Shir ha-Shirim XIX: Sefirah 44: The Ointment of Sinai
“Your ointments have a goodly fragrance.” Rabbi Yannai the son of Rabbi Shimon said: All the hymns that the patriarchs chanted before You were, so to speak, merely fragrances, but for us, “Your Name is as ointment poured forth,” we being like one who actually pours from one vessel to another (our praise is compared to theirs as the actual ointment to the mere fragrance).
All the mitzvot which the patriarchs performed before You were mere fragrance, but for us, “Your Name is an ointment poured forth,” 248 positive commandments and 365 negative Commandments.
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva made the following observations. Rabbi Eliezer said: If all the seas were ink and all the reeds pens and the heaven and earth scrolls, and all mankind scribes, they would not suffice to write the Torah which I have learned, and I have abstracted no more from it than a man would take by dipping his pen in the sea.
Rabbi Yehoshua said: If all the seas were ink, and all the reeds pens and the heaven and earth scrolls, and all mankind scribes, they would not suffice to write the Torah which I have learned, and I have abstracted no more from it than a man with take by dipping the point of his pen in the sea.
Rabbi Akiva said: it is not possible for me to say as my teachers said, for in fact my teachers did take something from it, while I have taken no more than one who smells a citron: he who smells enjoys it, while the citron loses nothing. Or than one who fills his pitcher from a watercourse, or one who lights one lamp from another.
One day Rabbi Akiva came late to the study hall, so he sat outside. A question arose, “is such and such the law?” They said, “the law is outside.” Again, a question arose, and they said, “The Torah is outside. Again, a question arose, and they said, “Akiva is outside; make way for him. He came in and sat at the feet of Rabbi Eliezer.
The study hall of Rabbi Eliezer was shaped like an arena, oblong with seats on both sides, and there was in it a stone which was reserved for him to sit on. Once, Rabbi Yehoshua came in and began kissing the stone and saying, “This stone is like Mount Sinai, and he who sat on it is like the Ark of the Covenant.” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1.3.1)
We begin by saying that we who have the Torah and commandments can achieve more with our observance and prayers than did the Patriarchs on whose merit we depend. Yet, even so, our greatest scholars did not begin to access the depths and wealth of Torah. Rabbi Eliezer took only a pen full of water from the ocean of Torah. Rabbi Yehoshua took only what would stick on the tip of a pen. Rabbi Akiva felt that all he had accomplished was to take in the fragrance of the Torah. Yet, in the Yeshiva, they could not find the law without Rabbi Akiva; “The Torah is outside.”
We began by saying that we have more than the fragrance that the Patriarchs merited, and we conclude by saying that even our greatest teachers had only fragrance! What then, is the difference between our fragrance and that of the Patriarchs? How can we claim to have the actual ointment or perfume, when Rabbi Akiva can only claim, ‘I have taken no more than one who smells a citron: he who smells enjoys it, while the citron loses nothing,’?
The final words of the Midrash explain: Once, Rabbi Yehoshua came in and began kissing the stone and saying, “This stone is like Mount Sinai, and he who sat on it is like the Ark of the Covenant.” The ointment we have is not the Torah, but the experience of Revelation at Sinai, and the privilege of constructing a home for the Ark of the Covenant. We merited a level of tangible relationship with the Giver of the Torah and its commandments, that was beyond anything experienced by the Patriarchs.
Each time we study Torah we have an opportunity to reconnect to the “ointment,” Sinai, the Mishkan and the Ark, something that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could merely smell but never experience.