April 12, 2024
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Interacting Directly With Hashem

Editor’s note: This series is reprinted with permission from “Insights & Attitudes: Torah Essays on Fundamental Halachic and Hashkafic Issues,” a publication of TorahWeb.org. The book contains multiple articles, organized by parsha, by Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky.

Our tradition has it that ma’amad Har Sinai was really the culmination of yetzias Mitzrayim. The Mishna (Avos 6:2) comments on the phrase “חרות על הלחת” (Shemos 32:16) that we shouldn’t simply read “charus” (that the Aseres Hadibros were engraved on the stones) but rather we should also read “cheirus” (freedom), implying that one is only free if he learns Torah. Some people are slaves to an outside master; others are slaves to their own desires, i.e., they are not in full control of themselves. HaKadosh Baruch Hu told us (Kiddushin 30b) בראתי יצר הרע בראתי לו תורה תבלין. The only antidote to this problematic condition (of improper desires) is Torah. Learning Torah and regimenting oneself in keeping mitzvos gives one the ability to gain control of one’s own desires.

The pasuk in Koheles (10:17) praises “the country whose king is a free person.” The Zohar (Lech Lecha 95b) understands this to be referring to Eretz Yisrael. It is the praise of Eretz Yisrael that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is officially its King, and Yerushalayim, the official capital of Eretz Yisrael, is known as kisei Hashem (the throne of God; see Yirmeyahu 3:17). According to the interpretation of the Zohar, Hashem is referred to as “ben chorin.” He is the one who gives man the ability to become free.

When Hashem first appeared to Moshe Rabbeinu from the burning bush, He told him “when you will lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, you will serve Me on this mountain” (Shemos 3:12. See MiPeninei HaRav, Kuntrus Sefiras Ha’omer #10). Moshe Rabbeinu, however, didn’t feel that he was qualified to lead the drama of the exodus since he had no experience in politics. Hashem explained to him that the main purpose of yetzias Mitzrayim was not so much to gain political freedom for the Jews, such that a statesman should be required to lead, but rather the whole purpose of the exodus, and the true meaning of freedom, is to lead to Torah study. Although Moshe Rabbeinu was not a polished statesman, he was cut out to be a top-notch melamed. And this was the meaning of the phrase, in (Shemos 3:12)

תעבדון את האלקים על ההר הזה

The term avoda in this pasuk refers to limmud haTorah. The Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos, asei #5) quotes from the Sifrei that the term “avoda” in the Torah can refer to one of three things: offering of korbanos, tefilla, and Torah study – “עבדהו בתורתו.” The common denominator among these three mitzvos seems to be that the individual is in the state of lifnei Hashem,26 and is directly interacting with Hashem.

When one offers a korban, it is not as if one has sent it via UPS, and the driver leaves the package with the superintendent who will later hand it over to the addressee. The Rabbis in the Talmud (Ta’anis 26) comment, how can one’s korban be offered when the ba’al hakorban is not present? It is as though Hashem were there in person receiving the gift. In prayer as well, Rambam writes (Hilchos Tefilla 4:16) that when one davens he is lifnei Hashem, and should carry himself as though he were in heaven in the presence of God, speaking to Him directly. It is not as though one sends a letter requesting assistance to someone else. When one davens, he is directly interacting with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

The same is true of Torah study. The Rabbis had a tradition that מיום שחרב בית

המקדש אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא אלא ד’ אמות של הלכה, “from the day the Temple was destroyed, the only place where Hashem can be found is in the four amos of halacha” (Berachos 8a). When the Temple stood, one would visit there and be in the presence of Hashem – the Beis HaMikdash was the “house of Hashem.” After the Temple was destroyed, one can best enter into a state of lifnei Hashem by learning Torah. The opening word “Anochi” of the Aseres Hadibros is taken by the Talmud (Shabbos 105a) to represent (by the way of roshei teivos) the idea that “אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית — by My writing down My Torah, I have given over to you the essence of My soul. The Torah is a description of Hashem.

The Talmud tells us that the Shechina will be there with one who delves into Torah study (Avos 3:3, Tamid 32b). When Hashem told Moshe that the exodus will lead up to “avoda” on Har Sinai, this was referring to the Torah study on the occasion of ma’amad Har Sinai. The unique status of these three mitzvos (korbanos, tefilla, talmud Torah), that they alone should be referred to as avoda, seems to be that only in these three is there direct interaction with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, like an eved serving his master directly.27

26 See Ramban (Bereishis 4:13-16) that Kayin understood on his own that his punishment would be that he would no longer be allowed to interact directly with Hashem, either by praying or offering a sacrifice; the Torah confirms that indeed that was his punishment: “’ויצא קין מלפני ה”

27 The Talmud (Berachos 34b) relates that when the child of the chief rabbi, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, became sick, R. Yochanan asked R. Chanina ben Dosa (his student) to pray for the child’s recovery. When the child got better, and it was obvious to all that the recovery was due to the prayers of R. Chanina, R. Yochanan commented that even if he were to daven all day long, he would not be able to accomplish with his prayers what R. Chanina accomplished with his brief prayer. R. Yochanan’s wife asked her husband how it could be that R. Chanina (his student) was greater than he? R. Yochanan responded that R. Chanina was not greater in Torah learning, but that he (R. Yochanan) is like a sar (minister) in the cabinet of a king, someone who is not free to visit the king.


Rabbi Hershel Schachter joined the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1967, at the age of 26, the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since 1971, Rabbi Schachter has been Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) and also holds the institution’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud. In addition to his teaching duties, Rabbi Schachter lectures, writes, and serves as a world renowned decisor of Jewish Law.

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