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Unity & Individuality in Avodas Hashem

By: Rabbi Yitzchak Lerner

A well-known Gemara (Shabbat 88a) tells us that when the Jews were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, G-d lifted the mountain over their heads like a barrel and said, "If you accept the Torah, good; if you do not, then here will be your burial place." The implication of this midrash is that we were coerced into accepting the Torah; indeed, the midrash appears to address this difficulty by saying that we re-accepted the Torah on our own volition at the time of Purim.

Tosfot and many of other commentators are bothered by the implication of the Gemara. What need was there to coerce Bnei Yisrael into accepting the Torah? What about "Na'aseh ve-nishma," "We will do, and then we will hear," the famous expression by which we told G-d that whatever He wants of us, we will gladly do – and only then will we learn about it. If this is so, ask Tosfot, then what need was there to coerce us into accepting the Torah?

Tosfot answer that we did indeed say "Na'aseh ve-nishma," but when we got to mount Sinai and saw the great fire, we got
scared and started to have second thoughts. G-d therefore lifted the mountain and forced us to accept the Torah. I would like to offer an explanation of this Tosfot that I heard from Rabbi Feldman, formerly of Atlanta. Rabbi Feldman explained that there are two elements in Judaism, the subjective and objective. The subjective element of being a Jew is the feeling that each Jew has in being connected to the Jewish people and to G-d. Who doesn't like bagels and lox? Who's not proud of being a Jew? Look at the reaction we see from secular Jews if someone questions their Jewishness. It awakens the Jewish spark in a person like a sleeping bear.  When G-d took us out of Egypt, everyone was on a Jewish high: "Sure we want to be Your people!"

Then, when G-d brought us to mount Sinai, we saw that being Jewish isn't just a feeling, but also something objective. There are many mitzvot, with all of their implications. There are now restrictions placed on our lives! This is where we took a step back and G-d had to lift the mountain over our heads.

We need both of these elements. The objective elements of mitzvot is a binding factor for all the Jewish people. My Tfillin are the same as yours. My Shulchan Aruch is the same as yours. When you walk on the street and you see another Jew walking, you know that you have everything in common. I often wonder, if I met my great-great-grandfather, what would we discuss? There would be no generation gap -- a sugya in Brochos or Bava Metzia would be our starting point. That is the objective element of Judaism.

The subjective element that we all need is how do I, as an individual, relate to G-d through his mitzvot. Even though our Tfillin are the same, the way i relate to G-d when I put on my Tfillin is different from the way you relate to G-d when you put on your Tfillin. When one woman lights Shabbos candles, the feeling of connection she feels to the Creator is completely different than the woman next to her, even though they are doing the same Mitzvah.

May we merit this upcoming Shabbos to experience a Kabbalat Hatorah that involves a true accepting on our part of both the objective elements of Torah and growth in our subjective feelings towards G-d, his Torah and his people.




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