The more I study Jewish History, Biblical, ancient Jewish History, the more obvious it seems to me that there were always Jews who sinned, or skimped (a popular label for this in Israel nowadays is “dati lite,” the diatietc/low calorie religious observance) on their observance of the Torah, G-d’s instructions. Most probably the only few seconds in time when all Jews agreed, were united and obeyed were as long as it took to shout out in unison:
We will do and we will listen.
Those crucial, magical, life-changing historic event took place at the foot of Mount Sinai, after the exodus from Egypt when we, the Jewish People, accepted the Torah, G-d’s instructions on how to live.
By saying “Na’aseh“ before ”Nishma” they expressed acceptance of Hashem’s Torah “sight unseen” - without first understanding. After the unqualified acceptance of “Na’aseh, saying “Nishma” means that we are ready to open our brain, our intellect and our hearts to understand Hashem’s Torah to the extent that Hashem will help us to do so.
If this sight unseen acceptance hadn’t happened, Jewish History would have taken a different path. But it did happen. Chazal, our sages say that the soul of every single Jew to be born (or converted) was there at that great historic moment. That was the pledge, the oath that linguists say is the key to the name of this holiday, which should be called Shvu’ot, oaths, not Shavu’ot, weeks.
Our ancestors, accompanied by our souls, pledged our allegiance, obedience to G-d all those thousands of years ago. We saw, experienced the miracles which G-d produced to facilitate the exodus from Egypt, the end to the bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Today we see, even among many Jews who claim not to obey the Torah that despite this they are attracted to the Torah. There are “secular yeshivot” in which religious observance isn’t required in order to study the classic Jewish texts. Shavuot is a very traditional time to study Torah, Talmud and commentaries. More and more we hear:
“The dati’im (Torah observant) don’t have a monopoly on our Jewish texts.”
I’m glad to hear this. We’re all Jews, and nobody “owns” the Torah. The Torah must unite us to remain one people.
Tonight and tomorrow (Wednesday), the Jewish world is celebrating the festival of Shavuot (weeks). In Israel we only celebrate one day (until Wednesday night). Abroad, most Jews have the custom of keeping two days.
On Sivan 6th , G – d gave the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai. G – d reminds us several times in the Torah that the Torah itself is eternal and cannot be replaced by anything else. G – d and His Torah do not depend on time, as we do (Bnei Yissachar). After Adam and Eve (Adam and Chava) ate from the Tree of Knowledge, G – d changed the human DNA and made us mortal.
How do we approach Shavuot today ? How can we get exited at all without having been at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given ?
First of all, we do have the concept in Judaism that any souls (Neshamot) ever been created or will be created in the future, have been at Mount Sinai. All of us were there including the converts to Judaism. Before G – d gave the Torah to the Jews, He went to all the nations and asked if they would like to receive the Torah (see Midrash). The nations refused, as according to the Torah, murder, theft, adultery, not keeping kosher etc. are forbidden. However, the other nations did not want to give up their old habits and no changes in society whatsoever. Only the Jews said NA’ASEH VE NISHMA – Let’s hear and we will do. The Jews said yes without knowing the conditions (Midrash).
The Vilna Gaon said that actually there were some people among the nations who did want to receive the Torah but G – d only asked their kings who refused. According to the Vilna Gaon, those people are the converts to Judaism today.
How do we prepare ourselves for Shavuot ?
First of all, we should internalize the Torah. We need to understand that it is not an ancient book which does not apply to me today. Rabbi Meir Weiner once said at a Shiur (class) that each of us should look at the Torah as if it only speaks for himself. This thought might help us to understand the meaning of Shavuot in our days.
Everybody should spiritually prepare himself for this holiday and then we are able to reach higher and higher level and do important Tikkunim of the spiritual worlds. Furthermore, Shavuot is a “Chizuk”, a strengthening of the souls for all generations (Kuntres Dibrot of Toldot Avraham Yitzchak). All generations still have the eternal Mitzvah of Torah study (Bnei Yissachar). In Judaism we differentiate between different levels of Torah study. The first concept is called PSHAT where we only study on a more or less superficial level. However, our task is to internalize the inner meaning of Torah and Halachot.
During Shacharit (the morning prayer service) we add three additional readings: The Ten Commandments (Aseret HaDibrot), the famous poetic AKDAMOT prayer (written by Rabbi Meir ben Yitzchak in the 11th century) and the Book of Ruth (Megillat Ruth). Akadamot tells us in a very poetic way about G – d’s creation of the world until the World to Come (Olam HaBah). The verses are written according to the Hebrew alphabet and each sentence is being answered with the word TA. TA consists of the letters Aleph and a Tav standing for the first and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Symbolically, the word TA represents the whole Torah and that its study is endless.
The Book of Ruth was written by Shmuel HaNavi (the Prophet Samuel), as it says in the Gemara in Talmud Bava Batra 14b. But why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot ?
Ruth was an ancestress of King David and he was born and died on Shavuot. It says that only Zaddikim (righteous people) die on their birthday. Ruth was one of the most important converts to Judaism and, therefore, Shavuot is also the day of the converts. His whole life, King David had to suffer from bad comments of other people, as his ancestor was a Moabite and not a born Jew.
Background: The Moabites and the Ammonites (today’s Jordan) came from the illicit relations between Lot and his two daughters after they fled from Sodom. Both daughters had intercourse with their father and both bore a boy. One was called Ammon and the other was called Mo Av. The Mishna in Yevamot 76b teaches that Jews are not allowed to marry male Ammonites or Moabites but marrying a female is allowed. According to this Mishna, Ruth and Boaz had a legal marriage and there should not have been any gossip or doubt about King David’s Jewishness. However, all his life, King David suffered from false accusations and I think that if he entered the Rabbanut (chief rabbinate) today, the rabbis might throw him out as well.
Nevertheless, the Meschiach is coming from a Moabite. Who would have thought that, as one might assume that the Meschiach is coming from a perfect family.
But not only King David died on Shavuot. On Leil Shavuot, Erev Shavuot, the great founder of the chassidut, the Baal Shem Tov died. Therefore, many Chassidic groups celebrate his Yahrzeit with certain events. Especially chassidut very much emphasizes the Tikun on the night of Shavuot. Reading certain prayers and Kavanah (concentration) helps us reaching higher levels and connect the spiritual worlds with our physical world.
All over the world, thousands of Jews will stay awake and learn through the night. Especially in Jerusalem, people like going to different Shiurim (classes). Most synagogues and religious programmes offer different classes. Daily newspapers already started publishing many addresses for Torah study on Shavuot. Classes are free of charge and light refreshments will be served. At about 4am, people will start walking to the Western Wall (Kotel) for praying Shacharit. Every year, it is a great experience seeing the sun rising over the Tempel Mount.
Chag Sameach – Have a great holiday !