By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
June 7, 2003
Our Sages identify the festival of Shavuot with the
Revelation; it was at this time that the Torah was given to the people of
Israel at Sinai. In our prayers, we therefore refer to Shavuot as “the season
of the giving of the Torah zman matan Toratenu.” This is the source of the
joy of this festival.
And Moshe brought the people out towards God from the camp, and they stood at
the bottom of the mountain (Shemot 19:17).
Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, says:
“This teaches that the Divine Presence went out towards them like a groom that
goes out to greet his bride; and this is what is said (Devarim 33:2): “Hashem
came from Sinai” – and it does not say “came to Sinai.”
The event of the Revelation – was very much like a wedding,
forging a union between the people of Israel and Hashem.
And yet, the joy of that union was shattered forty days later, together with the
Tablets, when Moshe descended from the mountain and discovered the people
worshiping the golden calf. How, then, can we celebrate Shavuot as “the season
of the giving of our Torah,” when its joy was fleeting?
Perhaps Yom Kippur should be celebrated as the festival of the giving of the
Torah, because that is the day when Moshe brought down the Second Tablets, after
Hashem forgave the people for their sin. This would follow Ta’anit 26b:
“on the day of his wedding (from Shir HaShirim 3:11) – this is
the giving the Torah.”
In his commentary there, Rashi identifies this with Yom Kippur,
and not with Shavuot.
What, then, do we celebrate on Shavuot?
To answer this, let us examine a perplexing statement about Shavuot (Pesachim
“On Shavuot, Rav Yosef would say: ‘Prepare for me, a choice calf
[for the festival meal].’ He said: ‘Were it not for what this day accomplished –
how many Yosefs are there in the marketplace!’”
Rav Yosef was particularly joyful on Shavuot, because the Torah
given on that day distinguished him, a Torah Scholar, from all the other
“Yosefs” in the street, so he felt justified in celebrating.
Now, Rav Yosef was not known for self-indulgence; in fact, he often fasted. And,
he was especially humble (see the end of Sotah). Furthermore, he did not make
such statements about the other festivals. What was it about Shavuot that made
Rav Yosef rejoice?
The answer, says Rabbi Bezalel HaKohen of Vilna (1820-1878), lies in the story
of Rav Yosef’s life. Although once a brilliant scholar with a prodigious memory
(Horayot 14a), he became severely ill and forgot all his learning. His devoted
student Abaye had to teach him all that he had forgotten (Nedarim 41a). No
doubt, this caused Rav Yosef great sadness.
However, he could take comfort from the history of the First Tablets (Luchot),
which were broken. Regarding them, Rav Yosef teaches (Menachot 99a, Berachot 8b)
that both the first Luchot and the second, intact Luchot were kept in the Ark.
He further expounds that this teaches us an object lesson: a Torah scholar who
has forgotten his learning under duress must be accorded respect. Such a scholar
is like the First Tablets: once glorified, now only vaguely reminiscent of his
former self, but still holy.
The same was true, says Rabbi Bezalel of Vilna, of Rav Yosef. Just as the
shattered tablets remained holy, Rav Yosef was considered a Torah Scholar even
though he had forgotten so much of his learning.
But, why? After losing all that he had once known, wasn’t Rav Yosef the same as
all the other “Yosefs in the marketplace”? No, he was not. Because even after
the trauma of forgetting, Rav Yosef retained his original love for Torah. And
this is the underlying theme, and the consoling message, of Shavuot. The
Revelation is not only about obtaining and mastering the information contained
in the Torah, but connecting to Torah. Shavuot focuses on our loving
relationship with the Torah, initiated at Sinai, that has persevered despite the
“ups and downs” of our history.
If Shavuot is the “wedding” of the people of Israel and Hashem through the
Torah, then we return to this festival in much the same way as an old married
couple that has gone through many “ups and downs” looks through their wedding
album on their anniversary. Returning to the day when we heard Hashem’s Voice
proclaim the Decalogue and when we responded with Na’aseh V’Nishma, “We will
do and we will listen” – enables us to keep that moment alive. Rav Yosef
understood this very well.
“Education,” wrote B.F. Skinner, “is what survives when what has been learnt has
been forgotten.” On Shavuot we celebrate together with Hashem the unbreakable,
loving bonds of Torah that we share. We are like that couple viewing a picture
of themselves under the chuppah: revisiting that magic time when everything
seemed possible and still seeing, despite many years and changes, the same light
in each other’s eyes.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Parshat Naso provides us with interesting insights into specific
priorities demanded of society. The two issues that are highlighted, Sota
and Nazir, provide the backdrop of the priestly blessings and the
sacrifices of the tribal leaders brought on the day of the consecration of
Sota, a chapter dealing with suspicion, is calling upon us to value the
contrasting value: loyalty and fealty. The Sota ordeal plays a role
similar to the role of the list of penalties proscribed in the Torah for
various transgressions. The purpose is to demonstrate the seriousness and
magnitude of acts that affect not only the individual, but the family,
society and the nation as a whole.
Nazir, asceticism in pursuit of sanctity, is highlighted in order to
project the idea of man’s ownership and responsibility of his own actions.
It is man, on his own initiative, who takes a step in order to raise his
Sota, is society’s response to filial discord and suspicion while Nazir is
the individual’s initiative, in response to earlier failings. Both issues
are instilling strength by maintaining that both society and the
individual have the ability of controlling their moral destiny even in
situations where there are failures and setbacks.
National success is guaranteed when the individual assumes responsibility
on his moral behavior and when society does not ignore the deterioration
of morals within the family unit.
And so, it is very appropriate that after highlighting Sota, society’s
response to suspicion and Nazir, the individual obligation of moral
responsibility, the Torah then provides us with the blessing for the
וישמרך – Security, ויחונך – Educational and Moral Enhancement and שלום –
The Almighty provides us with security and peace when we take
responsibility as individuals and as society for our own ethical and moral
behavior. Moral initiative and consistency are the building blocks of the
Jewish Nation and its success. Israel today, in search of security and
peace, is able to rely on the very clear prescription set out in Parshat
Naso. Our prayers in Israel are consistently for וישם לך שלום.
Have a Chag Sameiach, and a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Michael K.
Council of “Young Israel” Rabbis in Israel
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320