A Sight to Behold
N. D. Kumer
(translation of a Chasidic discourse by Rabbi J.I. Schneersohn)
"And all the people saw the thunder and the lightning, the
sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain." (Ex. 20:15)
These words describe the tremendous revelation of G-d's essence and
the supernal joy experienced at the Torah's giving - as well as the
delight of the Jewish nation at these revelations. Why did the Torah
use sight to describe this exceptionally spiritual event? In addition,
since Torah learning is primarily an intellectual endeavor, wouldn't
terms describing mental perceptions have been more appropriate?
The Jews saw four things: 1) thunder, 2) lightning, 3) the sound of
the shofar, and 4) the smoking mountain. The first three are revelations
from Above. The fourth (see Ohr HaChayim on the verse) alludes to an
initiative from below, since the mountain's interior was aflame, producing
smoke that ascended upwards.
The smoke rising from the mountain - an ascent from below to above
- alludes to the innovation of the giving of the Torah. Until the Torah
was given, all divine revelations to the world were gratis. As the Talmud
indicates (Pesachim 118a), until this historic event, the world was
sustained by G-d's virtue of kindness, and not through any merit of
its own. Even our Patriarchs, despite their greatness, did not merit
by dint of their service, all the awesome revelations from G-d, because
whatever good acts they performed affected principally the spiritual
realm. Also, the mitzvot which the Patriarchs performed using physical
objects did not actually sanctify or elevate those items. By fulfilling
a mitzvah, they elicited an exclusively spiritual reaction without transforming
the physical object into a holy one.
[Author's note: In Kabbalistic terms, the Patriarchs
could not elevate the feminine waters ("Mayim Nukvin"). This
could only be accomplished through the efforts and initiatives of their
progeny, the Jewish people, in transforming the material world (via
The intent of the Torah was that there should be an arousal from below.
Mitzvot are performed with, and intended to transform, physical objects.
For example tzitzit are made of physical wool and tefillin are made
of physical parchment - each transforming these mundane objects into
holy ones. Even "service of the heart" is intended to affect
our bodies; i.e. one's heart should actually feel love and awe of G-d.
So, too, with loving a fellow Jew, the love should be physically felt
in one's heart. The heart should feel joy at another Jew's good fortune,
and pain at someone's sorrow, being compelled to help others - whether
in physical or spiritual matters. Likewise, we are commanded to grasp,
with our physical brain, the reality of G-d. Torah learning itself must
be performed aloud, using the mouth, as it says, "...and you should
speak of them" (from the Shema prayer). In general, the Torah's
commandments require us to interact with, and thus elevate, the material
Torah and mitzvot are enclothed in physicality so that we elevate our
bodies, natural inclinations, and the material world to holiness. For
this reason, the Torah was not given to the heavenly angels, although
they had petitioned G-d for it. Angels do not possess evil inclinations
that require purification. Additionally, G-d chose to give the Torah
to the Jews here on earth, as opposed to raising us up to the heavens
and giving us the Torah there, to stress the Torah's place in this world.
Similarly, G-d gave the Torah on a mountain and not on a plain - since
a mountain represents earth, i.e. physicality, which gets elevated.
Service with Joy
Our service to G-d must be with joy, as it says, "Serve G-d with
joy" (Psalms 100:2). Even those times when we are instructed to
serve with awe, our joy is only hidden. Regarding service that is devoid
of joy, it is written, "For you did not serve the Lord, your G-d
with joy and a good heart, and you will serve your enemies" (Deut.
28:47, 48). Why is happiness so crucial? Isn't the divine service itself
the main purpose, and the joy only auxiliary? And even if happiness
is important, why does its absence precipitate such a severe punishment?
" The soul's light and vivifying life-force are enclothed in the
different parts of the body..."
Every created being has its source in the loftiest planes, as the Sages
teach, "There is no blade of grass in the world below that does
not have a spiritual life-force above striking it and telling it to
grow" ( Bereishit Rabba 10:7. Cf. Zohar I:251a, Zohar Chadash 4b).
Even the minutest details of botanical life - taste, smell, appearance,
etc. - are rooted in the qualities of their spiritual life-force. For
example, the sweetness the palate experiences in tasting an apple derives
from the sweetness in the spiritual life-force.
