” making it easy to see the shape it is draping. We more readily appreciate a glorious sunset or see a spark of the divine when we behold the innocent face of a newborn child. But the spirit of God pulsates as the animating force hidden behind every cover and every aspect of reality.

The drashah continues: “However, at the moment of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), all of Israel saw clearly that (in truth) all the details of daily life are with The Holy One, Blessed be He, and that the entirety of creation is a mere garment of His Will” (Beit Yaakov, Mishpatim 4).

At the time of Matan Torah, R. Yaakov asserts, all veils were lifted. B’nei Yisrael (the children of Israel) encountered the world as it really is―stripped, as it were, of its coverings. They encountered the divinity of existence as clearly as the morning sun, and they perceived that everything―even the most mundane of elements―is a livush for God’s will. For a brief moment, they were gifted with the unique awareness that I call “Sinai consciousness.”

R. Yaakov goes on to describe what occurred at the moment God uttered His dibrot (the Ten Commandments): “At the moment The Holy One, Blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, each dibur (utterance) impacted upon the root of each individual’s heart beyond their intellectual cognition” (Beit Yaakov, Yitro 86). The diburim purified and refined the foundation of their being, both body and soul, so that they were now naturally attuned to “refrain from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15).

This was so because they grasped each of the commandments with complete clarity, like the morning in which they were given; they were “full of life and light,” to use R Yaakov’s phrase. This divine life force entered the heart of each member of Israel so that they truly became “like the dibur itself,” fully aligned and at one with it.

R. Yaakov pictures a unitive reality: when a human being encounters God’s utterance, the dibur impacts upon―and then merges with and becomes―the natural desires of the human heart. Divine essence becomes human nature.

Elaborating on how God’s word influenced their state of mind, R. Yaakov says that as God uttered the words “Thou shall Not Murder” (Exodus 20:13), the effects were instantaeous: “Immediately, the life force of the dibur ‘Thou shall not murder’ entered their hearts, and they became completely good-hearted, meaning they felt absolutely no restraints, no tzimtzum (constriction)  whatsoever. They simply would not withhold abundance and kindness from any place” (Beit Yaakov, Yitro 86).

How does R. Yaakov get from a simple, straight forward commandment, “Thou shall not murder,” to the lofty ideal of complete good-heartedness and an overflow of benevolent feelings and good will?

R. Yaakov digs down to the roots, until he is convinced that he has reached the core of the dibur. The foundation of ‘Thou Shall not murder” is premised on the value of life. Simply put, it means, “Do not deprive life.” One can achieve this by withholding, by stopping oneself from taking another life. This is the first stage of the meaning of “Thou shall not murder.” I found the idea of non-violence in Hindu thought (called ahisma) to be a particularly helpful formulation. Ahimsa is defined by Indologist Wendy Doniger[3] as “the absence of the desire to injure or kill, a disinclination to do harm, rather than an active desire to be gentle.”

But, R. Yaakov is not done digging. There is a deeper level. According to him, the mindset of ‘Thou shall not murder” is not only the removal of the desire to deprive life, but also the positive desire to give life as well. When the desire to deprive is removed, the void it leaves is filled with the positive urge to give life―and by extension, to disseminate love and kindness to one and all without bounds. However, this is not really a linear process; rather, it is experienced concurrently.

At its root, “‘Thou shall not murder” means that when one cannot entertain the possibility of depriving life, one is simultaneously imbued with desire to not only give life, but also to give generously and continuously with no limits. For R. Yaakov, this experience is the embodiment of the middah (character trait) of hesed, the impulse to give life, which expresses itself in loving-kindness.

Thus, when internalized in its totality, the negative commandment “Thou shall not murder” actually inverts and becomes a positive injunction: “Give life!” Martin Luther King Jr. was referring precisely to this broader, more encompassing understanding when he said, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”[4]

R. Yaakov says that this unbridled force of love, of life-giving energy, seems to directly conflict with the next dibur: “Do not commit adultery.” How does the consciousness of unbridled love for life accommodate itself to the opposing demand to limit one’s love when it is prohibited?

R. Yaakov teaches that just as the dibur “Thou shall not murder” was stripped down to its root meaning at Mount Sinai, so too, the dibur “Do not commit adultery” was pared down to its deepest essence as well. At its core, the prohibition against adultery meant that the Children of Israel absorbed the truth that the Holy One, Blessed be He, holds us accountable to the strictest standards (in this case of sexual mores). “Thou shalt not commit adultery” ultimately means that one must be ever vigilant to utterly withhold love and generosity when it is inappropriate―to restrict and restrain when necessary.

