This week’s Torah reading describes the Giving of the Torah. Thunder and lightning filled the air, the land shook, tremendous shofar blasts were heard and Har Sinai was covered by fire and clouds. The Midrash says that Hashem initially informed Moshe that He would tell him the commandments for Moshe to then repeat to B’nei Israel. However, the people requested that they hear them directly from Hashem: “We want to see our King!”
Hashem accepted the request. Now, after the Jews had prepared themselves spiritually for three days, Hashem spoke to them, His Shehina (Holy Presence) resting on the mountain, His ‘Voice’ emanating from fire. Hashem announced the first of the commandments: “I am Hashem your God…” The people could not handle the intense spiritual power of this connection to God-and their souls left their bodies instantly. Angels brought the Jews back to life, and Hashem gave the next commandment: “You shall not have foreign gods (idols)…” The same thing happened, and again the angels revived them. At that point, they asked that Moshe indeed act as an intermediary. This request, too, was accepted, and Moshe relayed the final eight commandments to the nation. Later, Moshe felt it necessary to calm the people, and to explain the significance of what they had just experienced:
“Do not be afraid, because Hashem ‘came’ in order to elevate you- and in order that your fear of Him be on your faces, so that you should not sin.”
-In other words: Because you saw how fearsome and awesome He is, you will understand that there is no (power) other than Him and you will fear Him.
Our Rabbis take a lot out of Moshe’s words:
‘… your fear of Him be on your faces…’ – this refers to the trait of ’embarrassment’.
‘…so that you should not sin.’- teaching that ’embarrassment’ leads to fear of sin…
-Gemara Nedarim 20a
Some simple questions come to mind: 1. How does ‘on your faces’ in the verse hint to embarrassment? 2. How does embarrassment lead to fear of sinning? 3. In what way were B’nei Israel embarrassed at Har Sinai anyway?
To start, we look to the Talmud for a clue, as it describes the essence of B’nei Israel:
There are three signs of this nation: they are merciful, they are ’embarrassed’, and they do kind deeds… (and we know that they are) ‘embarrassed,’ as is written: “…in order that your fear of Him be on your faces… (Yitro, 20:17)”
-Gemara Yevamot 79a
Apparently, this trait of embarrassment is a fundamental quality that is shared by all Jews. But is this some type of natural phenomenon? The great Maharsha’s explanation of this concept will also answer our previous questions. Here’s a loose translation of his words:
The ‘fear’ (of God) that is recognizable (as in, “on your faces”) is (expressed in) ’embarrassment’, as it says:
Those with embarrassment ‘on their face’ are destined for the Garden of Eden… -Pirke Avot, 5:20
Yet we have a difficulty: “embarrassment” did not come to them by nature– just the opposite:
B’nei Israel is the most brazen of the nations– and why was the Torah given to B’nei Israel? Because they are brazen…** -Gemara Beitza 25a
-The explanation, though, is as follows: we are naturally stubborn– but we’re called ’embarrassed’ only because the Torah humbles our hearts– as we see from the continuation of the Gemara:
Whoever does not have the trait of embarrassment, it is known that his ancestors did not stand at Har Sinai. (ibid.)
– So the Matan Torah experience actually placed fear of God within us, as we witnessed signs of His power and greatness- and this fear caused us to feel embarrassed. When our Rabbis praise the trait of embarrassment, then, they are really referring to the reflection of one’s fear of Hashem; ’embarrassment’ is a natural result of fearing Him. Why? Because when a person realizes how infinitely great Hashem is and that He is the only Power, he recognizes that he has nothing of his own. Man can only do things because Hashem gives him life every moment, the physical ability to talk and walk, think and feel. Man’s actions only produce anything because Hashem allows them to and makes it so. And how insignificant appear Man’s selfish desires and ambitions when he contemplates this!
