Shavuot: Matan Torah and Shabbat
The Torah tells (Shemot 19:10) that when G-d first summoned Moshe to the top of Mount Sinai, He instructed Moshe to have Beneh Yisrael prepare themselves “today and tomorrow” for Matan Torah, which would occur on the third day. G-d gave this instruction on Wednesday, and so the plan was for the nation to prepare on Wednesday and Thursday, and for the Torah to be given on Friday. Remarkably, however, the Gemara teaches that Moshe added an extra day of preparation. He decided that the people should prepare for a third day, and the Torah should be given on Shabbat. G-d consented, and the Divine Presence did not descend upon Mount Sinai until Shabbat morning.
Why was it so important for the Torah to be given on Shabbat?
Rav Shemuel Kaidanover (1614-1676), in his Birkat Shemuel, explains that there is a Torah in the heavens which differs from the Torah we have down here on Earth. The heavenly Torah is associated with “Din” – strict judgment, whereas the Torah here on Earth is associated with “Rahamim” – compassion and kindness. We are unable to observe the heavenly Torah, because we humans, unlike angels, are inherently flawed and limited. Therefore, when the Torah was given to us from the heavens, it needed to undergo the modification necessary for it to become the Torah of kindness which is suitable for our worldly existence. As imperfect human beings, we need the Torah of compassion and kindness, and cannot live by the Torah of the heavens, which is characterized by strict and harsh judgment.
For this reason, it was so vitally important for Matan Torah to take place on Shabbat. The Zohar writes that the six days of the workweek are characterized by the governance of “Din,” the divine attribute of justice. This is why on workdays we are forced to work hard and endure the stress and pressure of trying to earn a living. Shabbat, however, is the day of “Rahamim,” when we enjoy the bounty of G-d’s blessings without having to invest hard work and exertion. This quality of Shabbat is alluded to in the verse in Parashat Bereshit (2:2), “Va’yechal Elokim Ba’yom Ha’shebi’i” (literally, “G-d completed on the seventh day”). This phrase may be read to mean that “Elokim” – the divine attribute of justice – is eliminated on the seventh day. This is a day marked by kindness and compassion, when harsh judgments are suspended. Therefore, Moshe ensured that Matan Torah would occur on Shabbat. The process of bringing the heavenly Torah down to our world necessitated the special quality of Shabbat, the attribute of kindness which is in force on this day.
The story is told of a man who came before the Hafetz Haim (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) asking for the great Sage’s blessing. The Hafetz Haim asked the man if he observed Shabbat, and the man answered in the negative.
“Then I cannot give you a blessing,” the Rabbi said. “Shabbat is called ‘Mekor Ha’beracha’ – the source of all blessing. If you do not observe Shabbat, then you do not have access to the source of blessing. My blessing, then, would be useless.”
In light of what we have seen, we can understand this story more clearly. It is only because of Shabbat that the Torah is a Torah of kindness and compassion. Without Shabbat, the Torah would be characterized by harsh judgment, and according to those standards, none of us are worthy of G-d’s blessings. We can earn G-d’s blessings only through the divine attribute of kindness, which is applied to the Torah only because of Shabbat.
The great blessings of Torah are thus dependent on Shabbat. By ensuring to obey the laws of Shabbat and spending it immersed in Torah and prayer as we should, we gain access to the wellsprings of G-d’s kindness and compassion, and we thereby become worthy of His blessings.