April 16, 2024
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Allowing Torah to Define Our Lives

Many of us are familiar with the Midrash that relays how God offered the Torah to the other nations of the world. Each nation inquired as to the content of the Torah, and, in each case, Hashem responded by outlining a prohibition from the Torah that would be particularly challenging for that nation to keep. As a result, each nation rejected the offer outright. Ultimately, only Bnei Yisrael agreed to accept the Torah wholeheartedly, without condition.

Rav Shimshon Pincus raises an obvious question concerning this episode. At first glance, Hashem seems to act unfairly toward the other nations. When each nation asks about the contents of the Torah, Hashem davka tells them about the one prohibition that He knows they will have trouble accepting. But the Torah contains within it so many more commandments—many of them beautiful and inspiring. Why doesn’t God begin His description of the Torah with its more inspiring content, garner excitement for the Torah from these nations, and only later mention the prohibition that will be difficult for them to keep? It almost seems as if God does not want the nations of the world to accept the Torah, and He therefore makes sure to highlight the areas that they will find challenging.

Rav Pincus answers that Hashem was trying to teach the other nations—and us—a crucially important lesson regarding Torah and its impact on our lives. God stressed to each nation, from day one, that Kabbalat haTorah, acceptance of the Torah, means allowing Torah to define who you are—even if that means changing your worldview and desires.

Accepting the Torah does not mean acceding to only the things that we like or are easy. Accepting Torah means accepting it fully, even when it is inconvenient and hard. From the moment He offered each nation the Torah, God wanted to make it clear that this is what Kabbalat haTorah entails. When each nation asked what was included in the Torah, therefore, Hashem specifically mentioned the one element that He knew would be the hardest for them to keep—to highlight that if they wanted to accept the Torah, they must be even willing to give up a lifestyle that was important to them. This is the essence of living a life of Torah.

And when Bnei Yisrael responded with “naaseh v’nishma”—accepting the Torah without knowing its full contents—the Jewish nation showed their willingness to follow God’s lead and sacrifice their own desires in order to live a life of Torah. They understood that accepting the Torah means accepting and doing even the things that are hard to do, even those commandments that go against our nature, because they are the ratzon Hashem.

Rav Soloveitchik, in several places, writes about the important role of submission in Judaism—how each person must submit our wants to a higher authority, thereby committing an act of “tzimtzum,” a “withdrawing” of ourselves and our natural desires, in deference to Hashem. In this way, we imitate God himself, who also did an act of “tzimtzum,” of “withdrawal,” in order to create space for mankind.

In his famous essay titled “Catharsis,” the Rav posits that heroism means living a life of submission to Halacha—accepting upon ourselves a higher authority and being submissive to its commands, even when it means going against our desires and wants. A true hero, suggests Rav Soloveitchik, is one who submits to this higher authority even when no one is watching, in the privacy of his own home. In such a situation, no one is forcing him. He is submitting simply out of a deep commitment to, and relationship with, Hashem.

We currently live in a society that places a premium on personal choice. The ability to choose, in all areas of life, is considered an essential and basic human right. In such a world, it is extremely challenging to connect to the concept of submission to a higher authority. Such a concept goes against the entire ethos of the culture around us. It is therefore particularly crucial that we not only continue to cultivate obedience to Hashem’s will within ourselves, but within our children as well. From a young age we must instill within our kids the knowledge that there is a Higher Being to whom we submit ourselves and our lives—and the importance of being able to do so.

Of course, this does not mean that our relationship with Hashem is simply one of submission. Our connection with Hashem is so much deeper than that; it is also a relationship of deep love and dedication. But at its core, the point of departure for our relationship with Hashem is that of deference to His authority; from there, everything else flows.

As we celebrate our acceptance of the Torah this year, we should remember the message of this important Midrash. As God offered the Torah to all the nations, He emphasized for them that living a life of Torah doesn’t mean living a life of convenience. It means living a life of dedication and commitment to a Higher Authority. In accepting the Torah without question, our ancestors embarked upon this journey of commitment and devotion to God. Each year, on Shavuot, we re-commit ourselves to that devotion.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!!


Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement adviser/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected].

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