On the Precipice

by Rabbi Nussbaum

May 22, 2020
Iyar 28, 5780
Candlelighting Time 7:56 PM

We are on the final lap. This coming week precedes the exciting and profound Yom Tov of Shavuos. Hashem ‘revealed’ Himself to the nation and we experienced an incredible out of body revision. Every word of Hashem was charged with astounding spiritual force. As each member of the nation heard every word of the Ten Commandments, his soul departed from his body and dew descended from heaven to revive them. This is the dew that in the future will resurrect the dead when Moshiach arrives to herald a new time for the world and the Jewish nation.

Maharsha, a 16th century Talmudic commentator, questions because the Talmud also states that when the people heard the Commandments they were thrown back quite a distance and angels appeared and pushed them back to Mt. Sinai. Yet another statement in the Talmud records that when Hashem spoke the entire world was full of a very sweet smell in order to revive the people when they heard the Commandments. So what did indeed occur? He answers that there were different groups of people. Some were stronger and did not die and were not pushed back and for them it was sufficient to have a sweet smell to reinvigorate them. Others were weaker and either died or were pushed back.

Maharal, a 16th century Kabbalist, has a fascinating and profound understanding of this passage in the Talmud. He posits that man, as great as a person can become through fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos, cannot truthfully ascend to the level where he can connect with Hashem. We, existing in a corporeal state, are handicapped to associate on the level of Hashem, the sovereign power of spirituality in the universe. Therefore, when Hashem spoke we were pushed away, in other words, by virtue of our inherent deficiency we are blocked from fully absorbing Hashem’s words. The Talmud states that the angels came and returned us. According to Maharal, this may be understood that Hashem instilled within us a herculean ability to assimilate more than we would have been able to otherwise although we were still remote from complete integration of the Commandments. The Talmud also states that we died at that time, Maharal explains that man’s existential level cannot mesh with that of Hashem as we mentioned. As a result, at our level of physicality, it was as though we were not present in view of the fundamentally profound revelation of Hashem’s presence. We merited an unusual Divine intervention, the dew, which allowed us to perceive the Commandments on a level well surpassing the mediocrity that accompanies our compromised physical state. 

From these two interpretations of the Talmud we can clearly see two vastly different viewpoints regarding the intensity that transpired at the time of our reception of the Torah. When we daven on Yom Tov we refer to Shavuos as the time of our acquiring of the Torah, not the time when Hashem gave us the Torah. Although on the one hand the incredibly fantastic revelation that occurred was soul boggling, we need to focus as well on the tremendous disparity between our reality and that of the Torah and Hashem. The distance is immeasurable and the abyss is immense. Nonetheless, Hashem in His great mercy has given us the opportunity to study and absorb His wisdom that is conveyed through the Torah. We must acknowledge this tremendous gift that we have merited and realize that without Torah and mitzvos our journey through life would be extremely handicapped and non-productive. It is only within the framework of Torah that we are able to elevate our mortal and mundane lives to a celestial ambiance. Shavuos energizes our passion for Torah and renews our perception of what we need to strive for in life!


Rabbi Meir is quoted in Pirkei Avos that one who is immersed in Torah merits ‘many things’. The world exists due to the life source that flows from Torah in to this world. It is our responsibility to maintain that connection through our study of Torah that radiates its influence upon the creation. Therefore, as we engage intensely in Torah we assist in that ongoing flow from the Heavenly reservoir of all that is good.   S’FAS EMES