וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק:
Why does the pasuk repeat two times that the people saw, “ro’im” and then “va’yar?” And why does the pasuk change the tense of the verb? R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that “va’yar” refers to those who stood at Sinai and witnessed mattan Torah; “ro’im” in the present tense refers to us. The experience of mattan Torah reverberates through history so that we can still hear and feel it in our time as well.
The gemara says that R’ Yosef remarked that if not for this day [of Shavuos], he would just be another Joe in the marketplace. R’ Tzadok asks: were there no great people before mattan Torah? Even before the Avo,s there was Chanoch, there was Mesushelach. Why was Rav Yosef convinced that he would have been a nothing had there not been a mattan Torah?
There is a big debate whether intelligence or other traits are a product of nature or nurture. Is a brilliant person born a genius because he has genius genes, or does he become a genius because of how he is raised or how he works to develop himself? Pre-mattan Torah, great people became great by dint of their own effort. At mattan Torah things changed. The Jewish people were given Torah as a “morasha,” an inheritance. You don’t need to do work to earn an inheritance – it’s bestowed upon you without your having to do anything. It’s part of your nature, not something you need to nurture and develop.
R’ Tzadok reminds us of the gemara at the end of Sotah where R’ Yosef held himself up as the exemplar of anavah, modesty. R’ Yosef surely was aware of his greatness in Torah. What the gemara means is that he did not attribute his success to his own talents and efforts – he attributed his greatness to the experience of mattan Torah that implanted Torah within him, as part of his nature. I don’t know if there is a Jewish gene for smarts, or for other talents, but there is a Jewish gene for limud haTorah that each one of us possesses.