The Talmud says that when we accepted the Torah, we reached such a high level that we became immortal; we had removed the ‘impurity of the Snake’ that had been planted in Man with Adam’s sin, which was responsible for death in the world.*** But at what point of Matan Torah exactly did this occur? Actually, this is precisely what Moshe was telling the nation in his speech:
Because the impurity was broken through Hashem speaking to them… for with the removal of the impurity from them, they had now acquired ‘fear’ (of Hashem), which meant that the Shehina would now find a place always ‘on their faces’, because the Divine Image in which Hashem had originally created Man was restored…
-Or Ha’haim Hakadosh
Amazing! The holiness of Hashem’s speaking to us, which killed us as it caused our souls to leave our bodies, was actually the source of life itself. Our request that God communicate directly with us (temporarily) brought us eternal life- and Moshe was explaining this to us: there is no cause for concern, nothing to be afraid of- except for God. He spoke to you in order to bring you life, in order to allow you to come closer to Him through fearing Him. Next week, I would like to explore the relationship between the Jews’ fear of God at Har Sinai, the embarrassment it caused them, and the reaction of Adam to his own sin. This concept of ’embarrassment’ may still seem vague, but it should soon become clearer.
The Hebrew word “chassid” literally refers to a person who not only keeps the Torah, but also does more than what is required. He cares so much about doing Hashem’s will that he distances himself from sin by making safeguards for himself, avoiding situations that may possibly lead to temptation or confusion. In the same way, such a person invests much time and effort in keeping the positive mitzvot, even in those details that are not required but are only preferable.
The classic book Orchos Tzaddikim says something remarkable about the nature of this word: Targum Onkelos translates the word “chassid” in the Torah with the Aramaic word ‘chivra‘. Now, ‘chivra‘ literally means ‘white’. What does Onkelos mean by this? There is a verse that uses this expression:
–‘Ve’atah pane’ha ye’havrun‘– ‘And now your faces will go white (from embarrassment).’
-So ‘hivra‘, ‘white’, represents embarrassment– and is the expression used to describe a person who avoids violating Hashem’s will at all costs- due to his fear of Hashem.
We mentioned that B’nei Israel (temporarily) corrected Adam’s sin through hearing Hashem speak to them. It would be a good idea to take a closer look at his fateful sin; since their increased fear of Hashem was related to being ’embarrassed’ and restoring ‘His Image’ within us, we should be able to find these concepts expressed within the sin that they corrected…
Now they were both naked… but they were not ashamed -Bereishit, 2:25 (abridged)
-According to the simple meaning, this is a good thing; they were not ashamed that they were unclothed because they were innocent; they were so pure that their nakedness meant nothing to them- until they sinned. However, this can also be read as a hint at a subtle lacking in fear of Hashem; they did not possess the full level of ‘embarrassment’ to hold them back from sin.
Later, the Snake convinced Chavah to sin by adding to what God had really told them about the Tree; whereas Hashem had only said not to eat from it, the Snake made it sound more difficult by telling her that it was prohibited to even touch it:
But of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, God said, “You shall not eat of it, and you shall not touch it, lest you die. ” – Bereishit, 3:3
Nothing happened after she touched the tree, and so she was convinced that nothing would be done if she ate from it as well. She then ate, and gave Adam to eat also. But right afterwards:
And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles. And they heard the voice of Hashem… and the man and his wife hid from before Hashem in the midst of the trees of the garden.
Hashem called to Adam, and He said to him, “Where are you?”
And he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked…
-Bereishit, 3:7-10 (abridged)
-So Adam and Chavah did not have shame– alluding to the cause of their sin. Later, in response to the reality they had created by eating from the tree, they did express shame and fear of God by clothing themselves and hiding- but it was too late, as death had already been brought to the world. And Adam’s sin and ‘hiding’ was treated accordingly by Hashem: ‘Where are you?’ as if He didn’t know, Heaven forbid, where Adam was. Why? Because this was the response: if you don’t keep Me constantly in front of your eyes, if you don’t make appropriate safeguards and do your best to fear Me, I will pretend as if I am unaware of your presence.
-And at Sinai we corrected this shortcoming of Adam. How? By asking specifically for more contact with God, by making appropriate safeguards around the mountain so as not to go up too far, and by fearing Hashem. Let us strive to tap into the power of Sinai!
* The Ba’al Haturim points out that the gematria (numerical equivalent) of “yirato al peneichem- His fear on your faces-” is the same as “leboshet hapanim- for embarrassment!”
**Why this is a reason to merit receiving the Torah is beyond the scope of our discussion.
***We lost this about forty days later due to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.