The Holiday of Shavuot
Regarding the giving of the Torah, the Torah states (Shemot 19): “And they travelled from Refidim and they arrived at the Sinai Desert and they camped in the desert; and Israel camped there opposite the mountain.”
Rabbeinu Chaim ben Atar, the saintly “Or Ha’Chaim,” asks that in the previous verses the Torah states, “On the third month of the Jewish nation leaving Egypt, on this day they had come to the Sinai desert.” If so, why does the Torah repeat the fact that they “camped in the desert”? Is it not clear that if they arrived at the desert that they camped there as well? What does the Torah mean to teach us by writing this?
The saintly Or Ha’Chaim explains that the Torah is trying to convey to us three key principles regarding receiving the Torah without which accepting the Torah would have been impossible and because of which Hashem decided to give us the Torah.
The first is “Travelling from Refidim” (in Hebrew, “Refidim” is similar to the word “Rifyon” meaning laxity) before the giving of the Torah, for the Jewish nation experienced great carelessness and lethargy as all freed slaves do and even so, they prepared themselves and overcame their natural character-traits in order to be able to accept the Torah in a zealous and energetic manner by accepting upon themselves not to become lazy in their Torah learning. This is indeed the natural course of Torah learning that the Torah needs strengthening and recommitment at all times. It is for this reason that any time the Torah mentions learning Torah, the Torah adds a boost of encouragement as the verse states, “This Sefer Torah shall not budge from your lips and you shall delve in it day and night etc. have I not commanded you to be strong and courageous?” The Torah therefore needed to point out that they “travelled from Refidim,” for they had truly been slacking off, but even so they had energized themselves to accept the Torah with desire and joy and they had thus “travelled away” from the laxity they possessed beforehand, for this is a great principle and important condition for meriting receiving the Torah’s crown.
The second principle is “And they arrived at the Sinai desert and they camped in the desert.” This means that the Jewish nation reached the lofty level wherein they made themselves like a desert which is ownerless and everyone walks through and tramples on. Similarly, the Jewish nation reached a high level of humility and submissiveness, for without doing so, one cannot merit accepting the Torah as the Torah does not identify itself with the arrogant. It is also for this reason that Moshe Rabbeinu was the one chosen to receive the Torah, for he served as an outstanding symbol of extreme humility, the likes of which the world had never seen. Additionally, the Torah was given only on the lowest of mountains, Mount Sinai, for Hashem’s presence does not rest on the arrogant and the haughty; only because of their humility did the Jewish nation merit receiving the crown of Torah.
The third principle is “And Israel camped there opposite the mountain.” The Torah uses the singular form of the word “camped” in order to teach us that the Jewish nation was completely unified at that time, like one man with one heart. This also serves as an important condition in order to receive the Torah, for the Torah was not given to individuals among the Jewish nation; rather, it was given to the entire nation as one. It is for this reason that the Torah must be read in public. Indeed the verse states, “May a sword be to the loners” referring to those who learn Torah alone, for one cannot merit having a correct understanding of the Torah unless he learns with someone else who will be able to bring the errors he has made in his learning to his attention. (Once one masters the principles for how to properly learn Torah, one may then learn from the works of the Acharonim alone, for by delving in them one will likewise be able to realize if he has erred.) Praiseworthy is the nation whose people come together to learn Torah on the night of Shavuot in a place where the holy presence of Hashem rests. Regarding this does the verse state, “And Israel camped there opposite the mountain,” for they merited receiving the Torah as one. May we likewise merit gleaning from the eternal light of the Torah by virtue of our true humility through accepting the true interpretation of the Torah from those greater than us and admitting that their interpretation is indeed true. Let us try our very best to always be completely unified, for this will cause Hashem to rest His holy presence on us and we will thereby merit receiving the crown of the Torah.
Chag Sameach and Tizku Le’Shanim Rabbot!