by Rabbi Nussbaum

February 14, 2019
SHEVAT 19, 5780
Candlelighting Time 5:17 PM

When the Torah was received by the nation, Mt. Sinai was cordoned off and only the most prominent leaders of the people were allowed to approach the sacred mount upon which Hashem would descend and give us the Torah. The people were warned not to even slightly encounter the mountain and touch it. The penalty for this infraction was very severe, death. Why was this violation so severely penalized? After all, those who transgressed this were only touching the mountain, not more than that.

Malbim has a fascinating explanation of this. The Torah is not referring to one’s physically touching the mountain. Rather the Torah is exhorting us to limit our mental exploring of the topics of the Torah which are potentially damaging. After all, our intellectual prowess is feeble compared to that of Hashem and attempting to process something which is beyond our scope can lead us astray if we misunderstand that which we are perceiving. As an example, if one looks directly at the sun, the brilliance of the sun’s rays will harm if not outright blind the person. So too, there is certain deep subject matter that even highly intelligent people can’t process appropriately!

The Talmud records such an incident where four highly advanced scholars ventured in to a mind-bending experience. According to Malbim and other commentators they explored areas of intellectual expansion involving deep conceptualization of Hashem’s very essence. One of them actually died having surpassed the limitations of his mind, another’s mind was ‘injured’, the third one, unable to properly perceive that which he was viewing, became a non-believer and the fourth one was totally unaffected by their experience. Therefore, based upon this incident, we can now understand the Torah’s prohibition of mental journeying where we don’t belong.

Of course, the question lingers, if we have the capacity to explore why is it indeed prohibited and if we are not given the privilege to investigate such matters, then why do we have that capacity? Perhaps the answer is that we must properly assess why we are endowed with the capabilities that we possess? Certainly Hashem didn’t randomly gift us a marvelous mind and myriad potential for no reason! In the Duties of the Hearts, a book penned approximately a thousand years ago, Rabbeinu B’chaya launches in to a long complex discourse of the many physical and mental powers and qualities that we encompass. His message is that Hashem did indeed give us tremendous abilities however, we are advised to use them in the most positive fashion as possible. And that means that we must harness all that energy and potential for the purpose of which we were placed here. And that goal is to serve Hashem in the best way possible. Therefore, it follows that if we attempt to accomplish objectives that will run counter to that expectation, then it is not only incorrect, but prohibited because it is harmful and abusive to our goal here.

Furthermore, we may contend that additionally part and parcel of our service to Hashem is to learn how to control ourselves and not indulge in activities that are not only non-productive but even possibly damaging. Therefore, engaging in this type of intellectual exploration certainly does not promote our agenda to learn Torah better or to perform mitzvos in an improved manner, therefore, we are prohibited from this kind of activity.


Since the mountain upon which the Torah was given was sanctified and to touch it was prohibited, how much more so must we give Torah scholars honor and glory as they embody the Torah itself.      CHOFETZ CHAIM