Shavuot

Upset because the JCC was closed on all Jewish holidays, including Shavuot, an angry board member once confronted the local JCC’s president at a meeting, asserting,  “I understand the JCC being closed on the High Holidays and Passover,” he accused, “but what’s it doing being closed on all those Mickey Mouse holidays?!”

Indeed, to so many Jews the festival of Shavuot doesn’t even appear on their calendar, even though it is perhaps the year’s most important Jewish holiday. Why? Because, on it, Hashem revealed to us in the Torah that the entire universe and everything in it was created for the sole purpose of the Jewish people accepting the Torah on Sinai! We see this concept in a verse in Genesis where we notice that as Hashem created the world in six days, at the end of each day the Torah says (Genesis 1:5):

ספר בראשית פרק א

וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד

5)  And it was evening and it was morning day one.

Similarly, on each of the subsequent days, the Torah says, “and it was evening and it was morning day two, day three etc.” Yet when the sixth day came, the Torah informs us, “and it was evening and it was morningthe sixth dayיום הששי . What is the meaning of the definite article represented by the extra  ה ?

Hebrew grammar contains the concept of the ה’ הידיעה  – the identifying ה. We find an example of this in the Book of Esther,מגילת אסתר . Our Sages teach us that even though the name of Hashem does not appear explicitly even once in the entire megillah, every time it says “The king המלך– – with the identifying ה , it is a hidden reference to the Ultimate King, Hashem, the King of all Kings. Similarly, The sixth day – is referring to the most important “sixth day” in the Jewish calendar, the sixth day of the month of Sivan, when the Jewish people would receive the Torah.

But what does the sixth day of creation have to do with the sixth day of Sivan? The Talmud informs us (Shabbat 88a):

 

 

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף פח/א

דאמר ריש לקיש: מאי דכתיב “ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום הששי?” ה”א יתירה למה לי? מלמד שהתנה הקדוש ברוך הוא עם מעשה בראשית ואמר להם אם ישראל מקבלים התורה אתם מתקיימין ואם לאו אני מחזיר אתכם לתוהו ובוהו!

Reish Lakish taught: What does the extra  ה teach us? That Hashem made a condition with creation, saying to it: “If the Jewish people accept the Torah on the sixth of Sivan, you will continue to exist, but if not, I will return you to chaos and nothing.

Since the creation of the world depended on the Jewish people accepting the Torah, it is clear that the nation’s fulfillment of Torah is the world’s ultimate purpose. Hence, if they did not accept the Torah, the world would no longer be needed!

Rashi expresses this concept on the Torah’s first verse.

ספר בראשית פרק א

א) בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ:

1) In the beginning of Hashem’s creation of the heavens and the earth.

רש”י על בראשית פרק א פסוק א

בראשית ברא – אין המקרא הזה אומר אלא דרשוני כמ”ש רז”ל (ב”ר) בשביל התורה שנקראת (משלי ח) ראשית דרכו ובשביל ישראל שנקראו (ירמי’ ב) ראשית תבואתו

  • This verse is begging for an interpretation. It is to be interpreted as the Sages have rendered it in the Midrash, “for the Torah which is called ראשית-reishit, and for Yisrael who are called ראשית – reishit.”

The ב  of בראשית  is to be translated as for; therefore, since the Torah and Yisrael are both called ראשית  – reishit, it comes out saying, “For the Torah and for Yisrael,Hashem created the heavens and the earth.”

Right from the start, the Jewish people were part of Hashem’s plan for creation.

There is, though, something very peculiar about the holiday of Shavuot. On this day we received the Torah, the purpose of our existence as a people, yet, the Torah itself makes no mention of a connection between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah. Furthermore, all other holidays have a symbol or mitzvah connected to them. For the whole week of Pesach, which celebrates our redemption from Egypt, we eat matzah and abstain from leaven, something that transforms our life for eight days. On Sukkot, which celebrates our preservation in the wilderness, we eat in the Sukkah and take a lulav and etrog. On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the Shofar, and on Yom Kippur we fast. How is it that, on Shavuot, we have no symbol of the festival? True, we stay up all night and study the Torah, but that is not mandated in the Torah, unlike the other symbols.

There is yet another peculiarity about the festival of Shavuot. It has no specific date in the Jewish calendar. It occurs 50 days after Pesach, and depending on the configuration of the months of Nissan and Iyar (if they have 29 or 30 days) it could fall out on either the 5,th 6,th or 7th day of Sivan. All other Jewish holidays have a specific day in a specific month for their celebration.