At the moment of Revelation, they were―with no contradiction―able to hold an unrestrained desire to give life and indiscriminate love to all and to simultaneously completely suppress prohibited kinds of love. At the height of this “Sinai consciousness,” this paradox existed naturally, intuitively, and reflexively in the minds of the people, without a struggle. At Sinai, a person was able to embody diametrically opposing qualities and hold these middot[5] in perfect balance.

R. Yaakov teaches, “These dibrot were not in conflict with one another because they were dibrot of life, and life is One.” How could it be that these conflicting middot did not cause discord amongst the people? The answer is this: at Sinai, the people grasped absolute love and absolute awe, total giving and at the same time total restraint, as they emanated forth from God’s unitive source. God alone is One; God is the source of All. Within God, the middot all exist, but they exist in an undifferentiated form―therefore, there are no conflicts.

What would our interactions look like if opposing impulses and character traits were perfectly aligned? R. Yaakov continues, “Each dibur (naturally) yielded to the other, and despite the fact that each one found full expression, nevertheless, each one naturally equalized with the others.” Self-limiting and making room for one another was done intuitively with no need for any person to impose his or her will and no need for a command.

R. Yaakov supports this understanding with an innovative interpretation of the well-known discrepancy between the two versions of the Ten Commandments recorded in the Torah. When God first gives the dibrot in Exodus, they are written as separate statements―‘Thou shall not murder/Thou shall not commit adultery/That shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13)―without the word “and” (denoted by the Hebrew letter “vav”) between one commandment and the next. Here, each dibur stands independently; the commandments are not separated by anything, nor do they require a boundary. However, when Moses retells the experience in the Deuteronomy and wishes to impart the content of the Revelation to the Jewish people, the second recounting required the letter “vav” between each dibur. There the verses read, “Thou shall not murder, and thou shall not commit adultery, and thou shall not steal” (Deuteronomy 5:17).

What this means, according to R. Yaakov, is this: at Sinai, it was entirely unnecessary to impose any boundary. The letter “vav” is a boundary, and it means, “Here you can love, but here you must stop.” Yet in this “Sinai consciousness,” each opposing commandment was able to exist fully with no limits and still paradoxically not be in conflict with the other. Since the Children of Israel grasped the true essence of the divine intent, the boundaries and commandments were entirely unnecessary, even superfluous. As R. Yaakov says, at Sinai, the people themselves “embodied the dibur, and their hearts were saturated with kindness, such that it would be as absurd to command them not to murder as it would be absurd to command a father not to kill his son” (Beit Yaakov, Yitro 86).

R. Yaakov sheds light on this ideal mindset when one lives in a state fully absorbed in this clarity―when human nature is entirely in attunement with the divine will.[6]

But alas, that moment of clarity was not to last. Just as evening follows morning, darkness follows light; certainty recedes, and the wakeful state gives way to slumber.

And so, R. Yaakov explains, after this powerful moment of illumination, when the Children of Israel could no longer handle the intensity of God’s presence, they ask Moses to intervene. R. Yaakov describes this in the following way::

The life force of the dibrot became concealed, and they remained like one who is asleep. . . ‘The full life [inner meaning] of the dibrot became like a sketch, one whose inner vitality disappeared from their conscious mind, and only the livush, their outer garment, was revealed to them.

At that instant, the inner meaning of the command “Do not murder” disappeared, and its vitality vanished with it. The dibrot lost their life and energy and became “just” commands. “Do not murder” was now constricted to a negative statement and was grasped solely in its exterior meaning, as if the commandment was merely to refrain from killing. The same became true for all the commandments, as their deeper meaning was no longer naturally intuited. R. Yaakov suggests that from that moment on, the people experienced the dibrot as one does when instructed, “Do this, and do not do that.” From then on, they would perform the duties just because “someone else” asked them to do so, but the passion was gone; their heartfelt conviction was lost.

According to R. Yaakov’s interpretation of the midrash “When Moses descended Mount Sinai and saw the golden calf, the letters flew away from the tablets” (Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 26), it was just then that the “inner life force flew out of the dibrot (Beit Yaakov, Yitro 86), leaving only the stone upon which they were inscribed. At that moment, Moses’s hands became heavy until the Tablets fell from them and were smashed. Without that energy, the “light and life” behind the commandments, the precarious harmony that existed between them fell away as well.

Unlimited love and absolute restraint were suddenly in conflict with one another. The Torah, instead of bringing life and clarity, seemed entirely embattled. Now, if one were to attempt to live the Sinai consciousness of “Thou shall not murder” with unbridled compassion, one would end up distorting this dibur and exercising compassion where it did not belong. If one were to withhold compassion and generosity, as per the essence of the commandment against adultery, it might cause misplaced callousness. Such behavior would result in the famous dictum: “One who has compassion for those who are cruel will result in being cruel to those in need of compassion” (Midrash Tanhuma, Metzora 1).

