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Rabbi Moishe Denburg
Chabad Lubavitch of Central Boca Raton
Boca Raton

And it came to pass on the third day, when morning came, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of the shofar exceeding loud; and the entire people within the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with G-d, and they stood at the foot of the mountain...

And G-d came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And G-d called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended. (Exodus 19:16-20)

The most momentous event in Jewish history took place on Shabbat, the sixth day of the month of Sivan, in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE). On that day, the entire people of Israel - more than 2 million men, women and children, as well as the souls of all future generations of Jews - gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G-d. Ever since, the event has been marked on our calendar as the festival of Shavuot - the "Time of the Giving of Our Torah."

But the Torah we received at Sinai had already been in our possession for many generations. Shem, the son of Noah, headed an academy for the study of Torah together with his great-grandson, Eber; the Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - established "yeshivot" (houses of study) for Torah study; all through the Egyptian exile, the tribe of Levi (who were not enslaved) occupied themselves with the study of Torah. Our ancestors "fulfilled the entire Torah even before it was given," observing its every law and ordinance. No new document was unveiled at Sinai, and no hitherto unknown code of behavior was commanded there. What, then, was given to us at "The Giving of Our Torah"?

The Midrash explains the significance of the event with the following parable:

Once there was a king who decreed: "The people of Rome are forbidden to go down to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to go up to Rome."

Likewise, when G-d created the world He decreed and said: "The heavens are G-d s, and the earth is given to man." But when He wished to give the Torah to Israel, He rescinded His original decree, and declared: "The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms. And I, Myself, will begin" - as it is written, "And G-d descended on Mount Sinai," and then it says, "And to Moses He said: Go up to G-d."

For the first twenty-five centuries of history, there existed a gezerah - a "decree" and "schism" - which split reality into two self-contained realms: the spiritual and the material. Torah, the divine wisdom and will, could have no real effect upon the physical world. It was a wholly spiritual manifesto, pertaining to the soul of man and to the spiritual reality of the "heavens."

While its concepts could, and were, applied to physical life, physical life could not be elevated - it could be improved and perfected to the limits of its potential, but it could not transcend its inherent coarseness and subjectivity. Nor could the spiritual be truly brought down to earth - its very nature defied actualization.

At Sinai, G-d revoked the decree which had confined matter and spirit to two distinct "realms." G-d came down on Mount Sinai, bringing the spirituality of the heavens down to earth. He summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, empowering physical man to raise his physical self and world to a higher state of existence. The Torah could now sanctify physical life.

The encounter between G-d and man at Sinai introduced a new phenomenon - the concept of something becoming a "holy object." After Sinai, when one takes a physical coin, earned by ones physical toil and talents, and gives it to charity; or when one bakes flour and water as unleavened bread (matzah) and eats it on the first night of Passover; or when one forms a piece of leather to a specified shape and dimensions, inserts into it parchment scrolls inscribed with specified words, and binds them to his head and arm as tefillin - the object with which he has performed his "mitzvah" (divine commandment) is transformed. A finite, physical thing becomes "holy," as its substance and form embody the realization of a divine desire and command.

The mitzvot could be, and were, performed before the revelation at Sinai. But because they had not yet been commanded by G-d, they lacked the power to bridge the great divide between matter and spirit. The mitzvah could have its spiritual effect in refining the soul of man; it could even, to a certain extent, perfect its physical object by making it the agent of a good and virtuous deed. But only as a command of G-d, creator and delineator of both the spiritual and the physical, could the mitzvah supersede the natural definitions of these two realms. Only after Sinai could the mitzvah actualize the spiritual and sanctify the material.

Everyone dreams of making an impact and difference in the world. The revelation at Sinai provided us with the necessary tools to making ourselves, our family, community and world a better place. All it takes is connecting to one more G-dly mitzvah, our only vehicle to holiness.

Adapted from the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

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