It seems from all the above that what happened on Shavuot is unique and special and cannot be pinned down to a specific calendar day and cannot be captured in a symbol. How is that?

After giving the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, Moshe says (Deuteronomy 5:19):

ספר דברים פרק ה

יט) אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה דִּבֶּר יְדֹוָד אֶל כָּל קְהַלְכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הֶעָנָן וְהָעֲרָפֶל קוֹל גָּדוֹל וְלֹא יָסָף וַיִּכְתְּבֵם עַל שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים וַיִּתְּנֵם אֵלָי

19) These words Hashem spoke to your entire congregation on the mountain, from amidst the fire, the clouds, and the darkness, a great voice that never ended – and He inscribed them on two stone Tablets and gave them to me.

What is the meaning of “the never-ending voice?”

Our Sages explain that Hashem never stopped giving the Torah at Sinai after He completed giving the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. Rather, the Torah’s words that were articulated and heard by the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai are still being spoken by Hashem to this day.

The Maharal says it very clearly in his דרוש על התורה  – Dissertation on the Torah.

וזהו “ולא יסף,” שזה לא יפסוק עוד יותר, כי הש”י משפיע לנו התורה תמיד בכל יום,

This is the meaning of the never-ending voice – Hashem bestows Torah upon us constantly, every day.

The Toras Chaim  (ספר תורת חיים על בבא מציעא דף פה/א ) explains the implications of this phenomenon:

והענין תמוה! למאי נפקא מינה קול מתן תורה קיים לעולם? ונראה לפרש לפי שבשעת מתן תורה יצא השפע מאתו יתברך והשפיע על הר סיני כל התורה כולה שבכתב ושבעל פה מדרש ואגדה הכל נאמר לו למשה מסיני ואותו השפע קיים לעולם ועד וכל תלמיד ותיק העוסק בתורה לשם שמים השפע ההוא מחזיר עליו ונח עליו וזוכה לחדש חידושי התורה על ידי השפע ההוא שהוא כדמות רוח הקדש

This matter is a wonder! What difference does it make if the voice from Mount Sinai is still present? What this means is that at the time Hashem gave the Torah, Hashem gave forth the entire Torah: Written, Oral, Midrash, and Aggadah – everything was said to Moshe from Sinai. And that information is extant forever. Thus, any serious Torah student who is learning the Torah with all his heart to know the Torah, that information hovers over him, and rests upon him and through that he will merit to see new insights in the Torah.  

The giving of the Torah was not a one-time event on Mount Sinai on the 6th of Sivan! Hashem has been giving the Torah, non-stop, since then to the numerous Torah Scholars and yeshiva students as they struggle to understand its holy words. The Torah hovers over them and provides them with the insights and understanding for which they are toiling.

This is why, says the Maharal, the blessings that we make before learning Torah in the morning end in the present tense –  נותן התורה  – The One who gives the Torah, not the One who gave the Torah, and המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל  –The One who teaches (currently) Torah to His nation Yisrael. The Torah is still being given and taught to us every minute of every day; the voice that gave the Torah from Sinai has never stopped. When we study the Torah, we are tapping into the freshly given Torah that is still flowing forth from Sinai.

This idea is the secret to keeping the Torah fresh and exciting, something that we are commanded to do in the Shema, which we recite twice a day (Deuteronomy 6:6):

ספר דברים פרק ו

ו) וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ

6) And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.

Rashi comments:

אשר אנכי מצוך היום – לא יהיו בעיניך כדיוטגמא ישנה שאין אדם סופנה אלא כחדשה שהכל רצין לקראתה

They should not look to you like an old proclamation that nobody cares about; rather, like a new one that everyone is running to hear.

As we daily study the Torah, we are studying the fresh dose of Torah that was just now given from Sinai! It has just left the mouth of Hashem and has come directly to us as we toil to tap into it and drink from its sweet, satisfying waters.

This is why the Torah is always current and always relevant. There is always a lesson to be learned about life as we live it here and now. Since it was just given, it contains the instructions for life right now.

This is why the Torah designates no specific day in the Jewish calendar for the receiving of the Torah on Sinai. This process is ongoing and is happening daily.

This idea can help us answer a daunting question. Moshe warns the Jewish people.