To understand the relationship between spiritual sweetness and the
physical sweetness of an apple, imagine another, loftier "sweetness"
that we enjoy. Someone with the gift of "sweet words" can
speak eloquently and expressively, and not necessarily even about intellectual
topics. "Sweetness of hearing" both the spoken or sung word,
can awaken or beckon the spirit.
There is also the "sweetness of sight" as when one gazes
at a beautiful picture. A person can be so captivated by the image that
he becomes oblivious to himself, and to his environment. He simply does
not want to leave. Even when he does pull himself away from the picture,
he finds it difficult to focus even on trivial things, let alone on
intellectual subjects. The reason is that he is still connected to the
"sweetness" of the lovely picture, so that even as time passes,
its memory remains vivid as ever, and he can still feel that same sweetness
as when he stood gazing upon it.
There is also "sweetness of character", "sweetness of
intellect", and "sweetness of will and pleasure", these
being successively higher and higher levels of sweetness, and incomparably
loftier than the sweetness of the apple's taste. As lofty as all these
levels of sweetness may be, they still cannot compare to the wholly
spiritual sweetness of the spiritual life-force. Yet the physical apple
is sweet because of the sweetness extant in its spiritual life-force.
Understand, though, that the inner spirituality of the apple comes from
materializing the spiritual life-force's spiritual aspect.
From the above example, we can understand the process of bringing to
existence the finite from the G-dly, i.e. the lower worlds ( Beriya,
Yetzira, Asiya) from the higher world ( Atzilut). Each aspect of each
world, is actually only a diluted derivative of the previous, higher
world. Our patriarch Abraham, the embodiment of the spiritual attribute
of kindness and love, referred to himself as "dust and ashes".
The Alter Rebbe explains that just as there is no similarity between
ash and a piece of wood, even though ash is the essence of the wood,
so too, there is no similarity between Abraham's kindness and the level
of kindness in the world of Atzilut, which is Abraham's activating force
(Iggeret HaKodesh, epistle 15). Likewise, everything in this world has
its source above - yet it is only an approximate model compared with
the lowest level of that source.
Supremacy of the Senses
The soul's light and vivifying life-force are enclothed in the different
parts of the body and are expressed in two ways: 1) the faculties of
the soul, 2) the senses of the soul. The soul's senses, such as vision,
hearing, smell, and speech, enable us to relate to world at large -
beyond ourselves. In Kabbalistic terms, these senses are known as "vanities"
whose life-force is greatly condensed ( Etz Chaim, Shaar 4).
In terms of life-force from the soul, the senses receive less than
the limbs and organs of the body. The senses receive only a mere illumination
of the life-force, as opposed to the limbs, which receive the essence
of the life-force. Nevertheless, the senses possess a certain supremacy
in the delight (in the Hebrew original, "oneg", which also
can be translated as pleasure) which they experience.
The faculties and senses of the soul, like the body itself, have a
deliberate vertical order, with certain ones located above, and others
beneath. For example, the mind, the body's loftiest organ, is also located
highest in the body. So too, the body's finest faculties and senses
are located in the upper part of the body. However, in terms of experiencing
pleasure, this vertical order of importance does not apply, especially
in regards to the senses of the soul.
For example, the pleasure experienced upon seeing a beautiful picture
is much greater than that upon contemplating an intellectual concept.
Even if someone really enjoys grasping a deep idea, this does cannot
compare to the enjoyment of losing oneself in a beautiful sight. The
supremacy of physical vision will become fully apparent during the Messianic
Era, as the verse says, "And the glory of G-d will be revealed,
and all [beings of] flesh will see together that from G-d's mouth it
was spoken". The pleasure of sight will be so great that the souls
of the righteous will be enclothed in bodies in order to experience
The pleasure experienced through sight is wondrous for the essence
of delight is found in the core of the mind and the inwardness of the
heart. Since delight and will are the soul's encompassing powers, they
are not limited to specific parts of the body. Nonetheless, delight
and will are still linked to the physical body, since even the soul's
essence is connected to the body. The mind is the primary seat of delight
[and the heart the primary seat of will], however, only the external
aspects of delight are experienced by the intellect. The inner aspects
of delight are drawn into the senses, such as vision, so that one can
"lose himself" in a certain sight.
Similarly, one can become so overwhelmed by sounds that one becomes
"senseless". Smell can "calm the soul", meaning
that scent affects a level of the soul that is higher than the life-force
infusing the body parts. Speech, as when discussing an intellectual
concept, can be more enjoyable than pondering the concept to oneself.
