Walk through any Bais Yaakov elementary school this week and the halls will resonate with the same song: ‘Hashem gave us a present, do you know what it was, He gave us the Torah and we must keep its laws…’
It’s the second stanza of the song that we’ll focus on today. What exactly was being offered to the nations, and what was rejected by them and why?
The other nations of the world were offered the Torah, and each gave a different reason why they wouldn’t accept it. B’nai Eisav, Edom, said that they were not willing to accept it because of “לא תרצח”, the prohibition of murder. B’nai Yishmael rejected the Torah upon hearing “לא תגנוב,” the prohibition against stealing.
There’s a very big question that we can ask on this midrash. All goyim are required by the Torah and by Hashem to keep seven commandments, commonly referred to as the Sheva Mitzvos B’nai Noach. Some of these seven seem very simple, like establishing a community with law and order, and not eating from a live animal. It’s interesting to note that all seven of these laws carry a death sentence for the goyim. For example, a Jew who eats from a live animal is not deserving of the death sentence, but a goy who does the same is. Included in these seven are both the obligation not to kill and not to steal.
Our question should now be clear—how is it that Edom rejected the Torah because they wanted to be free to kill, if they anyways are not free to kill? And how did B’nai Yishmael reject the Torah because they wanted to be free to steal, if they anyway can’t steal, and m’dinay Shamayim, are subject to the death penalty, a harsher judgment than for a Jew who does the same?
The explanation lies in the understanding that the goyim have seven rules. That’s all they are—rules. The Torah, which they rejected is so much more than a rule book. The Torah is not just about following the mitzvos, and staying away from the avairos. When a goy is told not to steal, or not to kill, that’s all he has to do or not do. When the Torah says not to steal or not to kill, there is an added level that the nations did not want to accept.
As Yidden, we accepted the Torah and took on this added level. Thus, we are supposed to take the commandments and the prohibitions, and grow from them, instill them. For example, we take the prohibition of לא תרצח and learn life lessons from it. We learn that we are not supposed be killers, not just that we don’t kill. We learn from it to value life and to not eat milk and meat together. We learn to be compassionate to all life and not to shecht a cow and its calf on the same day. We learn from this prohibition not to ruin someone’s parnassa because that’s like killing him, and not to embarrass someone for the same reason. We value life, and we teach our kids the same: to be an eved Hashem, above and beyond the exact law.
We see this with any mitzvah: There is an exact law and there is an additional aspect of the spirit of the law, what the law teaches us. We find always that there are two levels to Torah—the law and the beautiful way that we fulfill it. We have to remember that the “do not steal” of a Yid, is different that the “do not steal” of a goy. Forgetting this is tantamount to forgetting the purpose of Matan Torah. If we neglect the beauty and spirit of Judaism and grudgingly adhere to the exact law, but not a step further, we may be keeping the technically Torah, but are doing so goyish-style, so to speak.
The importance of guarding both aspects of the Torah is represented in Shavuos. We read in Megillas Rus that Elimelech leaving Eretz Yisrael because of the drought. He had enough money and food to provide for himself, but he didn’t want to have to stay and support others, to “waste” his money and resources for the poor.
Was Elimelech’s action technically a sin? Technically, there is no obligation to go somewhere that people are poor in order to live there and support them. But the spirit of the Torah did indeed require that in this situation, Elimelech stay and support and help his people. And so, Elimelech is severely punished. He could have been the one from who Dovid Hamelech, and ultimately Moshiach, came. Instead, he was wiped out: he and his sons all died, not leaving a trace. Melucha couldn’t come from one who hadn’t absorbed the lesson of the Torah.
Now let’s look at Rus, the heroine of the story, from whom Dovid came, and from whom Moshiach will come. There was no obligation what-so-ever for what she did. She saw her mother-in-law was broken, poor and alone. Having internalized the middah of Chessed, she stayed with her, she converted, and she committed to supporting her. She, a former princess, went to the fields to gather the wheat left for the beggars to take home for her mother-in-law. She was under no obligation to do what she did, but she had absorbed the message of the Torah and that is what took her on the path of becoming the matriarch of Malchus Bais Dovid.
There are two notable main characters of Shavuos. It’s Matan Torah, so we think of Moshe Rabbainu, who prepared us and led us to receive the Torah at Har Sinai. It is also the yartzheit of Dovid Hamelech, and we read the megillah of his ancestry. Let’s take a look at Moshe and Dovid and try to understand how the Torah lived in both of them.
Moshe Rabbainu is the one who taught us the laws of Hashem, even prior to Matan Torah. We call the Torah ‘Toras Moshe‘, and have aspects of mesorah that we refer to as Halacha Moshe m’Sinai. Moshe Rabbainu represents the strict letter of the law and its fulfillment.
