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Shabbat Parashat Vaetchanan 5779

Parashat Hashavua: Speech from Fire

Harav Yosef Carmel

Our parasha describes for the second time in the Torah the incredible scene as Bnei Yisrael took a huge transformative step, going from a group who were recently slaves (deeply entrenched in the physical world) and turning into the Nation of Israel. The fearsome mountain surrounded by clouds, fire, and loud sounds, and especially the Divine Presence, is described (Devarim 5:5-25). As we have discussed many times in the past, much can be learned from multiple appearances of certain leading words in a section. The Torah is sending us a message through the choice of these words. In this section, the words are aish (fire) and the root davor, which is used in speech, whether the act or the things that are spoken. What is the connection between these two ideas?

 The revelation at Mount Sinai seems paradoxical. On the one hand, the One giving the Torah is the Creator of the world, who Himself is beyond anything in the physical world. He cannot even be accurately described with words like “present” or “outside,” for it is clear that He is fundamentally out of the physical world.

On the other hand, the receivers of the Torah are mortal human beings, who are created from materials that Hashem created. They live in a world that is governed by nature and are affected by its rules. If a person tries to leave the world of nature, that basically means that he ceases to exist in the physical world. But here, in this one-time revelation, Bnei Yisrael received devarim (words, speech) from within fire, with fire representing the destruction of physical matter.

Bnei Yisrael were afraid that this close connection to the totally spiritual would take them beyond the realm of the physical world, i.e., death. But the idea was actually different – to turn the nation into a nation of medabrim, prophets who are able to receive and then transmit the word of Hashem to others.

Ostensibly, every human being has the status of a “speaker,” which is above the status of a living being that other members of the animal world have. We see this from Unkelos who says that the pasuk (Bereishit 2:7) that Adam was created as a “living spirit” means that he was a “spirit that speaks.” Rashi explains there that Adam and his descendants received wisdom and speech.” Thus the ability to speak about abstract concepts is that which raises mankind to its special status.

Our parasha hints at a much higher level of life and speech than that described in Bereishit. At Sinai, Am Yisrael received a special present – the ability to hear the “speech” of Hashem, through prophecy, and to be connected to the eternal spiritual world, even while we live and operate in a material world. Sefer Devarim is a book of prophecy, which Moshe Rabbeinu brought down to us at Sinai from the Higher Worlds, turning us into prophets and sons of prophets.

As long as we are able to think abstractly in the study of Torah, we can return every day to Sinai, and thus be united with the Giver of the Torah. This is the most profound way to use our abilities to speak, although we are also able to use them to develop the material world. If we keep our thoughts pure, we will be able to preserve “true life.” May the words that we speak receive divine approbation, as Hashem said about Bnei Yisrael at Sinai: “That which they said was good.”   

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