From all this we see that although the senses receive far less life-force
than the various limbs and organs of the body, the senses, in terms
of experiencing pleasure, are superior to even the highest faculties
of the soul.
G-d's "Senses" and Pleasure
In man, the faculties of the soul become enclothed in the body, intellect
in the brain, emotions in the heart, sight in the eye, hearing in the
ear, ambulation in the feet, etc. - so that all 613 of the soul's powers
are enclothed in their corresponding physical limbs. Likewise, in Atzilut,
spiritual lights are enclothed in vessels. And in Atzilut, there are
also spiritual "senses" - sight, hearing, smell and speech.
Similar to man, the vessels in Atzilut receive the essence of the life-force,
whereas the senses - the "vanities" - only receive an illumination
of that life-force. Furthermore, the vessels of Atzilut do not receive
the essence of delight; it is received by the senses of Atzilut.
For this reason, in describing lofty and awesome revelations that are
very near [to the recipients], the metaphor of sight is employed. G-d's
sight, for example, indicates His closeness to the Land of Israel, "...the
eyes of the L-rd your G-d are upon her [the Land] from the beginning
of the year to the end of the year" (Deut. 11:12). It is written
of the Temple, "And My eyes and heart were there all of the days"
(Kings I 9:3). As is known, G-d's essence was revealed in the Temple,
where the finite and infinite co-existed. On the one hand, everything
there had a specific [finite] time and place (i.e. the sacrifices had
to brought in a certain sequence, at specific times of the day, and
performed in certain parts of the Temple, and the vessels used had exact
On the other hand, that which was in the Temple transcended time and
space. The alacrity of the priests defied the norms of time; the worshippers,
who stood crowded together, still had enough room to bow down, thus
defying the strictures of space. The altar had finite dimensions, but
the space it occupied in the Holy of Holies could not be measured.
All this happened, since G-d revealed His essence in the Temple; therefore,
the finite and infinite existed as one, since G-d's inner light and
delight were revealed. It is specifically the "sense" of sight
that is used to describe G-d's relationship with the Temple, "And
My eyes...were there" (Kings, ibid.). Sight is also used to depict
G-d's bond with the righteous, "G-d's eyes are on the righteous"
(Psalms 34:16), and "G-d's eye is on those who fear him" (Psalms
Sight is used also to describe our attraction to G-d, a powerful attraction
engendered by our gazing at the majesty of the King (Zohar I, 199a;
Tanya, ch. 9, 50) and deriving intense delight. This is a level much
higher than what we can reach through intellectual endeavors and meditation,
or by arousing love and fear of G-d. This reaching for G-d's essence
is described by using terms of sight and sound, "Show me your appearance;
let me hear your voice for it is a pleasant voice" (Songs 2:14).
Here, "voice" refers to the sounds of Torah learning and prayer.
It is written that the aroma of the sacrifices offered in the Temple
were "a scent for the satisfaction of G-d" (Lev. 1:13, et
al) reaching the level of G-d's essence (Zohar II 239:1).
Pleasure in Giving the Torah
This is what is alluded to by the words, "And all the people saw
the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the shofar and the smoking
mountain" (Ex. 20:15). As mentioned earlier, the first three phenomena
were revelations from Above. The fourth, the smoking mountain - the
world below rising upward - was the great innovation of the Giving of
the Torah. Through the physical performance of Torah and mitzvot, we
can purify the physical world.
The giving of the Torah was a moment of tremendous revelations and
caused great supernal joy and delight. For this reason, the Torah uses
sight, the primary sense through which we experience delight, to describe
Mrs. Nechama Dina ("Dinka") Kumer, executive secretary
of Ascent of Safed, is originally from Nashville, Tennessee. She is
a graduate of the Beit Hannah Seminary in Safed, and the mother of four
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (12 Tammuz 1880-10 Shvat 1950),
known as the Rebbe Rayatz, was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, from
1920 to 1950. He established a network of Jewish educational and chasidic
institutions that was the single most significant factor for the preservation
of Judaism during the dread reign of the communist Soviets. In 1940
he moved to the USA, established Chabad world-wide headquarters in Brooklyn
and launched the global campaign to renew and spread Judaism in all
languages and in every corner of the world, the campaign continued and
expanded so remarkably successfully by his son-in-law and successor,
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.