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 Itaruta d'letata).]

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 world.

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 it.

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 measurements).

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 33:18).

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 the event.


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 children.


Biographical note:

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.


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