Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com
Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Among all our holidays, Shavuot has the unique distinction of not having any specific positive commandment associated with its observance. While Pesach has the eating of matzah, for example, and Sukkot has the lulav and etrog, we have no symbolic mitzvah associated with Shavuot. True, men have taken on the custom of being immersed in the study of Torah all night, but this is not a Torah mandate, and certainly doesn’t apply to women (although women may choose to study all night as well). Shavuot, then, is closely associated with tefillah/prayer, as prayer is the means through which we show our desire for Torah.
If we are to reaffirm our acceptance of Torah, we must pray with attention and conviction, speaking the words slowly and carefully. The specific blessings at the start of our day, in the morning liturgy, verbalize this desire. We begin with the blessing that Hashem has commanded us to toil and be constantly involved in words/things of Torah. Then we ask Hashem to make those words sweet in our mouths, in the mouths of all of Bnei Yisroel, and indeed in the mouths of our offspring throughout the generations. Finally, we bless and thank Hashem for having chosen us from among all the nation and for having given us the Torah. Indeed, He continues to give us the Torah in the present. Having said these brachot, we apply them immediately by reciting some representative verses from the Torah, the Priestly Blessings that reflect God’s love for us. We continue the liturgy, and right before we proclaim our faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu before reciting the Shema, we acknowledge our gratitude to Hashem for His love/Ahavah rabbah, and we ask Him to help us reciprocate that love by continuing to teach us so that we may learn, teach, observe, and uphold all the words of the Torah with love. Especially on Shavuot, how intensely we say these blessings will impact our learning and avodas Hashem, throughout the day and throughout the year, notes Rav Meislish in Sichot Ba’avodat Hashem.
These blessings are extremely important, writes Rabbi Schwab z”l. They are pronouncements of love for the Torah, and gratitude and praise to Hashem for sharing this gift with us. In fact, the Gemarrah in Nedarim relates that Hashem testified that He brought the destruction of the Beit Hamikdosh and of Eretz Yisroel because “of their forsaking My Torah,” that they did not recite the blessing over My Torah. Rabbi Schwab explains that this statement relates not to the study of Torah itself, but rather to the attitude toward the study of Torah. Bnei Yisroel studied Torah, but they treated it as any other field of study or science, rather than the special wisdom contained therein, and therefore they recited no blessing acknowledging the Torah as a Divine gift.
What must be noted is that women are also obligated to study Torah. How else will they be able to keep a kosher home, or run an honest business? Women must study Torah on a practical level, while men are additionally required to try to learn Torah for its own sake.
How does reciting these blessings provide a hook for Torah learning, and what does it mean that Bnei Yisroel failed to recite these blessings?
In Lefonov Na’avod, Rabbi Forsheim provides an interesting insight, based on the works of Rabbi Wolbe z”l. He cites the well known Mishneh that tells us that every morning a voice goes out from Sinai that proclaims, “Woe to the people for the humiliation of Torah.” But if no one hears this declaration, what does it achieve? Says Rabbi Wolbe z”l citing the Chazon Ish z”l, the soul of every Jew was at Sinai, and the soul retains some of that Sinai experience. That voice is actually our inner voice calling out to us. It is the “trust your gut” feeling when you know something is right, when something clicks. It is the feeling when you know you’ve met your bashert or that guides you in buying your home or making the proper career move. That voice calls out “Woe to us for not learning Torah.”
There are three blessings, and they can be interpreted in many ways. Rabbi Wolbe z”l offers several interpretations. First, he writes of the three categories in creation: the inanimate world, the vegetative world, and the world of animals. Each of these has requirements for its existence and for life. The vegetative and animal worlds have physical requirements of air and food for survival. But beyond these is the world of hamedaber/speakers/humanity. This creation, besides its physical aspect, also has a spiritual side, and this spiritual side also requires sustenance. “Great is Torah,” says the Mishneh, “For it gives sustenance both in this world and in the next.” Torah nourishes the soul and enables us to grow spiritually, to strengthen our midos. The more Torah we learn, the more we plant ourselves in this world and in the next.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the technical details of a mitzvah, we forget that its purpose is to connect us to Hashem, that we are always lefanecha/before You, continues Rabbi Wolbe z”l. The purpose of the Torah blessings is to keep us connected to Hakodosh Boruch Hu and remind us that He is the Source of the Torah and of all. The three Torah blessings remind us of the three categories of blessings. First, there are blessings we recite in preparation of performing a mitzvah. This category is represented by “That You have sanctified us … and commanded us to toil in… Torah.” At other times, we bless Hashem for things we enjoy. In the Torah blessings we ask Hashem to make Torah words sweet for us so we will enjoy them. Finally, we offer praises and gratitude, as we thank Hashem for choosing us from among all the nations and giving us His Torah.
