Dvar Torah Yisro — A Brand New Start

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    Yisro 4 — A Brand New Start
    וכל העם ראים את הקולת ואת הלפידם ואת קול השפר ואת ההר עשן וירא העם וינעו ויעמדו מרחק:
    ויאמרו אל משה דבר אתה עמנו ונשמעה ואל ידבר עמנו אלקים פן נמות
    The entire people saw the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and trembled and stood from afar. They said to Moshe, “You speak to us and we shall hear; let G-d not speak to us lest we die” (Shemos 20:15-16).
    The Gemara (Shabbos 88b) cites two statements of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi regarding the events at Har Sinai. He first states that as Hashem uttered each of the Aseres HaDibros, the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies, and Hashem then revived them. Immediately following that statement, Rabbi Yehoshua says that as Hashem uttered each of the Aseres HaDibros, the Jewish people retreated a distance of twelve mil.
    Which was it? Did they drop dead or turn tail and run? (See Maharsha ad loc., who also discusses this point.)
    Perhaps we can say that these two seemingly incompatible statements are both true. The variable involves the intensity and depth of commitment demonstrated by the various individuals among Bnei Yisrael. The Gemara implies that upon hearing the word of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Jews became so overwhelmed that their souls left them, causing them to die. Yet what if one was less than receptive and held back, not completely willing to let Hashem’s words penetrate to the depths of his soul? Perhaps such an individual did not have such a life-altering, and life-ending, experience. Although all the Jews declared (Shemos 24:7), “Naaseh ve’nishma — We will do and we will obey,” clearly expressing their willingness to receive the Torah, there were still perhaps two groups among them.
    There were those who were completely receptive, allowing the awe-inspiring words to fully penetrate their very beings. Those people were so overwhelmed that they died, and were subsequently revived. It is true that the others had also proclaimed, “Naaseh ve’nishma,” but when Hashem’s awesome words were actually heard, and even seen, they held back. Unlike their more committed brothers who had lowered all their defenses, these did not switch off their firewall. Hence, the words of Hashem were blocked and could not penetrate. Rather than dying —the natural result of hearing the word of Hashem directly — these people became terrified and jumped back in fear. So we see that both statements of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi are true, as both did not apply to everyone.
    This perhaps explains why the Yom Tov of Shavuos, which commemorates this event, is called Zman Matan Toraseinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, and not Zman Kabbalas Toraseinu, the time of the receiving of our Torah. The one thing that occurred uniformly that day was that the Torah was given to us; we were all equal recipients of the gift. Yet the actual Kabbalas HaTorah, the acceptance and receiving of the Torah, was not uniform. My level of willingness and commitment was different from your level of commitment. There were some who committed wholeheartedly, to the point that their souls fled their bodies, while others accepted the Torah with less submission, and ended up receding in fear.
    There is another way to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory statements of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. Most people nowadays are familiar with the concept of personal space. We tend to view the immediate physical space surrounding us as our own; any encroachment within makes us feel threatened or uncomfortable. Thus, in a certain sense, my place or domain extends beyond my body.
    This model actually finds a home in the world of halachah, explains Rav Avraham Landau of Strikov (cited in Ve’Shallal Lo Yechsar ad loc). There is a concept in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 10a-b) of “Arba amos shel adam konos lo be’chol makom — The four cubits surrounding a person can always be used to acquire objects for him.” The area surrounding a person is regarded as his personal space. Were an ownerless item to be found within those four cubits, the halachah regards the item as belonging to the person within that space. The same is true with a get, a bill of divorce, placed by a man within four amos of his wife (ibid.). Although in both of these cases, the individual may be some four amos away from where the item or get lies, the individual has a halachic connection to that place and the item/get becomes his or hers. The distance of four cubits is truly one’s place.
    The Gemara then discusses a much larger area, which is still, but to a lesser extent, considered reshuso shel adam, a person’s domain. While something lying two thousand amos away cannot be considered mine in terms of acquisition, that distance is considered within my sphere of influence, to the extent that I am allowed to walk that far outside a city on Shabbos. It is still within my techum, my domain. In a certain sense, the distance of two thousand amos is also considered one’s place.
    Finally, we have the measure of twelve mil, which is 12 x 2,000 amos. According to every opinion, walking such a distance is considered outside of my domain and would not be permitted on Shabbos. The area up until twelve mil may still be regarded as one’s space, but that point and on is beyond his outer limit. A distance of twelve mil is completely unrelated to, and separate from, the person, and is not considered his place.
    Rav Landau then suggests that this is why Bnei Yisrael retreated the distance of twelve mil. The Gemara is alluding to the great lengths to which a person must go to accept the Torah. One must travel a distance of twelve mil, meaning that he must be willing to completely remove and separate himself from his earlier life and move into a new territory, leaving everything from his previous domain behind. This is also why their souls left their bodies, as Rabbi Yehoshua also says, as they totally nullified themselves and their persona for the sake of Hashem. In this way, they were demonstrating their readiness to accept the Torah.
    The Pele Yo’etz (in Elef HaMagen ad loc.) cites a similar explanation as to why Hashem made their souls depart their bodies, leaving them lifeless. This is to teach us the lesson derived from the pasuk (Bamidbar 19:14), “Zos haTorah adam ki yamus be’ohel — This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent.” Based on this, the Gemara (Berachos 63b; Shabbos 83b) teaches that the words of Torah can only remain with a person who is willing to kill himself over it, to make sacrifices for its sake.
    As Bnei Yisrael accepted Hashem’s dominion upon themselves, they had to separate from their former domain. Kabbalas HaTorah requires one to let his soul leave his body and to be willing to make sacrifices, as well as to recede twelve mil and to leave everything behind.

    Reb Eliezer

    We see Hashem as the choson and us, the Bnei Yisroel as the kallah, lecha dadi likras kalah, as Moshe Rabbenu saw us, vayotzei Moshe, but Hashem sees us as the choson and the Torah, the kallah. The kallah is always seen as new. Asher anochi metzavcha hayom, every day the Torah be seen as new.

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