Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshivas Lakewood
[Excerpt from Kovetz Sichos 5754; printed here with the author's permission.] Originally published in 1994, while HaRav Wachtfogel was still living.
"The parshiyos about a nazir and a sotah are juxtaposed, to teach us that anyone who sees a disgraced and defiled sotah should abstain from drinking wine (like a nazir), because after seeing such a sight one can be aroused to lewdness" (Sotah 2a, and cited in Rashi, Bamidbar 6:2).
Many have wondered why it is that now, after seeing that the sinful woman is visited with such a disgraceful punishment, one need abstain from drinking wine to deter sin? Isn't the sight of her being punished sufficient to prevent us from plummeting to sin? Why is it necessary to seek further means to prevent him from sinning?
In our prayers on Shavuos we mention the yom tov as being zman matan Toraseinu. This appellation, besides actually indicating the essence of the yom tov, also teaches us the way we are to serve Hashem on that day.
On Pesach we mention in our prayers that it is zman cheiruseinu, which indicates that during this yom tov our main service is to remember our Exodus from Egypt and all the miracles that HaKodosh Boruch Hu did for us at that time. We also conduct the seder on Pesach to recall the miracles that He did for us.
Similarly, on Shavuos, zman matan Toraseinu, our chief duty is to recall the revelation on Mt. Sinai with all the sounds and fiery torches, all the clamor, the awe and reverence, and the other spectacular experiences and revelations that accompanied it.
It is perplexing, however, why we are obliged to remember the receiving of the Torah on Shavuos. After all, Hashem's gift of the holy Torah on Shavuos did not last. The tablets given then bearing the Ten Commandments were broken, and Moshe Rabbenu had to pray to Hashem on our behalf until He answered our prayers and gave the second set of Tablets. It would make more sense, from this perspective, to celebrate zman matan Toraseinu on Yom Kippur, since it was then that we received the Second Tablets containing the Torah which we still have.
Why, therefore, do we celebrate receiving the Torah on Shavuos when we received then only the First Tablets, which are no longer with us?
The yom tov of Shavuos is different from all other yomim tovim. Pesach is celebrated for seven days and includes the performance of many mitzvos: eating matzo and the korbon Pesach, the prohibition of eating chometz, the rabbinic mitzvah of drinking four cups of wine, the observation of a yom tov on its first and last days, chol hamoed in between, and so on. Succos also lasts seven days, and is also replete with mitzvos: the mitzvah of eating and sleeping in a Sukkah, the pouring of water on the mizbeiach of the Beis Hamikdash, and the arbaas haminim—the lulav, esrog, hadasim, and arovos. Shavuos is, however, different. It is celebrated for only one day, and has no special mitzvah attached to it.
The holy seforim write that this kushya is answered in the Zohar. The Zohar writes that HaKodosh Boruch Hu opened all the heavenly firmaments on Shavuos, and everybody saw clearly that Hashem is one and unique in the heavens and the earth—ein od milevado, mamash. That is why we do not need specific mitzvos, whose ultimate purpose is to indicate this.
The mitzvos of the other yomim tovim, in fact, all point to this idea. On Pesach the matzo reminds us of our redemption, and the four cups of wine signify the four expressions of redemption written in the Torah. On Succos, too, the mitzvos of those days emphasize this point to us. Performing these mitzvos, therefore, elevates man and assists him in reaching the ultimate aim of perceiving that Hashem is Elokim and that ein od milevado.
Shavuos, however, does not need any mitzvah to help awaken us to yichud Hashem, because the day's essence itself shows that principle. We do not, therefore, need more than one day of yom tov, nor do we require any mitzvos except that of remembering the spectacle and the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and the revelations that we then had, demonstrating to us that ein od milevado.
The Mashgiach would frequently cite to us the section of the Chovos HaLevovos (Sha'ar Yichud HaMa'aseh 4) dealing with doubts in faith:
"Ben Odom! You should know that your worst enemy in the world is the yetzer that is woven into the powers of your soul and mixed into your spiritual nature. It joins you in managing your material and spiritual senses and powers. The yetzer controls your soul's secrets... You sleep and are not wary of him, but he is awake and conspires to harm you. You overlook him, but he does not overlook you...
