There is no union more beautiful or intimate than that which occurred at the base of Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Wolbe describes the giving of the Torah as the greatest convergence of physicality and spirituality in world history, for it was the marriage of God to His beloved nation. It would seem that of all the locations for such a beautiful exchange, the desolate wilderness, the Sinai desert, was hardly the most fitting setting.
Why wasn't the Torah given at a more scenic location, like a rose garden or a desert isle at sunset? According to the Midrash, the wilderness was the only place fitting for the giving of the Torah, since the Torah could only be received in the desert. The Torah says (Shemot 19:1) “In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai.” The Ohr HaChaim comments, “The people encamped not only in a literal, but also in a figurative wilderness. They humbled themselves in submission to the word of God, for the words of Torah remain only with the humble.”
As the Jewish people encamped at the base of the mountain, they realized that they were awaiting the climax of their existence. Never before and never since would the Jewish mission in the world be so clearly stated. For God to give His wisdom to His beloved, the environment would have to be perfect! The Jewish people would have to be willing partners or else the wedding would go nowhere. We had to be ready to receive.
The essence of partnership is cooperation. If one party does all the work, it is hardly a union. Therefore, for the Jewish people to be worthy of becoming partners with the Almighty, they would have to fashion themselves into vessels for His holiness. Just like a cup filled to the brim is incapable of holding more liquid, until this point the Jewish people were too full of their own self pity, ego, and worry to be concerned with anything outside of themselves. They were pawns in the Exodus, leaving the land of their bondage on the merits of their forefathers. In the desert they built themselves from their childlike role as helpless bystanders to a nation worthy of becoming God’s chosen people. This union between God and Israel could not occur on its own. It wasn’t until the Israelites emptied themselves of their own selfishness that they merited to receive the Torah. Only when they made themselves a wilderness did they receive the beautiful gift of lifelong meaning.
Vulnerability is not a comfortable state. Much of our time is spent trying to build our egos, our social network, and our comfort level. We try to hide our own insecurities by comparing our accomplishments to those of others. The 1890’s in America were dubbed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain because society, while masked with decadence and luxury, rotted from the inside as a result of the prevalent racial strife and immorality. Unfortunately, in many ways, this historical period resembles man’s most comfortable state; to attempt to build a façade of perfection rather show than a true, albeit less glamorous, image of himself to the world. To humble oneself means to show ones’ vulnerability and imperfection.
Beware of Over-achievement
In addition, many people seek perfection in their spirituality. They harbor great resentment when their lofty, impossible goals are not met. Rebbe Nachman, as quoted in "Courage" by Rabbi Israel Isaac Besancon, viewed exaggeration as an imbalance and a source of pain. He put great stress on simplicity and purity when it comes to spirituality. “God is not a tyrant,” he taught, “A worshipper can never attain perfection, therefore it is not required. A man should choose one good practice towards which his heart is drawn. He can seek to embellish it, although without excess.”
Very often the greatest speed bump is our desire for over-achievement. This selfish goal takes the place of meaningful growth and connection with God. Reb Wolbe explains that simcha, happiness, is defined by the union of two seemingly opposite forces that join together to influence each other for the good. We must remember that for us to be fitting partners with God, we cannot trample on His footsteps. In the finite/spiritual relationship, there is no way we can occupy the role of the Perfect Being. Since we are limited physical beings, we should seek to understand our role and nurture it by emptying ourselves of our selfish dreams and flooding ourselves with humility. We should not lose our personality, but rather recognize that everything we have is a gift from the Almighty, and it is only through our union with Him that our purpose in life can be achieved. Thus we can understand the Or HaChaim’s statement that “Words of Torah remain only with the humble,” because those who recognize their role in the creation are those who will accept the yoke of Heaven.
There is no concept of being “number one” in Jewish thought. Rather, we should strive to be as one. Through the union of two seemingly opposite forces, such as heaven and earth, man and woman, physical and spiritual, true, meaningful, and everlasting happiness is achieved. May we all strive to be like a desert; to be free of everything but a genuine desire to seek spirituality, to live inspired, and through our humility, to be constantly elevated.