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Mountain of Cheese (Shavuos)

Oct 21, 2009 by Rabbi Pesach Siegel

I’ve always wondered. It is customary to partake of milchigs on Shavuos.  One reason given for this custom is related to the name of Har Sinai. It is called Har Gavnunim, the mountain of cheese (Rav Shamshon Ostropolier). This appears to be just a play on words, unrelated to the spirit of the day. And for what rational reason would Har Sinai be called Mountain of cheese?


   Let us explore.


   Hashem wished to give the Torah to his nation. The whole world heard, and the mountains came running. The high and mighty Har Tavor arrived on the scene. Har Carmel crossed the sea. The Torah should be given on them, so they claimed. Hashem chose little Har Sinai, the smallest of the mountains.


   Do mountains run? Do mountains talk? Do they have aspirations and delusions of grandeur?


   A few midrashim would be in order right now.


   The gemorah relates that the houses of worship of Bavel will be miraculously transported to Eretz Yisroel in the time of the final redemption. From where is this derived? From our very own Har Tavor and Har Carmel. They came to the desert to learn the Torah. They came knowing it would last only a short while, but nevertheless, they came. Their reward? To be rooted in the Land of Israel. They came to learn Torah and were rewarded.


   Another medrash.


   The high mountains came. “What are you doing here?”, they were asked. We were summoned! They were SUMMONED? Hashem rebuked them. “All of you are destined to be centers of idol worship, all except Har Sinai. For the present, Har Sinai will be the chosen mountain. But, despite this, the time will come when I will rest my presence among the denizens of the world for all eternity. And the Shechina, the divine presence, will rest upon you.”


   The medrash elsewhere sheds some light on this matter. It is told, that in the future, Hashem will bring Har Sinai, Har Tavor, and Har Carmel together as one. He will build the Beis HaMikdash upon the three of them.


   Mind boggling! For what reason were they summoned, only to be chastised in the end? And…why do they deserve to be the resting place of the eternal Shechina? In addition, was their crime one of misplaced haughtiness or being the unwilling participants in the crime of avoda zara?


   One more.


   “You will not be the place upon which I give the Torah. You are “gavnunim”, blemished with the blight of ga’avah, haughtiness. But even so, you will have a unique role. Upon Har Tavor, the evil conqueror Sisra is destined to fall. Har Carmel will be the site of a kiddush shem shamayim in the days of Eliyahu, where the falsity of the prophets of Baal will be revealed for all to see.”


   Let us work our way backward and focus on the events surrounding the downfall of Sisra. The parallels between the exodus from Mitzrayim and the victory over Sisra are evident. It was Sisra who loaned Pharaoh the six hundred chariots required to chase after the Bnei Yisroel. In a repeat of kriyas Yam Suf, Sisra’s army was engulfed by the Nachal Kishon. And in the end, there was a Shirah, an outburst of prophetic song. Barak and Devorah sang a Shirah. They sang the praises of the hand of Hashem in the battle. They sang of the entire world joining in to vanquish the enemy. Fire rained down from the heavens. The very elements were set against the host of Sisra. All except for one. A lone constellation named Meroz. Meroz did not cast fire upon the enemy. Barak and Devorah pronounced a cherem upon Meroz. As a result, when it attempted to shine, it’s neighboring constellations engulfed it.


   Har Tavor and Har Carmel came, Meroz didn’t and therefore disappeared into obscurity, while the mountains were blessed with eternity.


   Mountains don’t have bechira, neither do constellations. The malachim appointed over them function in accordance with Hashem’s will. There can be no deviation.


   Hashem created the mountains for the benefit of Klal Yisroel. He created the constellations in the heavens to serve the chosen nation. Thus, they are linked to us. The inanimate creations of this world are the barometers, the measuring sticks for our level of kirvas Elokim, our relationship to Hashem.


   If, at the time of Sisra, all of Klal Yisroel had blended together in perfect harmony,  this would have been reflected in the readiness of Meroz to join the fray against stamping out the evil Sisra, whose self professed reason for existence is to wipe out all traces of Hashem’s honor in this world. All the forces of creation, in their totality would have united. This was sadly and regrettably not the case. Meroz is not to be blamed. The fault lies within us.


   The gemora in Meseches Pesachim tells us that Devorah lost her prophetic vision in the midst of her shirah. She uttered the words, “Ad shekamti Devorah” – “Until Devorah arose”. These words were considered disrespectful to her predecessors. They were a display of ga’avah. The greatness of prophecy has its inherent dangers. Such closeness to Hashem lifts the prophet beyond his/her limitations, above all others in creation.


