Parashas Yisro 5781 – The Good Fear

The Parasha expounds on the fact that prior to receiving the Ten Commandments Bnei Yisrael were treated with an intense fear: “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and very loud blasts of the Shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled of fear.” [Shemos 19:16]. The last day of Holiday of Sukkos is known as Simchas Torah “The celebration of the Torah.” Our Sages Teach that the learning of the Torah elevates one’s souls and provide him intense joy. So why was the Torah not given in the same manner? Why did Hashem decide to give it in intense fear? Two Verses further the Torah states: “Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Hashem had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled of fear violently.” Basically, the scariest weather conditions are described. There are extreme lightnings and very loud thunder while a continuous earthquake is taking place. It is not only impossible to have the most remote feeling of joy to enjoy for the exceptional present handed to us, but the fear level for our lives is at panic attack levels. The Midrash describes that not only the Jews were in panic, but the entire world, including all its creatures. Our world’s philosophy is that the time of presenting a present, is a time of celebration and not a time for extreme fear, as it is intended to please the person on the receiving end. How then is Heaven’s philosophy making any sense to us humans? King David says in Psalms [100:1-4]: “Shout unto Hashem, all the earth. Serve Hashem with gladness; come before His presence with singing. Know that Hashem is God; it is He that has made us, and we are His, His people, and the flock of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise; give thanks unto Him and bless His name.” This would be possible and even enhanced in a beautiful spring day with a pure blue sky and singing birds, while a refreshing breath blows slightly. However, in brutal and extreme conditions our minds shutdown and our only feeling is extreme fear for our lives. Why do these represent the perfect conditions for the giving of the Torah. The Zohar takes us back to the very moment when Bnei Yisrael were trapped before Pharaoh’s army. In their back was the sea, on their sides was the desert, and before them was the mightiest army in the world. When one’s life is on the line, nothing else in the world matters. One is inhabited by a panic feeling and all his senses are at their maximum level to provide any solution to safeguard his life. On one hand it is a tragic moment but on the other, this is the only time when a person has truly undressed himself from all sense vanity, as well as severed all ties to any worldly matter. One reaches then the closest possible level to his Maker. What has the Jews resorted to? The Verse describes; “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Hashem” [Shemos 14:10]. The Zohar explains the words: “As Pharaoh approached” that Pharaoh was the principal cause that the Jews drew closer to Hashem. When a person faces his Maker, it is a time of uncertainty, a time when all worldly hope is lost. The world vainly value is exposed and lost all relevance. There is no longer any difference among Jews, religious or not, the same cry will come out of their mouth with the same intensity: “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Eichad”, “Hear Yisrael Hashem is our God Hashem is One.” These very words were shouted by our forefathers during the inquisition and during the holocaust, when beasts took their lives. It is how every person bid farewell to this world. It is the moment of truth! The Torah is the ultimate truth and cannot be soiled with any worldly matter, therefore it could only be given in a manner that exposes that attribute. The Jews facing Mount Sinai had to be brough to the highest level of awareness that in each person life there is only Hashem the Torah and himself. They had then reached the true fear of Heaven. The Arizal teaches us; that only with a genuine fear of Heaven can one really internalize the exceptional opportunity to serve Hashem. Then, true gladness will overflow him. This person has then the power to control the horoscope, even evil angels fear him and decide to protect him. He becomes spiritual matter where quantum physics do not apply. Therefore, when the prophet Daniel or the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh were thrown to the den of famished lions, they could not harm them. Here’s a beautiful story that shows that Hashem only is in control: Yaakov, a brilliant Torah scholar in Brod, had no interest in business and refused to accept handouts. As a result, he and his family lived in extreme poverty. So, when he received an offer to relocate to Sasiv as a private tutor, he gladly accepted. This would allow him to retain a life in the study hall and still earn a modest livelihood. As luck would have it, the move to Sasiv did not end well. Shortly after moving Yaakov became deathly ill. His son, Moshe Leib, was good-hearted and pious but found academics challenging. While standing near his father’s death bed he heard his father sigh and say, “If I die and leave a hungry widow and orphan, G-d Al-mighty will surely provide for them. But who will teach my son Torah?!” These words left a deep impression on the young boy’s heart. The hard and painful reality quickly set in. In addition to his studies, he now had to help his widowed mother make ends meet. Learning had challenged him enough previously; now it became virtually impossible. A caring friend offered to employ the young orphan as a guard in her husband’s shop, which allowed the struggling family to put food on the table in an honorable manner. So young Moshe Leib became a night watchman. While standing guard, he kept his father’s words in his heart and waited for the right opportunity to arise. While digging in their yard one day, Moshe Leib uncovered a trove of coins. He and his mother reasoned that the previous occupants must have hidden their savings there to avoid looters during the all too common anti-Jewish riots. There was no way to return the money, and it was now rightfully theirs. With their financial state improved, Moshe Leib decided that the time had come to fulfill his father’s wishes. He informed his mother that he wished to exile himself to a place of Torah study, as the sages suggest, so that he would merit to mature into a scholarly Jew. With mixed feelings, she gave him her blessing. Moshe Leib took himself to Nikolsburg, where the rabbi was the acclaimed Reb Shmelke, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch. Reb Shmelke welcomed the young orphan into his yeshiva and allowed him to board in his home. He arrived in Nikolsburg on a Friday. That night his father came to him in a dream and said, “How lucky you are that you merited to be in the presence of great tzaddik whose Torah is accepted in heaven. Open your heart and mind, and your eyes and ears, to absorb every word and form of conduct of this great man.” Moshe Leib woke up happy and joyful, ready to enjoy his first Shabbat in Reb Shmelke’s presence. His first lesson was not long in coming. The rabbi’s house was a hub for the townsfolk. One day, the Rebbetzin went to the basin to wash her hands before eating bread. In order to allow the water to reach the entirety of her hand, she took off her ring and put on the windowsill. As she put down the washing cup, she noticed an unkempt figure running away from the house. A glance at the windowsill explained everything. She quickly recited the blessing and ate a piece of bread and began to wail, “The ring is worth one hundred coins.” Meanwhile, the thief gained some distance from the house. Reb Shmelke heard his wife’s cry and turned to Moshe Leib. “You are young and agile; run after the thief and tell him that he can have the ring as a gift. It is worth one hundred coins and he should not sell it for less.” Moshe Leib ran and caught up with the thief, gripped his shirt and whispered into his ear the message from Reb Shmelke. The thief was utterly confused. He thought the young man would drag him back to the rabbi’s house with shame and insults, but he heard the exact opposite. He murmured, “If this is the reaction of the Rabbi, how can I harm him? I am coming to return the ring.” Moshe Leib told the thief, “Reb Shmelke will not accept the ring from you now that he has given it to you as a gift. 1 If you want atonement, sell the ring for no less than one hundred coins, and use the money to buy and distribute jewelry for poor or orphaned brides. Then you will have achieved atonement.” These words penetrated the heart of the poor thief and he resolved to mend his ways. He began to work and earn honestly and supported many worthy causes. This was the first lesson Moshe Leib learned from Reb Shmelke. With time he grew in Torah and acts of kindness, and ultimately became known as the great tzaddik, Moshe Leib of Sasiv.

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