people.mountShavuot 2014 / 5774 Sarah Yehudit Schneider

The Torah’s revelation at Sinai was the most profound manifestation of God that ever transpired on the planet. An estimated four million people beheld that historic event. A searing revelation of Presence engraved the souls of an entire nation with the-truth-of-the-universe compressed into a single burst of light. Its impact continues to impel their generations to be seekers and servants of God and will do so until the end of time.

The transformation that occurred then was so deep that it actually restored the Israelites to the purity of Adam and Chava before their sin, before death descended into the world.[1] In Gan Eden, says the Talmud, Adam and Chava “spanned from heaven to earth and from one end of the world to the other.”[2] They contained the souls of all reality inside themselves—of every human being from the beginning of time until its end (including each one of us).[3] We all gave consensus to their decision to eat and we all suffered the contaminating consequences of it. But at Sinai the process reversed. That intense revelation of heavenly light flushed out the impurities imbibed from that infamous Tree.

In the language of the Talmud, paska zuhamtan.[4] When the serpent seduced us to taste the forbidden fruit, our consciousness narrowed, our visual-field shrunk, our judgment skewed and our desires twisted. The serpent’s poison (zuhama) snaked through our veins. But at Sinai, paska zuhamtan, its filth departed and we reattained the purity of Eden before the sin.

But if that be so, how did we worship a Golden Calf forty days later? If we were really so squeaky clean we could not have fallen to such idolatrous depravity. Something doesn’t add up.

The Leshem explains that just as Edenic Adam spanned from heaven to earth and contained the entirety of creation within its bounds, so is that the hidden truth for all time.[5] There was then, and there is still now, only one Adam, and every creature, nation and human being is a cell in its universe-encompassing stature. Yet because sin fragments consciousness, and narrows it, we cannot hold that big picture in our shrunken, post-edenic visual field. We cannot see the forest for the trees.

Yet its fact remains. The entirety of creation is a single Adam—a higher order unity—called the Shekhina. And the inner soul core of this universe encompassing Shekhina is Kenesset Yisrael (the Mystical Body of Israel).[6] A tangled network of soul threads connects all creatures to each other and weaves them into a complex whole. And their unity goes deeper still, for creation (says kabbala) is holographic—every piece of the Shekhina contains aspects of every other piece inside itself.[7]

One obvious implication of this woven structure is that all of its pieces are interdependent. Each soul thread is a 2-way channel of influence. We are constantly affecting each other (for better or worse) in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes covert.

If the entirety of creation is a single integrated Adam and Israel is its inner soul core, then the rest of creation (its humans, animals, plants and stones) comprise, relatively speaking, the body of this Adam. And just as our soul and body are intimately linked and mutually dependent, so is this true on the macro-scale. Consequently, says the Leshem, although Israel received the Torah’s revelation and were profoundly altered by it, the rest of the world was not.[8] It is similar to a situation—perhaps in prayer, perhaps in meditation, perhaps just a moment of grace—where the curtains part and in that instant we know (beyond knowing) the truth of our faith. Theoretically, that single experience, fully integrated, should make us a tsadik. Why doesn’t it? Because although our soul saw the light, our body’s priorities (its focus on creature comforts) did not shift even one degree. And so while the soul is trying to soar, the body is dead weight. Eventually the soul loses steam and the moment passes. Only its memory (along with a residue) endures.

This, says the Leshem, was the problem at Sinai. Israel (the soul of our collective Adam) received the Torah, but its body (i.e. the rest of the world) did not. And since Israel is enmeshed with the world via this dense network of soul threads it can only rise if the world rises too. We are co-dependent—we are body and soul.

One could depict the whole course of history from Sinai till mashiach as the process by which Israel assimilates its Torah into the heart, bones, cells and the spaces of its being. Yet that is just another way of saying that the Torah’s ethical monotheism must seep into every corner of the world, uplifting and enlightening it.

That is what it means to be a מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים “priestly kingdom.” The Talmud suggests that wayward desires only enter the Jewish people because the priestly caste are not praying deeply enough for their well-being.[9] The Torah holds the priests accountable for the nation’s spiritual state. As in the microcosm (Israel within itself) so in the macrocosm (Israel as priests to the nations). We need to do whatever we can to raise and enlighten the planet, which includes, at the very least, to pray seriously and intently for its redemption.

This split between soul and body, Israel and the nations, sabotaged the Sinaic redemption and threatens again to do the same. Now (as then) we cannot just gather our kin and walk into the sunset leaving the nations behind. That next era, when we step through the threshold into olam haba, is called סוד הכלילות, the mystery of klilut, a term that means “pure offering without blemish or ash.”[10] Every sliver of soul must come along. Every cell of Adam’s universe-encompassing self must be present for the reckoning. If not, the “offering” is blemished and will not be received.

On Shavuot we commemorate the revelation that converted us into into a priestly nation and saddled us with the task of preparing our flock (the nations and creatures of the world) to deserve the reward phase of history, our messianic golden age. As the lights of this holy day stream through the world, let us take the lesson of Sinai to heart—it’s all of us, or none of us this time around—there is no escaping that fact. We must pray for the world as we pray for ourselves.

Let it be that all Jews—no matter where they stand, no matter what they face—let let them see the light (i.e., Your light). And let them integrate that light so deeply into their being—into their heart, bones, cells and spaces—that they (and we all together) become the light (i.e., the light unto the nations that is our truth and our destiny). And let us shine that light out into the world with a strength and a glory that all the nations of the world, including our enemies among them, should see the light (i.e., HaShem’s light as it shines through the Jewish people). Their hearts should open, their lives should turn, they should choose good and be redeemed.

[1] TB Shabbat 146a.
[2] TB Chagiga 12a
[3] R. Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:137.
[4] TB Shabbat 146a. The filth (zuhama) ceased.
[5] This is a recurring theme of the Leshem so I bring one place where he reiterates this principle: R. Shlomo Elyashiv, Leshem Shebo v’Achlama, Sefer HaKlalim, Klal 15, anaf 10.
[6] Zohar III:152a.
[7] A constantly recurring statement in the Ari. One example: Ari, Eitz Chayim, Heichal Nukva, Shaar Miut HaYareach, Chapter 1.”
[8] Leshem, HaDrush Olam HaTohu, chelek 2, drush 4, anaf 12, siman 7 (ד,ה והנה נעשה).
[9] TB Makkot 11a
[10] Leshem, HaDrush Olam HaTohu, chelek 2, drush 4, siman 4.

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