ספר דברים פרק ד

ט) רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ:

י) יוֹם אֲשֶׁר עָמַדְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב בֶּאֱמֹר יְדֹוָד אֵלַי הַקְהֶל לִי אֶת הָעָם וְאַשְׁמִעֵם אֶת דְּבָרָי אֲשֶׁר יִלְמְדוּן לְיִרְאָה אֹתִי כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר הֵם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה וְאֶת בְּנֵיהֶם יְלַמֵּדוּן:

9) Only beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life … 10) the day that you stood before Hashem, your God, at Horeb

We are commanded not to forget the day we stood at Sinai and not to let the events that we saw there, escape our hearts. But how can this commandment apply to us? How can we be commanded not to forget something that we never had in our memory? We, personally, never stood at Mount Sinai! Although our souls were there, we have no conscious recollection of what our soul saw, so how could we forget something that we never knew?

The answer is that all the Torah that we learn even today is currently being taught to us from the very same voice that taught the Jewish people the Torah at Sinai and has never stopped. As we learn Torah each day, we are receiving it straight from Sinai.

This concept works two ways. When we learn the Torah and see its brilliant and deep concepts, we realize ever so clearly that this could only have come from Hashem. The Torah that we learn carries the testimony to Sinai within it. One who learns the Torah with the proper attitude cannot help but realize that the Torah must have come from Hashem on Sinai.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg זצ”ל told the following story: Two non-Jewish Israeli lawyers, a husband and wife, came to Rabbi Weinberg and asked him to convert them to Judaism.

“Why would two successful non-Jewish lawyers want to convert to Judaism?” asked the rabbi.

“Here’s the story.” they said. “We bought a new apartment and had a party to celebrate. We invited all our lawyer friends to come join us, and, as is customary, they each brought us a gift. Knowing that we were lawyers who specialize in damages, one of our friends brought us a copy of the laws of damages by Maimonides. After a while, we decided to see what Maimonides has to say about the laws of damages, and we were amazed at the breadth and depth of the information. We started applying the formulas we learned from Maimonides to our cases, and they hit the bull’s eye every time. We realized that no man could be so smart and that these laws are the divine laws given by God. We want to be part of a religion with such a great God.”

The Sinai event is evident in the Torah. This is something we can see with our own eyes when we learn the Torah and this is what we are being warned not to forget and let slip out of our hearts.

This is also why there is no symbol for Shavuot, and why the day in the Torah is not linked to the receiving of the Torah. That would imply that it only on that specific day did we receive the Torah. But that is not the case. The Torah is given every day, and we can celebrate its receipt every day.

Additionally, the symbol indicating that we received the Torah from Sinai is something that we wear every day, namely, the lifestyle that we live in compliance with the Torah’s laws. Once again, this is not a one-time deal; rather, we are displaying the symbol of Shavuot every moment of every day.

All this raises a new question. So, what’s the big deal about Shavuot? If we are supposed to celebrate the giving of the Torah anew each day, why are we making such a big deal about Shavuot? It was merely the day that it all started!

One of the highlights of the Pesach seder is singing דיינו dayaynu in the Haggadah. One of the lines requires explanation. We say:

אִלּוּ קֵרְבָנוּ לִפְנֵי הַר סִינַי, וְלֹא נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה דַּיֵּנוּ

Had Hashem brought us close to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, Dayaynu. (It would be sufficient reason to thank You.)

What would have been the purpose of arriving at Mount Sinai if we had not received the Torah there? Why is simply standing at Mount Sinai singled out as something we need to thank Hashem for?

Standing at Mount Sinai was an awesome and terrifying experience, as the verse (Exodus 19:16) teaches us:

טז) וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה

16) On the third day when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very powerful, and the entire people that was in the camp trembled.

As the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai, Hashem opened the heavens, and they all saw Hashem’s heavenly court with all the spiritual realms and angels. This event opened the hearts of the Jewish people and created within them a thirst and a yearning to know Hashem. This deep and innate connection that the Jewish soul has with Hashem is what we received when standing at Mount Sinai. This thirst was promptly quenched when Hashem gave them the Torah, for Hashem and His Torah are one, and through the Torah we can know Hashem intimately.

As Shavuot approaches, that holy energy, which instilled the deep connection between the Jewish soul and Hashem, is once again present, and we can harness it for our own growth in Torah. To the degree that we open our hearts to the Torah on Shavuot, we will be able to accept the fresh dose of Torah as it comes forth from Sinai every day. This is why Shavuot is such a big deal. It is the gateway to our success in Torah for the rest of the year.

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