Relating the Power of the Evening1
Even after months have gone by, remembering key moments of the Yamim Nora’im davening sends a chill down our spines. One of those passages is the emotionally wrenching u-nesaneh tokef, which bids us to “relate the power of the holiness of the day.” Paraphrasing just a bit, we should likewise relate the power of the evening of Shavuos.
In some ways, the night of Shavuos is the most elevated and exalted of all nights of the year. Peri Etz Chaim of the Ari z”l tells us that a person’s entire direction in life is tied to this evening. The kabbalistic works illuminate this statement, by explaining the connection between the night of Shavuos and the process of perfecting the sefiros, which is a theme of the weeks between Pesach and Shavuos. In the space of forty-nine days, we address each sefirah and its interconnection with all the others. Standing, so to speak, above all of them is the highest of all elements in this system, kesser. Its turn for tikun comes on the night of Shavuos. (The process is fully completed with the recitation of “kesser“ of the kedushah prayer of Mussaf the next day.)
On a more down-to-earth level, what we need to do on this night is rather straightforward. We call Shavuos “the time of the giving of our Torah.” We mean this in the here and now, not in the past. As all things in the Torah are eternal, the giving of the Torah is a permanent fixture on the calendar. We receive the Torah anew each year on the sixth of Sivan. The evening of Shavuos is our preparation for the giving of the Torah that will take place the following day.
The Exodus took place, the holy seforim tell us, through an isra’usa de-le’eila. All of its important elements were accomplished by Hashem. Even the spiritual elevation we needed as a precursor to leaving was engineered through His reaching out to us.
He reminds us of this in the run-up to the Revelation. He briefly recounts the events of the Exodus, and stresses His singular role in it. “You have seen what I did to Egypt, and that I have borne you the wings of eagles and I brought you to Me.” The emphasis changes as He shifts focus to the giving of the Torah. “And now if you will listen to My voice…” Receiving the Torah required an israusa de-lesasa, some arousing of their selves from within.
What could this have been? What did they need to do to prepare themselves? Was there some particular merit they needed to acquire? Chazal tell us that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of their faith. What merit did the giving of the Torah require?
The Haggadah states that there would have been sufficient grounds to thank Hashem had He brought us to Sinai, even had He not followed with giving us the Torah. We are told, by way of explanation, that Adam’s first sin introduced an essential corruption of the human spirit, and that our gathering at Sinai undid it. Our question is deepened. What did Man do, that he succeeded in ridding himself of this ancient burden? If we found the answer, we might know what we, in turn, are expected to accomplish on this all-important night of anticipating the giving of the Torah.
When the Jews pledged “We will do!” before agreeing “We will listen,” six hundred thousand ministering angels, according to the gemara, descended, and placed two crowns on each Jew’s head, one for each of the two phrases. Chazal also report that a heavenly voice called out, “Who revealed this great secret to my children, a secret ordinarily used by the angels themselves!”
In the unparalleled drama of this episode, we can detect the answer to our question. The preceding of “we will listen” with “we will do” was itself the necessary preparation and precursor for the revelation of the Torah.
Distilling this response conceptually, we realize that for Klal Yisrael to speak it with conviction required complete self-negation to the presence of Hashem. Each Jew who answered in this way, promised to perform the Will of G-d without any precondition. No one predicated his acceptance upon finding Torah reasonable or emotionally and spiritually fulfilling. They would all perform, simply because Hashem asked them to.
This is no small achievement, but the highest form of serving Him. (We are familiar with it from other sources. Kedushas Levi argues that an all- important part of teshuvah is that the sinner feel a sense of negation of self before G-d.) At Sinai, Jews were able to feel a sense of relative nothingness in the presence of Hashem. By becoming nothing – and only by it – they could attach themselves fully to G-d. That which is fully attached to the tahor itself becomes tahor. This is the fuller explanation of how they shed the primordial corruption of Man.
Ordinarily, we are unaware of active, intelligent forms yielding perfectly to the Will of G-d, other than the angels, for whom such yielding is the defining element of their existence. There is no room within them to assert a sense of self. Klal Yisrael at Sinai rose to this level; in this way, they partook of the “secret” of the angels. In so doing, they brought the Torah to the human sphere.
Negation is the key to understanding other statements of Chazal. They tell us, for example, that the Torah was given with “dread, awe, trembling and fear.” As long as a Jew lives in the darkness of physical existence, he fails to see the greatness of the Creator. Walking in blindness, he will feel nothing – no dread, no awe, no trembling and no fear. By placing “We will do” up front before “We will listen,” the Jews negated their interests, negated themselves, and loosened the restrictive bonds that physical existence ordinarily imposes. For the first time they could see clearly – as one sees with his eyes – the greatness of Hashem. They could then not help but be in awe and reverence. .
Elsewhere, Chazal describe the utter silence at Sinai. “No bird chirped; no wing took flight; no ox lowed. The ofanim did not soar; the serafim ceased their calling �??Kadosh.’ The sea was entirely calm; people did not speak. The world waited in complete silence, as the Voice of Hashem carried forth, �??I am Hashem your G- d…'” Not only the Jews assembled at the base of the mountain listened in absolute awe, but all existence became still and motionless. As the Jews succeeded in negating themselves to the Divine, some of their achievement spilled over to their surroundings, and the world at large ceased to possess an identity of its own. Nothing asserted its own existence; existence itself was manifest only in Hashem Himself.
The crucial preparation for receiving the Torah through bitul required its own preparation. “And Yisrael encamped there, opposite the mountain.” The text uses the singular form for the verb “encamped.” Chazal comment that Klal Yisrael succeeded in functioning as and becoming a single entity, with one heart and purpose, joined together as if in a single person. bitul is not within reach of most individuals; banding together as a tzibbur places it within our grasp.
The spiritual backdrop to the final hours before each year’s receiving of the Torah is the tikun reaching all the way to kesser. In the human sphere, we accomplish this by scaling the highest peak of achievement – leaving us not with an exhilarated feeling about our selves, but rather giving us the freedom to yield our selves entirely to Him.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, vol. 2, pgs. 342-343
2. According to nusach Sefard
3. Exodus 19:4
4. Exodus 19:5
5. It was, unfortunately, reintroduced by the sin of the Golden Calf.
6. Shabbos 88A
7. Berachos 22A
8. Shemos Rabbah 29:9
9. Shemos 19:2
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org