July 18, 2024
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The weeks following Pesach bring us to the time of Kabbalat HaTorah. Just before receiving the Torah, the pasuk (Yisro 19:17) says that all of klal Yisrael stood “b’tachtit hehar.” The simple meaning of this phrase is that they stood at the foot of the mountain, but the literal translation implies that they stood underneath it.

The Gemara in Shabbos asks how this is possible. It answers by way of a midrash that says that Hashem actually held Har Sinai over their heads. He told them, “If you accept the Torah, then good, but if not, sham t’hei kevuratchem, there will be your grave!”

Rav Aharon Soloveichik, zt”l, asked a very compelling question on this midrash. Why does it say the word “sham,” there will be your grave? Hashem was holding the mountain over their heads and warned them, “If you reject the Torah, I will drop the mountain on top of you, right here and now.” So why does He say “sham,” there, and not “po,” here?

Rav Aharon answers that Hashem was not only talking to the people who were physically present at Har Sinai. He was also talking to all of the Jewish people throughout the generations throughout our destiny. He was saying, “Wherever you go, wherever you wander, whatever circumstances you encounter, if you live a Torah life and remain loyal to Hashem, you will survive. Yes, there will be difficult times, there will be obstacles to overcome. If you persevere, you will remain an am kadosh. But if you forget the Torah, not just here at Har Sinai, but anywhere you find yourself, there will be your grave. You will no longer exist as a holy nation.”

The Stropkover Rebbe asked a similar question. When Hashem instructs Moshe Rabbeinu to come up and receive the luchot in Parshat Mishpatim (24:12), why did He say, “Alei eylai haharah v’heye sham, Ascend the mountain to me and be there”? Moshe was right at the bottom of the mountain. Why didn’t Hashem say “po”?

Hashem was telling Moshe, “I am not giving you something for your own personal treasure, for you alone to sit here and learn day and night. I am giving it to you so you can go to the people and become Moshe Rabbeinu, the preeminent teacher and leader of klal Yisrael for all time.” That is why the Torah uses the word “sham.”

The Rebbe compared it to the end of Parshat Ha’azinu (32:49-50) when Hashem tells Moshe about his imminent death. He says, “Alei el Har Hahavorim hazeh, Har Nebo, asher b’eretz Moav al pnei Yereicho … Ascend this mountain, Mount Avorim, Mount Nebo, that is in the land of Moav, before Yericho …” In the next pasuk, Hashem continues,” u’mo’ot bahar, and die on the mountain.” Then He adds the seemingly extraneous phrase, “v’heyaseif el amecha, and be gathered unto your people.” This phrase is a gentle euphemism for death. Generally, if you want to use euphemistic language, you do not use straightforward language as well. Conversely, if you want to use straightforward language, you do not use a euphemism. Why does Hashem use both? To emphasize that while Moshe’s body may be buried on a particular mountain, his soul will live on and be with klal Yisrael forever.

At the end of Parshat V’zot Habracha (34:6), the Torah tells us further information about where Moshe will be buried, that it will be opposite Beit Pe’or. Then it says no one will ever know the location of his burial. If we were told where that is, why doesn’t anybody know it? How do we understand that contradiction? The Dubno Maggid illustrates an explanation with a beautiful mashal.

An outstanding talmid chacham went to audition for a position to be the rav of a small town in Eastern Europe. The townspeople were very impressed with the candidate. He was a very charismatic young man, a good speaker and clearly a talmid chacham. They were eager to have him, but the feeling was not reciprocated. There was nothing in that town that drew the man to want to become their rabbi.

The president of the shul sensed the rabbi’s disappointment and realized that he would have to come up with something very appealing to stimulate his interest. He said to him, “Before you finalize your decision, there is one thing I think you should take into consideration. This town has a special distinction. There are many gedolei Torah buried here.”

The talmid chacham’s ears perked up. “Hmm,” he thought, “this town doesn’t look so enticing to me, but the thought of someday finding my eternal rest in a beit hachayim with gedolei Torah is very compelling.” He decided to take the position.

After a few days, he went to the beit hachayim. He saw the headstones of a butcher, a shoemaker, a tailor, but, as much as he searched, he found no one at all of any rabbinic note! He was incensed. He came back to the president of the shul and said, “You deceived me! Why did you lie and tell me that gedolei Torah are buried in this town?”

“I didn’t lie to you,” the president responded. “There are gedolei Torah buried in this town.”

“Name two,” the rabbi demanded.

“All right,” replied the president. “Rashi and the Rambam are buried here.”

Now the rabbi was furious. “Do you think I am a child? Everybody knows the Rambam is buried in Teveriah in Eretz Yisrael and Rashi is buried in Worms, France! Whom are you trying to deceive?”

“Rabbi, I am not lying to you. Go to the yeshivot in Teveriah and see how the talmidim there sit and study every single word of the Rambam. He is not ‘buried’ there in Teveriah. Go to France and see how the yeshiva bachurim there analyze every line of Rashi’s commentary, how they wouldn’t learn a pasuk of Chumash without Rashi, how they understand the Gemara only with the peirush of Rashi. Rashi is not ‘buried’ there.

“But look at our town. Look at the closed beit midrash. Look at how few people even open a sefer. Here in our town, Rashi and Rambam are ‘buried.’ Please, Rabbi, teach us Torah so we can lift up our heads and proclaim that Rashi and the Rambam are not ‘buried’ here, that they are alive and vibrant here!”

The Dubno Maggid and the Stropkover Rebbe are teaching the same valuable lesson. Hashem was telling Moshe, “When you die, your physical being may be dead and buried in a certain location, but spiritually you will be very much alive, a lasting influence for all time in any place where Torah is learned.”

May we be zoche to hear Hashem’s voice when He calls and to benefit from the undying influence of Moshe Rabbeinu, until b’iat hago’el and techiyat hameitim.

By Rabbi Zecharia Senter


Rabbi Zecharia Senter is the founder and president of KOF-K Kosher Supervision, one of the largest kosher certification agencies serving the Jewish community worldwide. He was a talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z”l, and received semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS.

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