Shavuot: To Teach, To Learn, To Repent

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08 May 2013

There is an urgency in the two Torah commandments whose obligation is constant and ever-present, to learn Torah and to repent.  The Torah is clear about this urgency in the Sh’ma:  “These words, which I command you this day, make them as a sign upon your heart and between your eyes…”

Our Sages comment that the word hayom, “this day” means that “the Torah should be ever fresh in your mind, as though you received the Torah today.”  As for the duty to repent, Rambam teaches, “A man should always regard himself as if his death were imminent and think that he may die this very hour, while still in a state of sin.  He should therefore repent of his sins immediately and not say, ‘When I grow old I shall repent,’ for he may die before he becomes old.”

This matter of days and Torah is fresh in our minds as we turn our attention to S’firat Haomer and the coming of Shavuot, for what more concrete example of the importance of Torah and the power of days than the counting down from the beginning of Pesah to the Chag Matan Torah?  Yet, despite our celebration of the revelation at Sinai, the chag is not named in the Torah.  How can we help but be intrigued by this omission of the name of the day towards which we ultimately count – Chag Shavuot – or better yet Chag Matan Torah, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.   There is the sense that the Torah is hiding the festival’s name

“And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath, from the day you brought the sheaf of wave-offering; seven complete Sabbaths:  Even unto the morrow of the seventh Sabbath You shall count fifty days . . .”  Why not simply inform us to count towards the significant date of  Matan Torah? Why doesn’t the Torah find it important to communicate that this counting is not merely related to Pesach, but rather that this day on which we received the Torah, this consequential Jewish historical event, is worthy in its own right?

Yet, it doesn’t.  And so the Talmud considers Shavuot to be the culmination of Pesah, not even a chag in its own right.  Does this diminish the power of that day at Sinai?  Not at all.  It is simply that the commemoration of the giving of the Torah must not be limited to a particular time.  It applies at all times .  This day is each and every day.   As it is written, “This day the Lord thy God hath commanded thee to do these statutes and judgments.”

Every day is Yom Matan Torah.  Every day, the excitement, enthusiasm, and vigor of being a committed and learned Jew must be renewed and reinforced.  It is with this understanding that the Keli Yakar found significance in the Torah’s use of the phrase Vehikravtem mincha chadasha – “and you shall offer a new offering” – in regard to Shavuot.  Each and every day, the Torah must be received anew, just as if it was received from Sinai each and every day.

The joy and satisfaction of Torah study must not be limited to special days, or occasions. It is to be ongoing, continually renewed and continually renewing.  Torah study must always spiritually excite and emotionally uplift.   It is for this reason that the Keli Yakar  says the same enthusiasm and ecstasy that occurred at the Revelation at Sinai must be searched for and found everyday.

The Keli Yakar posits the same rationale for the Torah’s omission of the name Rosh Hashanah and its direct association with din and repentance.  Should a man sin all year round and think of repenting only as he comes closer to Yom Hashem, when God sits in judgment?  No.  Rather, he should imagine that God sits in judgment recording his deeds everyday.   If he can think this way, he will continually engage in repentance, each and every day.

Analysis, reflection, and introspection of man’s deeds and misdeeds must be an everyday experience.  For the thoughtful Jew every­day is a Yom Matan Torah and Yom Hadin.  Such an attitude might also help us understand Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer when, according to the Talmud, the plague that caused the death of 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva ended.

24,000 brilliant young scholars!  Lost!  Our Sages ask why so many scholars died.  According to Talmudic and Midrashic sources, they died because they did not sufficiently respect one another. Their scholarship, Torah learning, and erudi­tion were taken for granted. For them, Torah learning was pursued as if any other knowledge, without an excitement, en­thusiasm, and fire resulting in new insights, renewed motivation, and novel ideas.  They reveled in their Torah brilliance rather than the brilliance of Torah.  They tallied up the pasukim and dapim they memorized, rather than the power of the words they were memorizing.

They hoarded their successes in learning the Torah rather than being humbled by them.

They were “satisfied” with their learning, not challenged or enlivened by it.

Lag B’Omer came to be known as “Scholar’s Festival” to remind those who devote themselves exclusively to the pursuit of Torah learning that there is more to Torah learning than the “quantity” of knowledge, more than book knowledge and text absorp­tion.  Torah learning encompasses the “quality” of learning as well, the love and devotion for fellow students, an excitement for the Divine word, growing sensitivity and feelings emanating from the subject being studied, a reaction to learning Torah that is to be likened to that of Matan Torah.  Students of Torah are charged with examining their activity with the gauge of Mincha Chadasha.  Is this day of learning like Yom Matan Torah and Yom Hadin?

The Ramban notes that when the Torah communicates the obser­vance of Shavuot, it makes use of a phrase found only once more in the Torah, in regard to Yom Kippur – “And you shall proclaim on this very day (b’etzem ha-yom ha-zeh) a holy convocation…”.  This call to observe Shavuot is the same call to refrain from work on Yom Kippur – “and you shall do no manner of work b’etzem ha-yom ha-zeh, on this very day.”

Why are both Shavuot and Yom Kippur referred to as “this very day”?

Who would ever question or doubt the unique and unequaled features of Yom Kippur? The affliction of the soul, the abstention from physical pleasures, and the consecration of the day are powerfully evident.  Who could ever confuse Yom Kippur with any other day in the calendar – chag or no?

Yom Kippur is such a powerful spiritual presence that its spiritual effects must linger on b’etzem ha-yom ha-zeh, every day.

A Chassidic master once taught that the blowing of the shofar at Neilah is simply a signal to begin preparing anew for the coming Yom Kippur, to count every subsequent day as ha-yom ha-zeh.

The same must be true of the effect of Shavuot, on this very day, every day.  The awe, trepidation, and ecstasy of the very day of Shavuot must be an each and everyday experience. No matter what day it is, on etzem ha-yom ha-zeh, one must excite, inspire, innovate, and communicate as God did on “this very day.”

The charge to make each day of learning like Yom Matan Torah rests not only with students but with their teachers as well.  Everyone involved in teaching Torah would do well to reflect and ask: Am I seeking new methods and exciting approaches for our Torah presentations? Am I creative and innovative in my Torah methodology and curriculum?

It is incumbent on students to learn.

It is incumbent on teachers to teach as we want our students to learn.  The goal of effective Torah education must be to attempt to make each day, every day, a unique and special experience for students so that they leave our classrooms as our forefathers departed from Sinai – awed and inspired.

Each and every day.

The Midrash in Tanhuma (Ki Tavo) sums it up:  What is meant by “this day”? Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not ordained these precepts for Israel till now? Surely the year in which this verse was stated was the fortieth? Why does the Scripture therefore state: “this day”?  This is what Moses meant when he addressed Israel: “Every day let the Torah be as dear to you as if you had received it this day from Mount Sinai.”

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own;
He who, secure within, can say
Tomorrow, do thy worst; for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul, or rain or shine,
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not heaven itself upon the past has power. But what has been, and I have had my hour.
So much may happen in a single hour,
A field of flowers may be touched by frost;
A war may start, a King may lose his power; A precious thing may be forever lost.
So many lovely things may pass away,
My dear, we dare not trust in a frail tomorrow; Let’s grasp and hold today while we may.

John Dryden

In memory of HaRav Yosef Betzalel ben HaRav Yaakov Moshe Rabinowitz ZT”L who made each day, every day, a unique and special experience for students… who left his classroom as our forefathers departed from Sinai – awed, inspired, eager for more.   Each and every day!   Yehi zichro baruch.