By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood
Moshe turned away and began descending the mountain with the two Luchos HaEdus-Tablets of Testimony, in his hand. They were written on both sides with the writing visible from either side. The Tablets were made by HaShem and written with HaShems script engraved upon the Tablets.
Rav Chisda said: “the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously” and, he added, “what was written on the Luchos could be read from ‘the inside and from the outside’ [i.e. from the front and from the rear] for example נבוב/בובן =nevuv/ buvan; רהב/ בהר =rahav/ behar; סרו/ ורס=saru/v’ras.
The writing pierced the entire Tablet. Hence a miracle was required so that the entirely circular letters of [the closing] mem and samach could be read accurately [without the circle in the middle falling out.]
The words of Torah engraved upon the Luchos-tablets, penetrated the stones all the way through, from the front of the stones to their backs. To illustrate this point, Rav Chisda mentions three words and their dyslexic inversions. Both Rashi and Tosafos ad locum are puzzled by the words that the he chose to use as examples.
Rashi simply states that these words did not actually appear in the tablets; that Rav Chisda chose words at random. Rashi further maintains that we learn nothing more from these examples than that the letters mem and samach in the Luchos stood miraculously. Per Rashi, Rav Chisda seems to be repeating himself. Tosafos is more explicit and asks why would Rav Chisda do such a thing when he could have illustrated the same point using words that actually do appear in the aseres hadibros-Decalogue.
Additionally there is a margin gloss on that page of the Gemara that changes the sequence of one of the pairs of words; from rahav/ behar to behar /rahav, presumably because in the other two pairs of words the familiar, meaningful word appears first followed by the inverted, and apparently nonsensical, gibberish word.
The Izhbitzer teaches that Rav Chisda was describing two distinct miraculous, gravity-defying properties of the Torah; the ability to keep things that ought to be moving and falling stationary and the ability to effect drastic movement on things that otherwise would petrify and stay frozen in their places. The former being the stone “donut holes” in perfectly chiseled circles and the latter being the midos-character traits, of set-in-their-ways human beings.
None of the words that Rav Chisda uses to illustrate the latter point are gibberish, nor were they chosen at random. The Izhbitzer presents a close study of the root etymology of these words to reveal that they are polar opposites and not mere word jumbles arbitrarily spelled backwards. The inverted spellings serve as a metaphor for the words antithetical meanings. Think of an easy-to-remember lexicon of antonyms where every words antonym was merely the same letters arranged in the opposite order e. g. if the antonym of “cold” was not “hot” but “dloc” or if the antonym of “bottom” was not “top” but “mottob”.
The words that Rav Chisda chose describe midos that are antithetical to one another. Taking issue with margin gloss the Izhbitzer asserts that the Gemara’s text stand as is, for in each illustrative example the first word describes a negative, antisocial midah-character trait, while the second defines it’s positive polar-opposite midah.
The outer, copper mizbayach-altar of the Mishkan was constructed by filling in a copper plated acacia wood shell with soil or sand. The Torah calls this construction method nevuv luchos-a hollow structure made out of boards (Shemos 27:8). This is the precedent for the word nevuv describing something hollow. When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to an empty-headed ignoramus, void of any Torah content. Whereas the word buvan is etymologically related to the word binah, the word that defines the cognitive faculty forunderstanding and deductive reasoning. Torah has the power to transform minds and spirits that are vacuum-like voids into minds and spirits filled to overflowing with meaningful, intelligent content and wisdom.
The Zohar (parshas Terumah 170B) teaches that the “prince”/guardian angel of Mitzrayim-the Egyptians, was named Rahav. In Jewish lore the ancient Egyptians were infamous for their licentiousness and unbridled passion. This is the precedent for the word “rahav” describing something sensual and lusty. When applied to the psycho-spiritual makeup of the human being it refers to a ba’al ta’avah-someone overly drawn to, and even obsessed with, the temporal pleasures of the here-and-now world. Whereas the word behar-“in the mountain” connotes both being elevated from the earth and its mundane concerns and materialistic pleasures and being in an atmosphere that is less humid and drier than the air in lower elevations, in particular, in valleys. Dry mountain air is symbolic of a dispassionate, sober and abstinent sensibility. Torah has the power to transform minds plagued by untoward thoughts and spirits drawn to immorality into drier, cooler minds and spirits that aspire to the noble, the lofty and the otherworldly.
The word saru (generically translated as: ”they strayed ”) refers, in particular, to one who has ossified and hardened because of anger and bitterness; as in “the king of Israel went to his house (סר) surly and (וזעף) disgruntled, and came to Samaria.” (Melachim I 20:43) Or as we find the Gemara admonishing as us against verbally abusing a disenfranchised minority because “their hardened anger is terrible.” (Bava Metzia 59B) The word v’ras is etymologically related to the root ras which connotes softness and fluidity. E.g. “so long as one would be memareis –shake or stir, the blood of the Passover sacrifice … [in order that it retain fluidity and not harden and coagulate.”] (Mishnah Pesachim 61A) Or as in laros es hasoles– and 1/3 of a hin of oil, to moisten the fine flour. (Yechezkel 46:14) Torah can help spirits hardened by rage and bitterness, regain gentleness, suppleness and goodwill.
According to The Izhbitzer’s interpretation both the word choices and the sequence in Rav Chisda’s second statement were very specific. All three word pairings convey the concept that the Torah is more than a guide to self-improvement; it is transformative and empowers those who study it and observe its mitzvos to achieve a 180° turnaround and makeover.
This concept is echoed by other Chasidic masters in their commentaries to Avos and Tehillim.
He (Rabi Yaakov) would also say: A שעה אחת sha’ah achas– single hour, of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than the entire life of the World to Come.
-Pirkei Avos 4:22
… and HaShem turned towards-vayisha, the offering of Hevel. But to Kayin and towards his offering, He did not turn-lo sha’ah and Kayin became very furious and depressed.
He [HaShem] has distanced our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.
The Kozhnitzer Maggid provides a novel translation of the word sha’ah. Based on the pesukim describing the HaShems acceptance of Hevels offering His rejection of Kayins offering the Maggid translates the word to mean — turning. I.e. A sha’ah achas– a single transformative “turn”; of repentance and good deeds in this world — an epiphany, a consciousness altering revolution, that turns someone completely around; upside down and inside out, that kind of teshuvah — THAT is what’s greater than the entire life of the World to Come.
The pasuk in Tehillim begs the question; just how far is east from west? Is it the vastness that intervenes between California and Eastern Europe? Is it the expanse of continents and oceans that separate New York and China? Or, perhaps, is it a short as the relatively minor distance between an address on west 57th street and east 57th street on Manhattan Island? The Rebbe Reb Avraham the second of Slonim explains that the distance between east and west is minute. If one is standing facing the east, rotates on his heels, and does a 180° about-face, he has “traveled” as far as the east is from the west. One needn’t journey far in order to be distanced from his transgressions. What one must do, however, is to make a U-turn.
As Rav Hutner put it “teshuvah is nisht dehr taitch besser tsu verren … nohr anderish tzu verren-teshuvah is not ‘becoming better’ but ‘becoming different’” It is not about self-improvement but about total transformation. This is the message and the power of the Torah words that were engraved all the way through the Luchos.
~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Ki Sisa D”H Vayifen
and from MiMayaanos HaNetzach Pirkei Avos 4:22