"He casts his deathly arrows to uproot you from the World to Come, as the posuk writes about one who acts in such a way: `As one who pretends to play and shoots sparks, arrows and death, so is a person who deceives his fellow man and says, Was I not only fooling?' (Mishlei 26:18-19)...
"One of his strongest weapons with which he shoots and fights you in your hidden thoughts is his attempt to make you doubt what you know to be true, and to make confusion of what you had already clarified, and he will mix you up with false thoughts..."
From the Chovos HaLevovos we realize that the strongest power that the yetzer hora uses in his constant war against man is to make the certain, doubtful, and to awaken doubts about matters that were already clarified and confirmed to him. When a person begins doubting things that were previously clarified to him, he is defeated, and he becomes possessed by the yetzer hora and has lost the war against it.
The Chovos HaLevovos continues to explain that in the war with the yetzer, if one stands up to it, then it will back down and be unable to stand up against him, as the posuk writes: "And it desires you, but you can rule over it" (Bereishis 4:7). Although the yetzer hora is tremendously powerful in its war against man, still, if a person resists then it is powerless and cannot stand up to him.
But how does one oppose the yetzer?
A person does this by ensuring that the truths were authenticated remain unmovable, and that he never doubts their veracity. The yetzer will then have no grip over him. A person who allows room for doubt will be defeated, while the one who holds tight to previously clarified truths will be victorious. This is the key point in the struggle with the yetzer.
In the machlokes between R' Eliezer and the Chachomim about whether the tannur achno'i can receive tumah or not, R' Eliezer cried out that if the halocho was according to his opinion, then the carob tree should prove it... the aqueduct should prove it... the walls of the beis hamedrash should prove it... A bas kol even announced from Heaven that the halocho is according to R' Eliezer. R' Yehoshua then stood up and said: "This matter is not in Heaven" (Bava Metzia 59b).
R' Nissim Gaon (on Brochos 19b) explains this as follows:
"Heaven's intention was to test the Sages to see if they would forsake their tradition and their knowledge of Torah because of a bas kol. This is similar to what the Torah writes [about the false prophet]: `for Hashem your Elokim is testing you' (Devorim 13:4). Through this incident the clarity of their tradition became known. This is what R' Yehoshua meant by saying `This matter is not in Heaven'—Hashem's Torah is pure and was given to us on Mt. Sinai, when it was declared that none of it will be altered. Our Torah is not missing anything, and there are no doubts within it that need heavenly clarification."
The Mashgiach said that this is actually the same idea as what the Chovos HaLevovos wrote: "The main war of the yetzer hora is to make a man doubt that which was certain and clear to him."
Man's duty is to stand by his principles to such a degree that a person should not be moved even by a bas kol from Heaven; this should not cause him even the slightest doubt. The nisoyon of the Chachomim was to see if they would stick to their tradition or not.
The whole war with the yetzer revolves around this point. These are the yetzer's arrows and weapons. Victorious in the war is the one who opposes his yetzer with all his might and does not let any doubts creep in on matters that were previously clarified by him as true.
This, added the Mashgiach, was the subject of the deliberation between Avrohom Ovinu and the Satan when sacrificing Yitzchok.
"The Satan said to Avrohom: `Today Hashem said to offer him (Yitzchok) as an olah and tomorrow He will say that you are a murderer. Yesterday He told you that `Yitzchok will be called your seed,' and now He tells you to `Offer him as an olah'" (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishis 247).
The Satan came to arouse doubts in Avrohom Ovinu that perhaps he was mistaken in understanding what HaKodosh Boruch Hu commanded him. Satan argued that it is impossible to interpret "Offer him as an olah" as meaning literally that, since Hashem had already promised him, "Yitzchok will be called your seed." Obviously, Avrohom must have misunderstood Hashem's command.
Avrohom answered Satan, "Nevertheless, I will continue."
Avrohom would not let any argument cause him to be doubtful of something previously obvious to him. With this behavior he defeated the Satan and brought himself and all his generations afterwards eternal merit, as the zchus of Akeidas Yitzchok still helps us today, as we mention in the davening of yomim noraim, "Recall the Akeidas Yitzchok for his seed."