Dovid Hamelech was known for embodying the spirit of the Torah. He was the נעים זמירות ישראל, the sweet song-singer of B’nai Yisrael. He lived on a high plane of reality and closeness to Hashem, passionately dancing before the mishkan with his entire body. When Avshalom wanted to rebel, he enticed people to come to his side by telling them that the judgments of Dovid were unnecessarily strict and were above the letter of the law and obligation. But that was the beauty of Dovid—understanding what it means to live in the spirit of the Torah.
The astrological sign of Sivan, the month in which we received the Torah, is identical twins: a phenomenon that happens when one is split into two. This is reflective of the two aspects of Torah fulfillment. Moshe and Dovid together embodied how the Torah-Jew lives. The halacha of Moshe and the sweet song of Dovid—each mitzvah combines the two elements. Each mitzvah demands complete halachik fulfillment, and from each mitzvah must emanate a sweet, spiritual beauty and pleasure.
The understanding that the symbol of the Twins brings us is that both aspects, the Moshe aspect and the Dovid aspect, are equally important. It is interesting to note that this seems to be a struggle in the gemarah and midrash as well. Several times we see that Moshe and Dovid are compared, or joined, together.
For example, the midrash that says that whatever Moshe did for B’nai Yisrael, Dovid did the same. The midrash starts the lists of their actions by stating that they both led as kings, and continues listing accomplishments they both had, ending with the comparison of five books of the Torah to the five books of Tehillim. The implication here is a sense of equality in the importance of each of their leaderships and contributions. Thus, we see a machlokes,a disagreement, in the gemarah:
אמר רב לא אברי עלמא אלא לדוד ושמואל אמר למשה
Rav said the world was created only for Dovid but Shmuel said only for Moshe.
The gemarah continues and reconciles the two by saying that it was for both. Both are equally vital to our nation.
Chazal teach us that the word “אנכי” is an acronym and was chosen to start the Aseres Hadibros purposely. Two different acronyms are given: The first is that the letters stand for אמירה נעימה כתיבה יהיבה—a proclamation that is sweet and pleasant, given in writing. This references the beauty that Dovid, the נעים זמירות represented.
The second acronym given is the same as the above, but the letter nun is changed from from נעימה to נאמנין, true: A proclamation that is true, given in writing. Moshe Rabbainu, of whom it is said בכל ביתי נאמן הוא is represented here.
Both aspects are vital. We cannot be Jews in our hearts only, just looking for aesthetics and beauty. Likewise, we cannot forget that there is more than a list of commandments and prohibitions. An eved Hashem is obligated in both.
Oddly, there is an entire story in the beginning of Sefer Sh’mos, told with no names:
“And a man went from the house (tribe) of Levi and married the daughter of Levi. And the lady got pregnant and had a son. She saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months. When she was no longer able to hide him, she took a basket and coated it with tar, and placed the boy inside, and she placed him at the edge of the water. His sister observed from afar, to see what would happen to him…”
The story continues with no name until Moshe is named. Amram, Yocheved, Miriam, Basya—none are mentioned by name.
The Baal Haturim points out that there is only one other place with the וילך איש is anonymous as well. This second place is in Megillas Rus, which doesn’t name Elimelech until the second possuk.
Sefer Shmos is the ancestry of Moshe and Megillas Rus is that of Dovid. Why are the sources of our first leader and our first king obscured? What message do we learn from this?
Sefer Shmos starts with a repeated list of all of B’nai Yisrael. Rashi says that the reason the names were all listed is to show how dear each member was to Hashem. Names represent identity and purpose—the sefer in which our identity as a nation is defined is in fact called Shmos-names. Paroh didn’t care to destroy us physically so much as he wanted to destroy B’nai Yisrael’s national identity. He sought to kill the boys, thinking that with that the nation would be destroyed. So the Torah hides the names of the people involved in the story that led to salvation, in line with Paroh’s goal.
The Torah has a duality: the strict laws and the spirit. It is only through keeping both of these aspects that our observance of Torah is complete. It is these two aspects that preserve our nationhood and make us the chosen nation, B’nai Yisrael.
Paroh wanted to make us nameless, but the Torah uses this to teach us an important lesson. There are no names to teach us that each one of us could be that “ish”. One doesn’t need to be an Amram, or even an Elimelech (who despite his mistake was a leader and a holy man) to start the chain of actions that leads to a geula. Any one of us in living as a Torah Jew and internalizing the messages of the Torah while clinging tightly to its rules has the merit of having truly accepted the Torah this Shavuos.
Wishing you all a meaningful Chag Shavuos!