The Chain of Torah transmission and its implications today
Tzivia Kusminsky, Director of Latin America and Poland for the OTS Amiel BaKehila program
The festival of Shavuot has several names, among them “The feast of the receipt of the Torah”, given that on that day, after the exodus from Egypt, Israel received this important compendium of laws, morals and history.
In Masechet Avot it is written:
“Moses received Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.” (Chapter 1, Mishnah 1)
From this first Mishnah, we can learn various principles regarding the giving of the Torah, its form of transmission and the values that it contains.
First of all: what does it mean that Moshe received the Torah “from Sinai”, should not it say “in Sinai”? The Maharal of Prague explains that since it is impossible to receive the Torah from Hashem directly, as the relationship between the infinite and the finite does not allow it, we had to receive it from Sinai.
The concept “Sinai” means: “product of the spiritual level in which Moshe was”. The Midrash tells us that Mount Sinai was chosen because of its low height, teaching us the importance of humility – as is written about Moshe, that he was a very “humble man”.
Question: Who wrote this sentence?
Question: If Moshe wrote that he is very humble, he probably was not so humble, otherwise he would not have written that.
Answer: Humility means to recognize what I am, what are my faculties and my virtues, and at the same time to understand that in front of my creator I am null.
Consequently, the meaning of Moshe receiving the Torah “from Sinai” is that Moshe deserved to receive the Torah because he reached such a level of humility.
Likewise, the Mishnah tells us that Moshe received Torah from Sinai, and not “The Torah”. What is the difference? “The Torah”, which talks about the order of the world, the place that everything has in the divine intelligence and more, has not yet been received. Moshe, on the other hand, received the part of the Torah that we can understand.
The Mishna continues: “…and gave it over to Joshua”. The words “gave it over” represent a certain decline, meaning that the level of the Torah that Joshua received is not the same as the level that Moshe received. He did not have the same “kelim”, tools, that Moshe had to understand it. When a person transmits an experience to another, the experience is not understood in the same way by the one who listens as by the one who actually experienced it.
Joshua in turn, gave it to the elders – a second decline – and the elders in turn gave it to the prophets. The prophets gave it – last decline – to the Men of the Great Assembly. So the version of the Torah received is the “third version.
This last point represents the decline of the generations. The farther we move away from the source, from the receipt of the Torah, the more we need to “lower” its level so that we can understand it.
Despite the decline of the generations, our sages call us “the dwarf on the giant”, meaning that although we are far away from that glorious day at Mount Sinai, we have gained all the wisdom and merits of the generations above. We can see things from a broader point of view, and this gives us a certain advantage over our ancestors.
Finally, the Mishnah brings the message that the Men of the Great Assembly choose to transmit to us (from them, and not Moshe, because from them we finally “received” the Torah): “Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.”
This message, moral in its base, closes the circle. Moshe, the leader of the Jewish people, receives Torah and transmits it to Joshua, and with this, the transmission from generation to generation begins. This transmission is the source of the survival of the Jewish People and as such, the key for the message of Hashem to continue being spread in this world.
Likewise, in order to continue to remain united as a people, it is important to take into account all the people of Israel, in all their facets and ideologies. This is why our wise men teach us to be moderate, so as not to alienate anyone from our ranks and to establish many students, in order to reach everyone. And this is why they teach us to make a fence around the Torah – because although it is important that everyone find within the Torah’s “70 faces” the way to serve God that best suits his soul, it is necessary to establish boundaries to tell us the rules of interpretation and within which context.
Chag Shavuot Sameach!