Shavuot

For the week ending 26 May 2012 / 4 Sivan 5772

Sanctifying the Material - Not Rejecting It

by Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

Immediately before G-d gave the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes the lights and sounds the people experienced. They saw lightning and heard thunder. In fact, according to the Midrash, they somehow heard the lightening and saw the thunder as well.

After Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), a nearly identical experience is described, but this time, the wording is slightly different. It says they saw torches and heard the thunder. Why is there this difference? What is the significance of the change from lightning to torches?

Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin offers a fascinating and profound insight. The change in visualization symbolizes a spiritual transformation in the way the Jewish people perceived holiness, and this transformation was a direct result of the experience of Matan Torah.

Before the Torah was given,spirituality could be achieved only through divorcing oneself from the world. All human souls yearn for transcendence; everything yearns to return to its source. Our source is G-d, and therefore, it is a natural human urge to yearn for the Divine, for meaning. However, the only way to achieve this in the pre-Sinai world was to separate from the physical. This form of spirituality is compared to a lightning flash. It allows you to reach a very high level, but then, like the lightning, that flash of transcendence is followed by total darkness – because human beings inevitably must eat, must sleep and must live in the material world. We still see this in non-Jewish spirituality, where people take vows of celibacy and poverty, or remove themselves to a mountaintop.

After the Torah was given, the image was no longer of the lightning, but of the torch. That image is a much different one. And it is a somewhat tragic image, in its way. A torch will never give the brilliant light of a lightning bolt. But a torch is steady and enduring. The lesson the people learned through Matan Torah was that spirituality could indeed be contained in daily life. The physical world, the mundane, could be elevated and infused with the spiritual. They were not mutually exclusive. We serve G-d not only when we learn or pray, but also in the way that we eat or drink, conduct our business, earn and spend our money, raise our children and relate to our spouses. Every activity of life can be, and must be, invested with depth, significance and meaning. Yes, the daily life of carpools and laundry and PTA meetings will not offer the transcendence of the moment on the mountaintop, but if one can understand the purpose of even the mundane, then life can hold a holiness that will far outlast the bolt of lightning.

No one would navigate a road filled with dangerous turns by lightning. Even with a torch, it is difficult. But a torch provides the steady light, the warmth and comfort, to help us navigate the difficult turns in life and make it safely to the comfort of home.

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