What Happened At Sinai
Relating to G-d on His Terms
In our prayers we describe Shavuos as "the season of the Giving
of our Torah." 
Our Sages teach,  however, that "Avraham fulfilled the entire
Torah before it was given," that he communicated it to his
descendants, and that even throughout their servitude in Egypt,
the Jews studied the Torah. 
If so, what is meant by the Giving of the Torah?
This question can be resolved by reference to our Sages'
statement  that, "a person who observes a mitzvah because
he is commanded to do so is greater than one who observes it
without having been so commanded."
Intellect is the most refined of our potentials.
And yet the finite mind of mortal man cannot leap across
the chasm to G-d's infinity, for "no thought can grasp Him
at all." 
There need not be, however, a separation between them.
By giving man the Torah and its mitzvos, G-d has built a bridge
that enables man to establish a bond with His Maker on His terms.
The word mitzvah and the word tzavta meaning "together", share
the same root. 
When a person fulfills a divine command because he has been
commanded to do so, the act which he performs is G-dly, and
connects him to G-d in all His infinity.
If he performs the same deed without having been commanded to do
so, his act, however worthy, remains merely a good deed: it does
not establish a connection of the same nature.
Before the Torah was given, the Patriarchs were able to perceive
its spiritual truths through prophetic vision. Realizing the
inherent value of a life governed by these truths, they
structured their lives accordingly and observed even the minutest
details of Torah law.
However, since the Torah had not yet been given by G-d, and they
had not been commanded to accept it, their observance did not
lead to the same spiritual bond which is effected by the Jews'
observance of the commandments after the Giving of the Torah.
Not only in the spiritual realms, but in the material world, too,
a deed performed as a mitzvah and a deed performed without the
obligation of a mitzvah produce different effects.
For example, the Zohar  states that when Yaakov laid out the
staves of poplar, almond and chestnut trees before Lavan's
flocks,  his actions evoked the same spiritual energies as are
drawn down to this world through our performance of the mitzvah
of tefillin. After the spiritual service associated with these
staves was completed, however, they remained ordinary pieces of
The spiritual influences they evoked left no lasting effects upon
them. In contrast, when a Jew puts on tefillin, the tefillin
become sacred objects; their holiness affects their very physical
What is the reason for this difference?
Since Yaakov's deed was not an obligatory mitzvah, it lacked the
infinite power that flows from G-d's essence. For this reason,
the influence of his actions remained on the spiritual plane and
did not affect the physical nature of the staves.
The mitzvos we perform, by contrast, connect us to G-d in an
infinite bond; they are therefore able to infuse spirituality
even into the material substance of this world.
This difference is reflected in our Sages' Midrashic comment:
 "All the mitzvos which the Patriarchs fulfilled before You
were vaporous, whereas to us may be applied the phrase, 
'Your name is like flowing oil.'"
The mitzvos fulfilled by the Patriarchs were ethereal, whereas
the mitzvos we fulfill manifest a tangible outpouring of the
Divine Presence into our material world. 
Joining the Physical and the Spiritual
The above contrast is mirrored in another teaching of the
David said: "The Holy One, blessed be He, decreed,  'The
heavens are the heavens of G-d, and the earth He gave to men....'
Nevertheless, when He desired to give the Torah, He nullified
that original decree and said, 'The lower realms shall ascend to
the higher realms and the higher realms shall descend to the
lower. And I shall take the initiative.' As it is written, 
'And G-d descended on Mount Sinai,' and 'To Moshe, He said Ascend
to G-d.'" 
In other words: According to the original pattern of creation,
the material and the spiritual were confined to separate realms
of existence, to discrete planes that never converge. The
ultimate divine intent, however, was to fuse the two, so that the
underlying G-dliness would surface within our material world.
Because G-d's essence is truly unlimited, this is possible: the
spiritual can descend and become manifest within our world, and
our worldly experience can be elevated beyond material concerns
and become an expression of spiritual truth.
"No Longer in the Heavens"
This fusion cannot be accomplished through human enterprise
alone: it is possible only because (as G-d says) "I shall take
the initiative." This is what is unique about the Giving of the
Torah at Mount Sinai. The divine revelations before Sinai had not
been not intended to resolve the fundamental conflict between the
spiritual and the material; the revelation at Sinai, by contrast,
was intended to permeate the totality of existence.
And this it did.
"No bird chirped, no fowl took flight..."  - the entire
natural order came to a standstill. Moreover, "His voice did
not have an echo." 