   This is what lies at the very roots of idol worship. The essence of avoda zara is self worship. When man comprehends the power he possesses, the ability to control the forces of the universe, through the link forged between man and creation, he can come to one of two conclusions. The right one or the wrong one. How great is the One who granted man such power and bends the power of the world to the will of man. How much of a responsibility this places on man to utilize this power for the honor of the Creator. Or, chas veshalom, How great I am for the power invested in ME. I can draw power from the very stars. I can dictate the tenets of MY own religion.


   Hashem created high and powerful mountains in His world. This is indicative of the ability of man to reach great heights by investing much power.


   One cannot serve Hashem without the realization of such strength and ability to climb. The journey into Torah learning must be accompanied by an awareness that when one embarks upon it, he is entering into greatness. The world performs the bidding of the Torah scholars. If vinegar must burn in order for them to have light, then vinegar burns. If a river must split in order for one to cross it, it splits.


   The Mountain of Carmel and Mount Tavor were summoned to the desert. Their very essence summoned them. The entire creation was in the balance awaiting the moment when Hashem would reveal His Torah in His world. Only then will all of the multi-faceted creation realize it’s purpose. The coming of these mountains symbolizes the harnessing of the trait of ga’avah for avodas Hashem.


   Klal Yisroel saw this. They witnessed the coming of the mountains. And they also saw that the lowly Har Sinai was chosen. The high and mighty mountains were present for kabbalas hatorah, the “learning of the Torah”, but Har Sinai was chosen to be the conduit through which the Torah reaches this world.


   Hashem wanted us to see this. He was showing us something. Something vital. The power to reach great heights is integral to climbing the ladder of Torah, but the actual acceptance of the Torah must be through pure unadulterated humility.


   Mountains don’t talk, WE talk. It is our essence being expressed through the mountains.


   It is for this very reason that the idol worshippers of the time chose Mount Carmel and Mount Tavor to perform their rites upon. They sensed the power of the place. These mountains possess within them a potency, the power to connect with all the forces of the world. And they wanted these forces for themselves.


   Sisra was destroyed on Mount Tavor. Devorah sang “Anochi ashirah”. The prophets of the Baal were humiliated on Mount Carmel amidst cries of, “Hashem hu haElokim”. The voice of Har Sinai, echoing the words Anochi hashem Elokecha”, resounded from the mountains.


   The process of Matan Torah is an ongoing one. The process culminating in the perfection of a nation is a long one.  We weren’t perfect yet, so Meroz didn’t come.


   The medrash tells us that the Beis HaMikdash will expand to the size of the entire city of Yerushalayim. The city of Yerushalayim will be the size of the entire Land of Israel. The Maharsha explains, this will be due to all the batei knesios, the houses of worship, that will be transferred to Eretz Yisroel and will be absorbed by the Beis HaMikdash.


   The Beis HaMikdash. Bnei Adam don’t take up space within the confines of the Beis HaMikdash. This is because there we are elevated to connect with our source, and our reason for existence is crystal clear. Our greatness is not to be directed inwards towards our selves.


  In the Beis Hamikdash, all the houses of worship are one. The prayers in those houses of worship are directed toward the Beis HaMikdash. We pray to a higher power, for we are powerless on our own.


   The Har Carmel and Har Tavor within each one of us is a danger. Our potential for greatness can be a cause of strife, sinas chinam, and blinds us into thinking we can control our own destiny. These strengths can only be safely incorporated. when built upon a strong foundation of pure unadulterated humility.


   In this world, the Torah was given on Har Sinai alone. The giving of the Torah was a starting point. But when the time of redemption dawns, and the light of understanding fills the eyes of mankind, we will no longer be at risk at the hands of our own potential for gadlus – greatness. As we become aware of our own capacity for greatness, we will be filled with the utmost humilty. This is what is signified by the triumvirate of Har Sinai, Har Carmel, and Har Tavor. May the Beis HaMikdash be built upon them speedily in our days.


   Perhaps we can gain some comprehension in our precious minhag. Har Sinai was called Har Gavnunim. The word gavnunim is derived from the word “giben”, which is a bodily flaw that renders a kohen unfit for the avoda. Har Sinai exposed the flaw in the other mountains. It caused them to be viewed as “giben”.


   Cheese is formed by a chemical reaction between milk and the enzymes contained in a mold. A mold, in it’s own right is an undesirable blight. But in combination with blessed milk it forms a delicacy.

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