Struggle and Supplication

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26 May 2017

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            The holiday we generally refer to as Shavuot has in fact several names each reflecting a different aspect of the holiday, either spiritual or agricultural. However, one common name seems to have no relevance today, Chag Habikurim/the holiday of the first fruit. Certainly Torah is eternally relevant and cultivating the land, especially in Eretz Yisroel, remains relevant, but how is bringing the first fruit to a Beit Hamikdosh that no longer exists relevant today, and why are the bikurim associated with Shavuot, asks Rabbi Hofstedter? Further, asks Rabbi Revibo, if the purpose of the holidays is to forge a connection between Hashem and Bnei Yisroel, why is Shavuot mandated by Torah as only one day while the other two foot holidays are seven days each?

            In addition to the bikurim, there is another related offering unique to Shavuot, the offering of the two loaves of bread made from the new harvest of wheat. According to the Sefat Emet, the two loaves represent two equally important aspects of the holiday and of our commitment and relationship to Hashem. One loaf represents the Torah with its obvious connection to this day on which we received the gift of the Torah. The second loaf refers to tefillah/prayer, no less essential but often emphasized less in our zeal for learning Torah on this night and day.

            As with so much of the Torah, the two loaves are symbolic of the nourishment that sustains every Jew. Rabbi Kanatopsky z”l explains the symbolism beautifully. There are two streams that flow parallel and are necessary for maintaining a full and fulfilling Torah life, truth and beauty. One of the loaves represents the truth of halacha, the adherence to the mitzvoth of the Torah. The second loaf, representing beauty, is symbolic of the emotion and heart of the Jew. It is the aggadah that adds so much to our understanding of Torah, and shira/tefillah/song and prayer that adds the heart. The Gemarrah finds allusions to these two streams in acronyms for Anochi in the first of the Ten Commandments, one acronym focusing on Ne’eman/truth/integrity/strictness, while the other acronym focuses on ne’emah/pleasantness. (Ne’eman spelled with aleph; ne’emah spelled with an ayin.)

            The models for these two parallel streams are the two people most associated with Shavuot, Moshe Rabbenu who brought the Torah down to us from heaven, and David Hamelech who was born and died on Shavuot and who was our poet laureate, singer and musician through his Psalms and through his harp. The Torah is referred to as Torat Moshe, and David was the embodiment of tefillah, calling himself tefillah/Ani tefillah. Each mitzvah that a Jew does, continues Rabbi Kanatopsky ,z”l  must include not only the dry elements of halachah, but also the emotional joy of connecting to Hashem.

            It is in the merit of these two individuals and the models they would teach that the world was created, notes the Gemarrah. Rav said the world was created in the merit of David and Shmuel said it was created in the merit of Moshe. How are we to understand this?

            Rav Roth z’l in Sichot Eliyahu cites the Torah command to be careful lest we forget what we saw at Sinai. While the Torah is of utmost importance, the experience itself must also be remembered. We saw thunder and lightening, we heard the shofrot, we saw the heavens opening up and visions of the angels, we heard Hashem Himself speaking to us, and we saw Moshe entering into the deep fog as he approached Hashem to receive the Torah. The experience taught us not only to believe in Hashem, but also to believe in Moshe as His faithful servant and as the truthful transmitter of His word. It taught us that while the world was created with Ten Utterances in the beginning, it is maintained since then through these Ten Utterances from Sinai. We see that the hidden element of the physical existence of the world (ha Olam) is its spiritual component. Nothing is random. Just as Hashem has created it, so does He maintain it. Each year Shavuot concretizes this notion.

            Rabbi Lifshitz in Peninei Chen takes this idea one step further. The people saw and heard all the pomp at Sinai. But at the center was the ashan v’arafel, the smoke and dense fog. It was precisely within this dense fog that Hashem was to be found. Moshe entered this darkness, and there he encountered God. This is what we must never forget, that in the darkest of times, we can see Hashem and move forward through the darkness with the light of Torah as our guide.

            In fact, on Rosh Hashanah in the brachah of Shofrot, the liturgy speaks of the sounds of the shofar at Sinai and states, “You revealed Yourself b’arfalei tohar/in thick clouds of purity (clarity).” How could one get clarity in such darkness? The Talna Rebbe clarifies this seeming paradox. The Torah was given in darkness and under pressure because we are meant to accept the Torah even when we feel it as a yoke, heavy and challenging. [I remember hearing how women in shtetls in Europe often went to cold lakes to immerse themselves in the mikvah. Or men who didn’t come to work on Shabbat were told not to come back on Monday c.k.s.] But it is when we break through the darkness that we can see Hashem with clarity. After all, the Torah itself says that the dark evening precedes the light of morning. And in the dark times of our lives, we can still connect to Hashem through our Rabbis and Torah Sages.

            Rabbi Biederman takes us back to the scene at Sinai. Before Hashem speaks the Ten Commandments, the Torah writes that “Hashem spoke these words, saying…” Certainly if Hashem spoke these words, He said them. The word “saying” seems superfluous. Whenever that additional word is used, we are meant to find some additional meaning in it. The point the Torah wants us to remember, says Rabbi Biederman quoting the Noam Elimelech, is that in all our words, in whatever darkness we find ourselves, we must always remember that this is the God Who took us out of Egypt, the God Who loves us, and Who presents seeming challenges out of this love, even when the goodness is hidden from us.

