And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and tell them to stay pure today and tomorrow…(Shemot 19:10)
We stand immobile,
a silent throng,
infused with awe.
Rapt, we yearn that
this aura of light
this cascade of grace
might follow us forever.
And yet, turning back
to a world unchanged,
how to we retain the grace
how do we keep the light
from fading, and how
do we transmit the wonder?
On the phrase, “…and tell them to stay pure today and tomorrow,” the Etz Hayim commentary states, “It is easy to be pure while standing at Sinai. Will the people be able to maintain that sense of purity tomorrow, when they return to the challenge of living in the world? An ancient rabbi taught: Not only literally tomorrow but in the distant future, Israel will be purified by this encounter with God.”
On this phrase, the Pardes Yosef* says “The holiness will remain tomorrow. Even after you leave here, the influence will continue onwards, not only when you hear words of Torah and ethics.”
Aaron J. Greenberg in his series Itturei Torah cites Y. Yefet in a further comment on this phrase, ” “There is tomorrow that is beyond time,” (Mechilta Shemot 13:14) not only today at the time of the giving of the Torah, but even afterwards you will be holy. And this is understood from the verse in Psalms 34:12, “Go, children, listen to me,” – it would seem that it should say, “Come, children, listen to me,” but it means, not just while I am teaching you of ethical behaviour, listen to me, but also when you go from me. In Parashat Tetsaveh (Shemot 27:20-21) [we find the phrase] “to kindle the lamp regularly…outside the curtain”. God’s light has to shine in the hearts of the children of Israel, not just in the synagogue and study hall, at the time of prayer, but also outside the curtain – in the marketplace, in secular business, and in dealings with one’s fellow – to keep the flame alight always.”
In a column on Parashat Beshalach http://www.oztorah.com/2007/12/why-did-they-want-to-stay-bshallach/ Rabbi Raymond Apple addresses the several times that the people balk at moving forward, even wanting to return to Egypt. He notes that the Midrash wonders why they were reluctant and adds, “Surely they knew they were on the way to destiny! Surely they wanted to settle down in the Promised Land as a nation with its own way of life! What was the attraction of the wilderness?
“The answer the Midrash offers is to the people’s credit. They had had a remarkable emotional and spiritual experience. Crossing the Red Sea was exhilarating. Standing at Mount Sinai was inspiring. They wanted the great experience never to end.
“We are all like that from time to time. Like Christopher Robin who wanted to stay six for ever and ever, we have moments when we are on a high and wish it would never end. But the Israelites had to move into the wilderness, as we have to move back into day to day living. We all have to come down from the mountain top and face life on the ground. We have to move into the sometimes harsh world and face its challenges.
“In “This is my God” (p.54), Herman Wouk relates that the Vilna Gaon** once asked the Dubner Maggid*** to tell him his faults. “The maggid at first declined. When the Gaon pressed him, he at last spoke somewhat like this:
“ ‘Very well. You are the most pious man of our age. You study day and night, retired from the world, surrounded by the rows of your books, the Holy Ark, the faces of devout scholars. You have reached high holiness. How have you achieved it? Go down in the market place, Gaon, with the rest of the Jews. Endure their work, their strains, their distractions. Mingle in the world, hear the scepticism and irreligion they hear, take the blows they take. Submit to the ordinary trials of the ordinary Jew. Let us see then if you will remain the Vilna Gaon!’ They say the Gaon broke down and wept.”
Rabbi Apple concludes, “There are times for high holiness, but there are times to stand in the market place and hold onto your faith, dignity, ethics and honesty when other forces push and pull you hither and thither. The Torah is not for ministering angels in the rarefied atmosphere of heaven, but for ordinary people facing dilemmas on earth.”
On the same phrase, the Likkutei Yehuda**** says, “Moses wanted the holiness to continue also in future generations.” He too cites the comment from the Mechilta, “There is tomorrow that is beyond time” and brings a quotation from the Talmud, (Shabbat 87a) that is, “…tomorrow means a day with its night,” that implies the coming generations, through mists and darkness, and so he added one day [of holiness] which he wanted to continue onwards through future generations.”
*Pardes Yosef is a series of commentary on the first three books of the Torah and was authored by Yosef Petsnovski and published in Petrakov between 1930 -1939. Petsnovski, a Gerer Hasid, was a businessman who lived in Pavnitz in Poland. The series of his books contains a wide collection of original thoughts, commentaries and response from both the earlier and later rabbis. The commentaries are generally scholarly and a large proportion was gathered from unpublished works. The author died in 1942 before he managed to publish the volumes on Bamidbar and Devarim. However, as the books were so popular, a number of authors brought out their own versions in the style of Pardes Yosef. These were called “The New Pardes Yosef.”
**Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer (1720 – 1797) known as the Vilna Gaon or by his Hebrew acronym the G’ra, was a talmudist, halachist, kabbalist and the foremost leader of the Mitnaged (non-Chasidic) stream of Jewry of the past few centuries.
Through his annotations and emendations of Talmudic and other texts he became one of the most familiar and influential names in rabbinic study since the Middle Ages.
Born in Vilnius, capital city of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, he displayed extraordinary talent while still a child.
