Accepting the Torah in the Shadow of War

Accepting the Torah in the Shadow of War

Delivered at Congregation Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT, Shavuot 5784

The giving of the Torah seems to have come at a strange time.  

Consider everything the Jewish people had been through over the previous 50 days. After slaughtering Egyptian sheep-gods, the Jewish people were summoned to leave their home country for the past 210 years and wander into an uncertain future in the desert. Then they were pursued by Paroh and his chariot riders, barely managing to escape a death trap between the Egyptians and the sea. Almost immediately afterward, they found that they had no food or drink, and they complained bitterly.

The people finally breathed a sigh of relief when their material needs had been met, only to find themselves ambushed by Amalek. Recall that in Parshat Ki Tetze, the Torah tells us, “ve’atta ayef veyage’a.” We were exhausted before Amalek attacked us. Imagine how fatigued we must have felt afterward!

Then, like typical Jews, the people had a million questions - though unlike typical Jews, they didn’t think they had all the answers - so they started driving Moshe crazy with their queries from morning until evening. Moshe radically revises the entire structure of judicial leadership. No sooner do they complete the overhaul do they travel headlong into the Sinai Desert - a place where they might have manna but, once again, no assurance of water. 

Immediately upon their arrival, Moshe declares: It’s time for the Almighty, all-powerful God to speak directly to the nation and begin teaching you all the commandments you are obligated to observe under your new Master. Start preparing to receive the word of God. 

The Jewish people were anxious and fatigued at Har Sinai. No wonder the rabbis say they overslept the morning of Matan Torah!

But there was also something else, related but significant in its own right: they were still under the shadow of war. If you look at the story of Amalek, which almost immediately precedes Matan Torah, you'll notice something interesting. The Torah doesn’t say that we defeated Amalek, only that Yehoshua weakened the enemy - Vayachalosh Yehoshua et Amalek ve’et ammo lefi charev. This suggests that Amalek still posed an immediate threat. Indeed, the fact that Hashem emphasizes that He personally will fight Amalek is quite possibly a response to precisely this reality: the Jews almost certainly experienced their victory over Amalek as winning the battle, but not the war. And so not only are the Jews afraid and exhausted, but they receive the Torah in the shadow of war, perhaps traumatized even in victory, not knowing when Amalek might strike again. 

The question is obvious: why does Hashem insist on giving the Torah now? Even if we argue that some, or most, of the Jews’ anxieties were self-inflicted, owing to their own lackings in emunah, presumably Hashem wanted Matan Torah to come at the right moment regardless. Why not wait a bit so the people could settle down and enter a state of mind to assimilate the revelation of God and the content of the commandments? Were two or three days of preparation really enough for them to prepare to stand at the foot of the mountain, hear the voice of God, and establish a new covenant? Avraham has 13 years between when Hagar gives birth to Yishmael and when Hashem says that He seeks to establish a covenant. Moshe wanders in Midian for decades before God appears to him at the burning bush. And the Jews, after everything they have been through, get all of two or three days? 

In fact, it’s fascinating that according to the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat, Moshe does delay the giving of the Torah by one day - and Hashem acquiesces. We usually assume that this was just to give the Jews an extra day to spiritually prepare themselves, but in context of everything that had been unfolding, it makes a lot of sense that he felt the people needed more time to prepare. So why didn’t Hashem say, you’re right Moshe - let’s postpone the event and find a better time? 

I think our experience this year gives us some insight into what the Jewish people might have been experiencing. We feel anxious and fatigued, and we are about to relive Matan Torah in the shadow of not a recent war that might recur, but, of course, an ongoing one. The daily news cycle leaves us fearful as to what will happen next both on the diplomatic and military fronts; and despite last week’s miraculous rescues, we are fearful for the fate of the remaining hostages. We are weary of trying to find the strength to soldier on. And many of us find ourselves asking the same question: how can we summon the strength to make a renewed commitment, to accept the Torah in a way that makes a true impact? 

The midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7) says:

וידבר ה' אל משה במדבר סיני למה במדבר סיני מכאן שנו חכמים בג' דברים ניתנה התורה, באש, ובמים, ובמדבר, באש מנין (שמות יט) והר סיני עשן כולו וגו' ובמים מנין שנאמר (שופטים ה) גם שמים נטפו גם עבים נטפו מים ובמדבר מנין וידבר ה' אל משה במדבר סיני

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. Why in the wilderness of Sinai? From here our sages taught: The Torah was given with three things: with fire, with water, and in the wilderness. How do we know it was given with fire? As it says (Exodus 19:18), "And Mount Sinai was all in smoke," etc. How do we know it was given with water? As it says (Judges 5:4), "The heavens also dropped, yes, the clouds dropped water." And how do we know it was given in the wilderness? As it says, "And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai."