"In order to test you has G-d come" (Shemos 20:17). The Ramban writes that Hashem came in order to make you fluent in emunah. Since He revealed the Shechina to you, the emunah has entered their heart, and they will cleave to it and never leave it.
Also, in Moreh Nevuchim it says that you have already seen that Hashem will send a false prophet to test you to see if you will stick to the path of truth, because you have already seen the truth with your own eyes...
This is the idea that we have been talking about. Before matan Torah it was not possible to send such tests, since their main point is to see if they know ein od milevado. After matan Torah, when they saw the truth with their own eyes, then it is possible to send them tests to see if they will stick strongly to their tradition or will leave room for doubt, because this is the main point of the battle with the yetzer hora.
It is no easy thing to stick with his knowledge and not to entertain any doubts. It needs a lot of work and much toil.
This is the meaning of the advice of Chazal we cited at the beginning, that anyone who sees a disgraced and defiled sotah should abstain from drinking wine. True, he has seen the punishment visited on the sotah, but this will not be enough since the yetzer hora will fight with all his power to raise doubts even about things he saw clearly, and if the yetzer is successful in that, then all is lost.
Therefore, one should abstain from wine, because he can thereby maintain the things that he knows clearly, and not allow any doubts to enter his heart. Through this act of undertaking the neziros, his experience in seeing the sotah will not be just an unconnected scene that he once witnessed, but the scene and the knowledge of its meaning will enter the depths of his heart and be kept firmly there, so that no doubt will enter. Then he will be assured of victory in the war with the yetzer hora.
This can explain for us the words of the Ramban who explains the comment of Chazal who said that the two upside-down nuns bracketing the parsha of Vayehi beneso'a ho'oron come to create a break between two bad things. Chazal did not say what the bad things are, but the Ramban explains that it refers to another comment of Chazal, that they ran away from Mt. Sinai as a child who runs out of school. (Bamidbar 10:35)
How do we understand this? How can it be that they ran away from Mt. Sinai as a child runs out of school? Did they not just before see, eye to eye, that Hashem is Elokim, and ein od milevado? They saw the sound and torches and the fire and the great spectacle of that special event.
But the reason is as we have explained. All that they experienced was only external knowledge, and this type of knowledge is not reliable, as we see in connection with the sotah, that even one who saw the sin and its punishment must still abstain from drinking wine, since, without that concrete act it remains a piece of knowledge that needs instantiation.
The same applies to ma'amad Har Sinai. Since they had not yet concretized it in action, it remained just a piece of knowledge and hence unreliable. Thus they ran away as a child who runs out of school.
Now we can explain why we celebrate Shavuos as zman matan Toraseinu, even though it was the occasion of the giving of the first Tablets that were broken, while we remain with the second Tablets that were given on Yom Kippur. The main idea is to seize and preserve the clear knowledge that we have of Hashem, and that is what we must do on Shavuos since that is the time when we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears when HaKodosh Boruch Hu spoke with Moshe and He opened all the firmaments and we saw clearly that Hashem is one and unique in the heavens and the earth—ein od milevado.
This is the key to our whole avoda, to maintain this knowledge and to leave no room for doubt. That is why we celebrate zman matan Toraseinu on Shavuos, to review and sharpen and hold to it with all our might, that we may implant it in our hearts and it not remain an unconnected piece of knowledge that is unreliable in practice, but be driven deeply in our hearts so that we can rely on it.
Everyone should know that min haShomayim they show him clearly the way in which he should go, with absolute clarity without and doubts, and any bar da'as will see it. Our avoda is to strengthen this, because that will be our success.
We must review it many, many times, and sharpen it for ourselves, to take it out of the category of unconnected knowledge and to put it in the category of the concrete, so that it will be reliable in a time of test, so that he will gird himself and be victorious in the war with the yetzer hora that revolves about this point: will he stand firm with his knowledge and prevail in the war, or will be allow room for doubt and thus be prevailed over.
This is what we can take from Shavuos, to hold fast to the clear knowledge and leave no room for doubt. Then he will be victorious in the war, and he will be zoche to enter the main hall with its great or.