Instead of rebounding, G-d's voice permeated the material
substance of the world. From that moment onward, "The Torah is
not in the heavens,"  but rather part and parcel of the
environment in which we live.
So that the World Itself Should See
This was, however, merely the beginning of a process.
The ultimate purpose of eliminating the gap between spirituality
and material existence was the second phase, "And Moshe ascended
to G-d," i.e., that man should elevate himself and the material
environment in which he lives.
As long as the connection between man, the world, and G-d is
dependent on G-d alone, the fusion between these elements is
incomplete. If G-dliness permeates the world only as a result
of a revelation from above, the world remains - at least from its
own earthbound perspective - separate from G-d.
This may be understood by comparing the world to a student who is
able to arrive at a concept only when nurtured by his teacher's
explanations. Only when he has reached the point at which he can
conceive of the idea on his own, can we say that his thought
processes have fully matured.
The service of G-d epitomized in the phrase, "And Moshe ascended
to G-d," demonstrates just such a process of maturation within
man and within the world at large.
Man's divine service refines the world and transforms it into
a vessel for G-dliness, e nabl ing the world and its inhabitants
to perceive G-dliness not as an externally supplied factor, but
rather as the truth of its own existence. 
The consummation of our efforts to refine the world will come in
the Era of the Redemption when we will merit the fulfillment of
the prophecy,  "And all flesh will together see that the
mouth of G-d has spoken" - not that the revelation from above
will be so intense as to reach down to our material realm, but
that material flesh will have an independent appreciation of
That era is fast approaching.
"All the spiritual tasks G-d has demanded of the Jewish people
have been completed.... All that is necessary now is for each of
us to open his eyes."  And then we will behold the ultimate
purpose of the Giving of the Torah - the manifestation of G-d's
presence throughout the world.
May this take place speedily in our days.
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,
Vol. III, Parshas Lech Lecha;
Vol. VIII, Shavuos
- (Back to text) Unlike the other festivals, whose calendric dates are
specified in the Torah, Shavuos is not necessarily
celebrated on the sixth of Sivan, the anniversary of the
Giving of the Torah; it is celebrated on the fiftieth day
after the beginning of the Counting of the Omer.
Thus, before the institution of a fixed calendar, when the
first day of each Jewish month was determined by the
testimony of witnesses who had seen the new moon, Shavuos
could also be celebrated on the fifth of Sivan or on the
seventh. (See Rosh HaShanah 6b; Shulchan Aruch HaRav 494:1;
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 997 ff.)
Nonetheless, although Pesach, the Counting of the Omer, and
Shavuos represent three phases in a single pattern of divine
service (see the above essay entitled "Sefiras HaOmer:
Counting More Than Days"), many sources (e.g., Pesachim 68b;
the Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 4:8) associate the
celebration of Shavuos with the Giving of the Torah.
- (Back to text) Kiddushin 82a; Yoma 28b.
- (Back to text) Yoma, loc. cit.
- (Back to text) Kiddushin 31a.
- (Back to text) Introduction to Tikkunei Zohar 17a; see also Tanya, ch. 4.
- (Back to text) See Likkutei Torah, Parshas Bechukosai 45c.
- (Back to text) Vol. I, p. 162a.
- (Back to text) See Bereishis 30:37.
- (Back to text) This is why tefillin must be treated with respect even when
they are not being worn. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim,
- (Back to text) Shir HaShirim Rabbah on Shir HaShirim 1:3.
- (Back to text) Shir HaShirim 1:3.
- (Back to text) The Glosses of R. Ze'ev Wolf Einhorn to Shir HaShirim
Rabbah, loc. cit.
- (Back to text) Shmos Rabbah 12:3.
- (Back to text) Tehillim 115:16.
- (Back to text) Shmos 19:20.
- (Back to text) Ibid. 24:1.
- (Back to text) Shmos Rabbah 29:9.
- (Back to text) Ibid.; see also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1092 ff.
- (Back to text) Cf. Shabbos 89a.
- (Back to text) Although this stage is the ultimate goal, it must be
complemented by the stage in which "G-d descended...." This
is because, as explained above, the initial step in bridging
the chasm between spiritual and material existence must be
made by G-d.
Moreover, man's divine service can relate only to those
dimensions of G-dliness that are connected with the realm of
finite existence. For the world to be connected with
infinite G-dliness, there has to be a revelation from above.
- (Back to text) Yeshayahu 40:5.
- (Back to text) Sound the Great Shofar (Kehot, N.Y., 1992), pp. 139-140.