Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh
Shavuot nowadays has two distinct aspects. On the one hand, it is defined by the Torah as the day following fifty days of counting omer (Vayikra 23:16). On the other hand, we refer to it in our prayers as "zman matan torateinu", the time of the giving of the Torah. (In the time of the Mikdash it is also the time of bringing bikkurim and the special sacrifices of the day.)
One insight into the relationship between
these two aspects can be gleaned from the following perplexing Midrash on
the story of Kayin and Hevel:
As we have written before, the fifty-day omer period is basically devoted to the perfection of our personal qualities, or “midot”. We can see this in several ways. Specifically at this time of year we study Pirkei Avot, which relates especially to personality improvement; we mourn the passing of the students of Rabbi Akiva who didn’t act thoughtfully towards each other.
Even the number seven, which is the basis of the seven-times-seven day period of Omer, generally symbolizes completeness at the level of our personal characteristics; this compares with the number ten, which represents a higher level of perfection which includes our higher faculties.
So the introspection of the period of the sevens-based Omer period is focused on our personal qualities, in contrast with the Ten Days of Repentance, where there is much more emphasis on strengthening Torah study and Torah observance. The contrast is hardly surprising, since the Omer period corresponds to the period between the Exodus and the revelation on Mount Sinai, a time when the Torah had not been given and so our spiritual elevation could not have been through Torah.
Since it is specifically the Torah that enables us to infuse everyday life with sanctity, the spiritual perfection which precedes Torah requires a certain degree of renunciation of this-worldly experience. It seems that this renunciation was the unique characteristic of Hevel. According to the Ramban, his very name signifies that earthly posses- sions are hevel – vapor and vanity (Ramban on Bereshit 4:2). And Rashi explains that the reason he occupied himself with flocks, instead of produce, was because the earth was cursed, therefore Hevel distanced himself from it (Rashi on Bereshit 4:2).
This approach to the world is appro-
priate prior to the giving of the Torah. Without Torah, earthly existence is
cursed; it is only the Torah that enables us to elevate and sanctify it.
After the curse of the earth, G-d made mankind garments of leather (Bereshit
3:21), recalling shoes which separate us from the earth. (See Likutei
Halakhot Breslav law of Yibum.) But when HaShem spoke to Moshe at Mount
Sinai, he ordered him to remove his shoes (Shemot 3:5). The power of Torah,
as signified by Sinai, is to sanctify the earth, meaning we no longer need
to separate ourselves from it.
While the sin of Adam and Chava brought death into the world and cursed the earth, this curse was not meant to be permanent. Indeed, our Sages tell us that this curse was removed at Mount Sinai. The “ketz” or “end of days” (Bereshit 4:3; according to the Midrash, fifty days) indicated to Kayin and Hevel that they were to bring sacrifices; it signified that the time had come to move beyond the stage of renunciation of worldliness, transcending it by moving forward to the stage of elevation of worldliness as embodied in the act of sacrifice.
Hevel, however, was not suited to this new reality; his entire being was attuned to adapting to the cursedness of the material world, and he was unable to transcend this curse. For this reason he did not live beyond fifty days, the period of earthly perfection, and so died on Shavuot, the day of earthly elevation.
Kayin, as we have pointed out before, made the opposite mistake - believing that at the current level of humanity it is possible to elevate all aspects of the material world. Like Esav who spoke of tithing salt and straw (see Rashi on Bereshit 25:28), he thought that he could bring a sacrifice from mediocre produce. This point of view fails to make the appropriate distinction between more and less elevated aspects of the world and leads to exaggerated mercy which finds practical expression in cruelty, a notable characteristic of both Kayin and Esav.
The challenge of Shavuot is to move beyond the earthly qualities that we try to perfect during the Omer period and move to a new, transcendent Torah outlook, recognizing that the curse of the earth can be remedied by the giving of the Torah. At the same time, we acknowledge that the curse of the earth has not been removed entirely, and we need the specific guidance of the Torah to inform us exactly how to distinguish among the unholy, the potentially holy, and the holy.
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Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com or www.aish.com.