In an additional interpretation for the three Torah blessings Rav Shaltiel Meir HaKohen explains that we go through three stages of learning Torah in our lives. First, our parents take us to learn, and we do their bidding willingly or unwillingly. This is the stage of the first blessing, that we study Torah because Hashem so commanded us. As we grow older, we find Torah study sweet and enjoyable. Finally, we grow to understand and appreciate how the Torah has elevated us, and we thank Hashem for giving us the Torah.
All three interpretations blend beautifully with each other, forming a trilogy of connections, for a “threefold chord will not easily be rent asunder.”
The particular wording of these blessings also demands further analysis. Why, for example, asks Rav Moshe Bernstein in Laboker Renah, does the blessing use “to toil/busy ourselves with” Torah instead of “to study” Torah? That is the point, writes Rav Bernstein. Hashem wants more than just reading and acquiring knowledge of Torah. Hashem wants us to delve ever more deeply into Torah, gaining new insights, and stoking the coals of the fire for Torah in our souls as well as in our brains.
One can ask why it is customary for some people sway back and forth during davening. A beautiful and simple answer is that we want to involve our entire body in prayer, all my bones thank Hashem. But I sway forward and back, not sideways, as if I am bowing to Hashem in gratitude and acknowledgment, for through Torah and prayer, I am uncovering secrets within my own soul and growing closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
The next bracha also has an unusual word, veha’arev. While the word is usually translated as “make [it]sweet” or “pleasant”, an alternate translation would render it as “inter mix the words of Torah in our mouths,” let Torah become part and parcel of our being. Torah learning should be so pleasant to you that you love it and integrate it into your soul. Torah should become part of your essence, part of everything you do, adds Rav Eliya Lopian z”l, so that you are always involved with Hashem. Then I can ask Hasshem’s blessings not only for myself, but for my children and for their children, and indeed for all of Bnei Yisroel, as the bracha continues. We pray that even those who now are more distant from Torah will come to experience its sweetness, writes Rabbi Chaim Friedlander z”l in Rinat Chaim, that they too will come to know God’s name and be able to relate to Him and study Torah for its own sake. We want to be able to study the written Torah where all God’s names and attributes are hidden, as well as the oral Torah, writes Rabbi Schwab z”l. And don’t forget to show your love of Torah by kissing the chumash or Siddur before you put it away, especially in front of our children or our students. Let them learn from our actions to love and value Torah.
We are incapable of acquiring the wisdom of Torah on our own writes Rabbi Pincus z”l. Therefore the brachah emphasizes the present tense, that Hashem continues to teach us His Torah, and continues to give us His Torah. All of our spirituality is a gift from Hashem, as is everything we have and everything we do. On Shavuot, we re-experience he joy of that first Shavuot, when Hashem came down from the mountaintop Himself, so to speak, and spoke to us, and taught us His Torah. Writes Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv. Every time someone sits down to learn Torah, Hashem sits down with him and teaches him on his individual level of understanding, just as he spoke to each of us in a voice tuned to our own individual wavelength at Sinai. When someone feels Hashem’s presence alongside him as he is learning, he feels tremendous joy. In this way, our experience at Sinai repeats itself each day.
As such, we have been chosen both collectively and individually to receive the Torah. As Rabbi Schwab z”l writes, Hashem teaches Torah to the Jewish child while he is still an embryo in the womb, infusing its soul with holiness. As such our actions must reflect that holiness, writes Rav Biederman. That’s why in the Shemonah Esrai of the three festivals we say that You chose us and raised us above all the other tongues and desired us. He quotes Reb. Bunim that this line refers to the fact that there is no language or words to describe the greatness of the Jew. If we understand our greatness, our learning becomes special and full of joy.
That voice from Sinai never stopped, write Rabbi Mandelbaum. It continues to teach us so that we can continuously find new insights in the Torah. After reciting these blessings and understanding the mission statements, we’ve created an auspicious time of joy in heaven and can ask Hashem for anything, both spiritual and material. Therefore, we follow up with the Priestly Blessing which includes all the spiritual as well as all the material blessings. We’ve tapped into our inner core, that part which connects to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, adds Rabbi Meislish.
Every Shavuot Hashem too reenacts the stand at Sinai. He symbolically comes down the mountain to greet us as a groom goes out to meet his bride at their marriage. Therefore, writes Rabbi Schorr, If we have the right intentions, Hashem will forgive our sins on Shavuot just as He forgives the sins of a bride and groom on their wedding day. On his wedding day the King distributes gifts to all who come to ask. We should pray for our children and future generations as well. Focus in one’s mind on each child by name and their mother’s name, as we recite the blessing to make the words sweet in the mouths of our children and their children, continues Rabbi Shaltiel HaKohen. Continue to say their names when we light our Shabbat candles each week. It is not enough to teach our children verbally, we must also pray for them, and we must be the models of joy in Torah, of the exhiliration of being in God’s presence as He comes down to each of us individually. These are the kavanot/intentions that should be in our minds all year round as we recite the Blessings of the Torah.