What do these mean? I would suggest as follows:

Esh represents when we feel on fire, inspired in our relationship with God. That’s one state in which we can accept the Torah. It’s what is called gadlus hamochin in Hasidic thought, when we feel deeply connected to the divine. Mayim is when we are flailing, struggling mightily just to stay afloat, to remain connected to God. That’s katnus hamochin. But Midbar is neither of these; it’s a third category. It’s when we feel barren, empty, numb. We’re not fighting to stay connected. We’re fighting to fight to stay connected. 

Eish is the easiest place from which to receive the Torah. Mayim is extremely difficult, but at least you’re trying. But it’s when you feel you have nothing left in the tank, when we’re in the midbar, that acceptance of Torah is most meaningful. 

And it is no coincidence that the Jews were given the Torah in the midbar. Hashem didn’t want to push it off, because He was communicating a message to them: when you soldier on and keep the Torah, even when you feel numb from anxiety, fatigue, the trauma of war - if you can still push through, that is the quintessential Kabbalat haTorah.

Omer Padan and Itay Schwartzstein were scheduled to get married on Friday, October 13 in a wedding they had meticulously planned in the Hefer Valley. But the war, and the fact Itay was called to reservist duty, reshuffled their plans. Instead of marrying as originally intended, they relocated their wedding to Itay's unit's staging area near the Gaza Strip.

Omer explained in an interview:

“We were supposed to have our wedding in the Hefer Valley,” she said. “We had invited around 300 guests. It was only on Saturday evening of October 7 that I realized we had to postpone the wedding. Itay, my soon-to-be husband, had been called up for reserve duty on Sinchat Torah."

“[That Friday] while I was on my way to the funeral of two brothers who fell in battle, Itay called to ask me if I wanted to marry him today, with a few changes," Omer recounts. "I shouted 'yes' to him.

“At the wedding, I spoke with close friends who served valiantly in the military, and they told me that the wedding we spontaneously arranged at the gathering area today became a shining beacon for them. Life simply triumphs - even in moments like these."

I would add that if you look at their wedding pictures online, the background is barren - all desert. 

Receiving the Torah is compared to a wedding. It’s not easy to get married in the desert, and it’s not easy to accept the Torah in the desert. But just like our beloved chayalim and chayalot got married in the wake of October 7, demonstrating that joy could go on in the face of war, anxiety, trauma, Hashem did the same. He could have pushed off Matan Torah, just like Itay and Omer, and so many others, could have pushed off their weddings. But Hashem wanted to remind us that we have the resilience and strength to accept the Torah, to bring joy and eternal commitment, under the most difficult of circumstances. 

After describing a very difficult historical moment between the Jewish people and Hashem, the Navi Hoshea writes:

לָכֵ֗ן הִנֵּ֤ה אָנֹכִי֙ מְפַתֶּ֔יהָ וְהֹלַכְתִּ֖יהָ הַמִּדְבָּ֑ר וְדִבַּרְתִּ֖י עַל־לִבָּֽהּ׃

Why would God rekindle their relationship by taking the Jewish people into the desert? Think about the exquisite natural backdrop of Shir HaShirim. Wouldn’t that have been more appropriate? 

Because the midbar, precisely because it is barren, represents a sturdy relationship - one that is no longer fully innocent, and, to go a step further, one that is permanent and long-lasting. The Navi therefore concludes with a promise the verses recited when adorning oneself with tefillin, a symbol of binding our hearts and minds to God. It is also a promise that awaits us if we can gather the strength and inspiration from matan Torah and from hundreds upon hundreds of Israeli couples who have wed in the last eight months - 

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י לְעוֹלָ֑ם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִי֙ בְּצֶ֣דֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּ֔ט וּבְחֶ֖סֶד וּֽבְרַחֲמִֽים׃ 

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י בֶּאֱמוּנָ֑ה וְיָדַ֖עַתְּ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה׃ 

And I will betroth you to me forever; and I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loyal love, and in mercy. 

And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness: and you shall know the Lord.