At the age of seven he was taught Talmud by Rabbi Moses Margalit, the author of a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud. His young pupil was said to have already known several of the Talmudic tractates by heart. He is known for having possessed a photographic memory. By eight, he was studying astronomy during his free time. From the age of ten he continued his studies without the aid of a teacher, and by the age of eleven he had committed the entire Talmud to memory.
When he was somewhat older, he decided to go into “exile” and he wandered in various parts of Europe including Poland and Germany, as was the custom of the pious of the time. By the time he was twenty, rabbis were submitting their most difficult halachic problems to him. Scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, sought his insights into mathematics and astronomy. He returned to his native city in 1748, having by then acquired considerable renown.
He devoted much time to the study of the Torah and Hebrew grammar, and was knowledgeable in the secular sciences, enriching the latter by his original contributions. He also encouraged his students not to neglect the secular sciences, maintaining that Judaism could only gain by their studying them. He was also attracted to the study of Kabbalah.
The Vilna Gaon’s modesty precluded him from accepting the office of rabbi, though it was often offered him on the most flattering terms. In his later years he also refused to give approbations, though this was the privilege of great rabbis; he thought too humbly of himself to assume such authority.
He lived ascetically, interpreting a teaching that the Torah can be acquired only by abandoning all pleasures and by cheerfully accepting suffering. He practised this and was thus revered as a saintly man.
He set off once on the arduous journey to the Land of Israel, but for unknown reasons did not get beyond Germany. (However, in the early nineteenth century, three groups of his students, known as Perushim, did manage the trip, settling mostly in Tzfat and Jerusalem).
When Chasidic Judaism became influential in Vilna, the Vilna Gaon, joining the rabbis and heads of the Polish communities, took steps to check the Chasidic influence. In 1777 one of the first excommunications by the Mitnagdim was launched in Vilna against the Chasidim, while a letter was also addressed to all of the large communities, exhorting them to deal with the Chasidim following the example of Vilna, and to watch them until they had recanted. The letter was acted upon by several communities; and in Brody, during the trade fair, the cherem (ban of excommunication) was pronounced against the Chasidim.
In 1781, when the Chasidim renewed their proselytizing work under the leadership of their Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the “Ba’al Ha’Tanya”), the Vilna Gaon excommunicated them again, declaring them to be heretics with whom no pious Jew might intermarry. However, the excommunications did not stop the tide of Chasidism.
Except for the conflict with the Chasidim, the Vilna Gaon almost never took part in public affairs and, so far as is known, did not preside over any school in Vilna. He was satisfied with lecturing in his bet ha-midrash to a few chosen pupils, whom he initiated into his methods.
He laid special stress on the study of the Jerusalem Talmud, which had been almost entirely neglected for centuries. Convinced that the study of the Torah is the very life of Judaism, and that this study must be conducted in a scientific and not in a merely scholastic manner, the Vilna Gaon encouraged his chief pupil, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, to found a yeshiva in which rabbinic literature should be taught. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin opened the Volozhin yeshiva in 1803, a few years after the Vilna Gaon’s death, and revolutionized Torah study, with the resulting impact on all of Orthodox Jewry.
The Vilna Gaon was a copious annotator; there is hardly an ancient Hebrew book of any importance to which he did not provide marginal glosses and notes, or write a brief commentary, which were mostly dictated to his pupils. However, nothing of his was published in his lifetime.
He also wrote on mathematics, being well versed in the works of Euclid and translated geometry books to Yiddish and Hebrew, chief among them Sefer HaEuclid.
After his death in 1797, aged 77, he was buried in the Šnipiškės cemetery in Vilnius which was closed by the Tsarist Russian authorities in 1831 and partly built over.
In the 1950s, Soviet authorities planned to build a stadium and concert hall on the site. They allowed the remains of the Vilna Gaon to be removed and re-interred at the new cemetery.
***Jacob ben Wolf Kranz (1741 – 1804) was known as the Dubner Magid. He was born in Dziatłava, by Vilna in Lithuania, today Belarus. At age 18 he married and went to live in his father-in-law’s home in Mezeritch. While there, he would sit in the Beit Midrash and teach Halachah to the young men. From time to time, he would give sermons in Yiddish on the weekly parasha, not for pay, to the crowds of people who came to pray. These sermons included stories and parables which had literary value in their own right. At some point, his father-in-law lost his wealth and R’ Jacob was forced to support himself from a meagre stipend offered to him by the Mezeritch community for his sermons. So he left Mezeritch, finally arriving in Dubno in Volhynia, where he remained for 18 years. In his final years he lived in Zamosc in Poland, where he died.
During his lifetime, there were many “maggidim” – traditional Eastern European Jewish religious itinerant preachers, skilled as narrators of Torah and religious stories, but the Dubner Maggid was the most famous. He adopted the Midrash’s method of explaining by parables and the incidents of daily life, such as the relations between the city dweller and the village man; between the bride and bridegroom, and drew parallels with the relationship between Israel and God. He also drew moral lessons from the “Arabian Nights” and from other secular stories in illustrating explanations of a midrash or a Biblical text. Moses Mendelssohn named him the “Jewish Æsop”. He authored the book “Ohel Ya’akov”.
****The Likutei Yehuda Al HaTorah is a five volume commentary based on the teachings on the Chumash of the Gerer Rebbes and compiled by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Arye Heine, seemingly in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. He was the grandson of Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter who was the third Rebbe of Ger and was also known as the Imrei Emet.