            Rabbi Biederman then cites the Chasam Sofer on Megillat Ruth to prove his point. When Naomi and Ruth return to Beit Lechem, all the townspeople are out. They barely recognize Naomi and ask if this can really be Naomi. She responds, “Do not call me Naomi/Pleasant. Call me Mara/Bitter…” Most of the commentators explain that all the townspeople were out to accompany Boaz as he went out to bury his wife who had just died. According to the Chasam Sofer, Naomi felt the death of Mrs. Boaz as a severe blow to herself. She had hoped that since Boaz was a relative, Naomi could call on his wife to approach Boaz for help on her behalf. Now that the wife had passed, Naomi felt it was improper to approach Boaz directly. Who would help her now in her abject state? But although Naomi could not see it, Hashem was already setting the stage for the salvation of Naomi and of Ruth and indeed of all of Bnei Yisroel. The death of Mrs. Boaz was not darkness for her, but the beginning of the light, so that Boaz could marry Ruth and create the future Davidic Dynasty.

            Yom Habikurim teaches us that the natural world all comes from the Creator. There is only one reality. Everything is tailor made for my benefit, even if I cannot see it, even if I cannot bring Bikurim today, writes Rav Hofstedter. But this helps explain why Shavuot is only one day. Rabbi Tatz cites the analogy presented by Rambam. When one is lost on a path in total darkness and cannot see which way to turn, one momentary flash of light will be enough to find the right direction. Shavuot notes the Darchei Mussar, is that flash of light that helps us find our way through the dark, intersecting paths of life. It helps us find God in the darkness, just as Moshe approached God through the thick fog at the top of the mountain.

            Let us now move on to discuss the second personality representing the second aspect of the holiday, David Hamelech representing prayer and song. As Rabbi Meislicsh reminds us, David identifies himself in Tehillim as the embodiment of prayer, “Va’ani Tefillah,” David writes. Our prayers on Shavuot are extremely powerful and are accepted in heaven. After all, Shavuot represents the marriage of the King with His beloved Bnei Yisroel, and, just as a mortal king would bestow gifts to his subjects on such a special day, continues Rabbi Meislisch, so is our King inclined to bestow gifts on this day. All we need do is ask. And one of the most powerful prayers on this day is the blessing of Ahavah Rabbah recited before the Shema. This blessing incorporates so many of our requests for spiritual growth: “Be gracious and teach us, have mercy upon us and instill in our hearts to understand and elucidate, to learn, to teach,… to fulfill all the words of Your Torah,…To love and fear Your Name…”

            We no longer have the Beit Hamikdosh where we can bring our bikurim, pray, and enjoy our special connection with Hashem. Moshe Rabbenu understood that such a time would come, notes Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv.  Therefore Moshe instituted the three daily prayers that would serve to maintain this relationship even when we no longer had this special place. Shavuot is the call of Tefillah as well as the call of Torah. Offering our prayers would substitute for offering the first fruit. Since David Hamelech is the embodiment of Tefillah, we harness his power in our prayers on this day of his birth and death. Because of this, some have the custom to recite all of his Sefer Tehillim (either individually or as a group) on Shavuot.

            Tefillah is also connected directly to Har Sinai, thereby maintaining its relationship to Torah. At the foot of Sinai, immediately preceding Matan Torah, Bnei Yisroel brought a Korban which then became the paradigm for part of the inauguration ceremony of the Mishkan, and then part of the daily ritual in the Beit Hamikdosh as the Korban Tomid. When we pray, since prayer is our substitute for these rituals, continues Rabbi Schorr, we should be arousing within ourselves the same emotions of love and awe we felt at Sinai.

            The Mussaf Amidah of Shavuot has the same power as Neilah on Yom Kippur and as the Shabbos Mincha, writes Rabbi Pincus. We ask the Hashem purify our hearts and make His words sweet in our mouths. It is not a choice between Torah and Tefillah, between Moshe and David that makes Shavuot so powerful; it is the combination of the two.

            While Moshe entered the darkness at the top of the mountain and approached Hashem there, writes the Talna Rebbe, David Hamelech approached the darkness and challenges throughout his life, and sought comfort by approaching Hashem. His songs and Psalms come from the depths of darkness, but speak of hope and light as he looks to Hashem for salvation.

            Rabbi Feuer in his Tehillim Treasury explains David’s ability to sing God’s praises and express thanks in so many dire situations. David is identified with his harp, and a harp’s strings must be taut if they are to produce music. But they will only produce music when they are plucked even more tightly. So David thanked Hashem for his adversity, for to him the adversity was the very source of his strength and talent.

            Dovid Hamelech uses three “prayer personalities” in Tehillim, notes Rabbi Feuer. There is Tefillah le’ani/A prayer of the afflicted man, Tefillah leMoshe/A prayer of Moshe, and Tefillah leDavid/A prayer of David. Rabbi Feuer notes that while we all must assume the humble posture of the afflicted man in all our prayers, circumstances and personalities may influence how we pray. A prayer of Moses is more intellectual, perhaps even understanding a degree of the cosmic effect of prayer as the Men of the Great Assembly intended. On the other hand, a prayer of David is emotional, full of trembling, passion and rapture. Every Jew carries within his soul all three elements that have the power to draw him closer to God in every circumstance and situation.

            The two loaves we offered Hashem in the Beit Hamikdosh on Shavuot continue to be two gifts He gives us, the gift of Torah and the gift of Tefillah. The bond these create between Hashem and Bnei Yisroel is one that we and Hashem both cherish, and that we must continue to work on to keep it strong.

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