Shavuos is the day on which the Torah was plucked from its Heavenly abode and transmitted to mortals. We mark the sixth and seventh of Sivan as the days which separate our nation from all other nations of the world. Only the Jewish religion celebrates the revelation of G-d to millions of people. Only the Jews can lay claim to having heard the word of G-d – literally – in the sight of masses of people.
On this day we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem. We were lifted above all mankind, for eternity. With the giving of the Torah, the Jewish nation was born.
The Gemorah in Pesachim, 68b, states that half of the Shavuos day is dedicated to service of Hashem and the other half is for our own benefit. In the Gemorah parlance,“Chetzyo LaHashem vechetzyo lochem.” It is not sufficient to simply accept the Torah. It is not enough to study Torah. We must internalize the teachings of the Torah and make ourselves better people. Torah must touch our souls and impact our actions. If we stay up all night learning, but then come home and carp at our wife because she didn’t have breakfast ready for us before we go to sleep, then we have failed in our mission of forging ourselves into true Bnei Torah.
Chetzyo LaHashem vechetzyo lochem. We must demonstrate that we are devout not only when it comes to learning and davening. We are religious also in the way we behave and conduct ourselves as we go about our regular, mundane, pursuits.
The words of Rav Yosef recounted in the Gemorah Pesachim, 66b, are often quoted to convey the extraordinary spiritual power of the day. On Shavuos, he would partake of a meal consisting of the finest meat. He explained that, “Iy lav hay yoma d’kagarim kama Yosef ika b’shuka, if not for this day, there would be no difference between me and all the other Joes in the street.”
Rav Yosef was saying that the study of Torah is not just an intellectual pursuit. It transforms those who absorb its lessons and strive to make themselves into better and holier people.
The greatness of this day is that it celebrates this transformative force of the Torah on all aspects of our lives. If we remain with the same personality we possessed prior to our study, then we are just another Joe. If our limud haTorah falls short of changing us and does nothing for us, the day’s gifts have been wasted.
Torah is a Divine gift given to man, but it contains many and myriad obligations. The holiday and the accompanying joy is reserved for those who conduct themselves as Rav Yosef did, channeling their lives into a steady upward incline of elevated performance and accomplishments.
The posuk recounts that when Hashem appeared to the Bnei Yisroel and offered them the Torah, they responded in unison, “Na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will hear.” The Gemorah in Shabbos, 88a, cites Rav Simai’s teaching that when they answered thus, placing na’aseh before nishmah, angels descended from Heaven and fastened two crowns on the head of each Jew, one for na’aseh and one for nishmah. Rabi Elazar says a bas kol rang out, stating, “Who taught my children this secret, which is used by the angels?”
Many commentators question what was so extraordinary about the words na’aseh v’nishmah that the Jews were so richly praised for stating them. Many different answers are offered. I was thinking that perhaps the greatness of the response was that they understood that acting is of greater importance than listening. By placing na’aseh ahead of nishmah, they demonstrated their understanding that Torah is not just an esoteric theoretical pursuit. They vowed to make the performance of the Torah’s dictates their highest priority.
In addition, of course, they committed themselves to heeding the teachings of the Torah; poring over them and toiling to understand them. Torah study will be their most important pursuit in life; the nishmah will take precedence over all other occupations. But it will all be ancillary to the na’aseh; the primary purpose of the Torah is that we carry out its chukim and mishpotim. Other intellectual pursuits do not necessarily change the behavior of the person who engages in them. Their study does not improve a person’s character and make a better man. But the study of Torah must have a positive effect upon us.
When we proclaimed na’aseh v’nishmah, we were saying that we were prepared to act like himmeldiker mentchen; we were prepared to act as people suffused with Torah and Kedusha; we were prepared to obligate ourselves lilmod ulelameid lishmor vela’asos ulekayeim.
Thus were the Jews deserving of receiving the Torah and declared to be on the level of angels who follow G-d’s word with steadfast devotion, without deviation or question.
At times, we lose sight of what our goals should be. We get so caught up with the difficulty inherent in the study and observance of Torah that we forget to apply its lessons to our daily lives and to become more cognizant of the others around us. We expect everyone to conform to our wishes, mimic our actions and think exactly as we do. We become intolerant of anyone who deviates one iota from what we consider proper. We forget that there were twelve shevotim at Har Sinai and each was different. They stood at Har Sinai as one, k’ish echod b’leiv echod, proclaimed together naaseh v’nishmah and received the Torah.
It is only when G-d’s nation and the people who remain loyal to Him and his mitzvos, put their internecine squabbles and differences aside that we are worthy of being G-d’s nation. It is only when we stand together as one that we achieve our greatness and are able to overcome all who seek to drive us from the tree of life. Any legitimate path to G-d, consonant with our traditions and halachos, is to be encouraged and praised and not vilified and disparaged.
If we recognize the greatness in each other, we can cross pollinate and enrich each other as Jews and as people. We grow as we respect and learn from each other.
The holy seforim say allegorically that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah corresponding to the number 600,000 that is always used to represent the collective tally of the Jews in the desert. This is to symbolize that there is a letter in the Torah for each Jew and each Jew has a letter in the Torah. The Torah is the collective embodiment of every individual good Jew who adheres to its precepts and commandments; each one can find his place there. Our roots are all in the Torah, whether we daven from an Ashkenaz, Sefard, Ari or Yechaveh Daas siddur.
Let’s treat all people the way we want to be treated, as Hillel the elder told the man who asked him to teach him the whole Torah ahl regel achas. We are all familiar with Hillel’s response. “Mah d’aloch sani lechavroch lo sa’avid, v’iduch zil gemor – don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you; as for the rest, go study.” What was Hillel telling him? Is the Torah really only about veohavta l’reyachah kamochu?
I think that what Hillel was teaching was that the Torah is all about Talmud hameivi lidai maaseh – Torah study which alters the way we behave, affecting positively the way we act. The basis of Torah is to know that its study has to affect our actions and the way we treat our fellow people. It is only after we accept this premise that we can set about learning. Mah d’aloch sani lechavroch lo sa’avid, v’iduch zil gemor.
This is what is meant by the Toras Kohanim at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai. “Im bechukosai teileichu v’es mitzvosai tishmiru.” Hashem says that if we follow his chukim and mitzvos all will be good. The Toras Kohanim, which is brought by Rashi, explains that the words v’es mitzvosai tishmiru mean that Hashem will bless us if we will toil in Torah in order to be able to follow its commandments. Ameilus b’Torah is not sufficient if it is not animated by the intention to heed the Torah’s mandates.
For the 49 days of Sefirah, we have climbed the ladder of the 48 ways in which Torah is acquired. Each day corresponds to one of the 48 requirements for having Torah. If you look through the 48 qualifications listed in Pirkei Avos, you will note that many of them involve our actions bein adom lechaveiro. That is because Torah is not just about mere ivory tower study. During the period of Sefirah, as we prepare ourselves for kabbolas haTorah, we refine our middos as well as our deeds because Torah is all about doing.
Let us strive to purify ourselves so that we can be zoche to a true kabbolas haTorah on all levels. May we merit to be molded by the life-giving aitz chaim that is both our sustenance and protection in this world, and our conduit to the next. Let us use the remaining time between now and Shavuos to perfect our middos and the other enumerated prerequisites for true gadlus b’Torah, so that by the sixth and the seventh of Sivan we have proven to be worthy Bnei Torah, ready to accept the greatest gift ever given to man, once again.