And so, Moses’s hands became heavy, the tension between the dibrot could not be contained, and the Tablets shattered.

But in their place, we received the second luhot (tablets). R. Yaakov contends that the first luhot are reflected in Exodus (in Parashat Yitro), while the second luhot are reflected in Deuteronomy (in Parashat Va-ethanan).[7] These second commandments have a “vav” in between each utterance―the “vav” that delineates an external limit. The “vav” represents the boundaries of law that we need, as they tell us that enthusiasm, love, hesed, expansiveness, as well as restraint, restrictions, and self-control, should go to this extent and not to that extent. They are the blessings of law which make life―the hidden life within the luhot―possible.

But this blessing is not easily apparent. The acceptance of law is the acceptance of the limitations of our humanity: “And it was very hard for them to receive the law” (Beit Yaakov, Mishpatim 4), which was given in the evening, in the hiddenness of God’s face. It was painfully difficult, says R. Yaakov, for them to go from the ultimate state of clarity and coherence to the dos and don’ts of legislation―or, in other words, to go from revelation to regulations.

For us as well, the laws are difficult to carry out at times. It is often very hard to see the “life and light” embedded in every mitzvah, every prayer service, and every obligation. It is a constant challenge not to fall into performing them numbly, “as if we are asleep” (Beit Yaakov, Yitro 86).

But here, R. Yaakov is at his most empathetic as he acknowledges this challenge and shows us the path to lead us out of this spiritual lethargy:

The Torah is not a book of dry commands, “do this, don’t do that” (like a dead letter). Their vital life force has not been entirely removed. Rather, the command appears lifeless, like a sleeping person. But just like a sleeping person can easily be stirred and woken up, so too may the divine life of the Torah be awoken.

The energy, “the light and life” of the commandments, has not been extinguished. It is right there, waiting to be rekindled like a light sleeper who can easily be stirred out of his sleep: “By learning Torah, we arouse the inner meaning of the Torah. The words impact upon the person so that he is roused anew, just like at Matan Torah”(Beit Yaakov, Yitro 86).

Every time we learn Torah, every time we approach God’s word earnestly, we have a chance to revisit Matan Torah, to regain that Sinai consciousness, if only for a brief moment.

On Shavuot night, we stay awake learning Torah all night. We stay awake with the hopes that we will awaken within ourselves the vital life force and clarity which pulsates behind every word and every commandment. Perhaps, as the morning dawns, we may for a moment have the clarity to become like the dibur itself.


[1] The ideas in this article are based on two teachings of Rabbi Yaakov Leiner, which he lays out in his work, Beit Yaakov (I refer to Mishpatim 4 and Yitro 86 in particular throughout this essay). All translations are my own. My in-depth article on the teaching in Mishpatim 4 will appear in the forthcoming anthology on teaching the Hasidic Homily, a project that is currently being directed and carried out by Prof. Elie Holzer in Jerusalem.

[2] R. Yaakov’s teaching also builds upon the simpler understanding in this midrash that these two terms refer to different kinds of laws: “Torah” refers to the ten commandments, while “mishpatim” refers to the laws in Parashat Mishpatim.

[3] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History (London: Oxford University Press, 2009), 9.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr., “An Experiment in Love” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 19.

[5] In Hebrew, the word for character traits, middot, also means measurements. The notion that a character trait is also a specific measured portion, as opposed to an unquantifiable emotion, highlights the difficulty to achieve a balance.

[6] This is, of course, the ideal relationship that we human beings seek with each other as well; one where each member intuits the will of the other, where the union flows spontaneously, un-self-consciously, in total harmony. R. Yaakov teaches later in this same drashah: “In this world, there is no human being whose nature is rooted in divine traits, one who is not affected by his inborn/intuitive negative traits” (Yitro 86).

[7] This contention already appears earlier in Tiferet Yisrael, a work written by R. Judah Loew ben Bezalel (Maharal), at the end of chapter 44: ”And according to the view of our Rabbis, the second tablets contain the dibrot in Parashat Va’ethanan and not the first (tablets), which have the words from Parashat Yitro.”

Batya Hefter
Batya Hefter is the founder and Rosh Beit Midrash of The Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion. She holds a Master’s degree in Rabbinic Thought from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After being the Executive Director of the Women’s Beit Midrash for 21 years, she is now the director of the Transformative Torah Project, whose focus is to transmit the teachings and spiritual path of the hasidic masters for the seeking modern Jew.