Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

It Is Who We Are and What We Are About

Back when the sun first rose and creation was unsullied by man and his struggles, the world was waiting. Even after man settled in the garden, le’ovdah uleshomrah, the world was in a state of anticipation.

Throughout the generations that followed, despite Noach’s lone piety in a world of darkness, Avrohom Avinu’s perception of a Creator, and Yitzchok’s readiness to be offered as the ultimate sacrifice, something was missing.

Even as Yaakov studied through the long nights and his sons marched forth- an army of soldiers of the Ribbono Shel Olam- the world was not yet perfect.

It was a journey, a process leading to the Yom Hashishi, the glorious sixth day of Sivan when the world received its heart and soul. Bishvil haTorah shenikreis reishis.

“Ve’am nivra yehalel Kah” (Tehillim 102:19). A nation, newly identified, newly charged with a mission, called out two words that echo through the ages, that have come to define us: “Naaseh venishma.”

It was the moment when Klal Yisroel announced for the entire world to hear that although they were mortals fashioned of flesh and blood, they would live on a higher and loftier plane, using the greatest of all gifts, the holy Torah, to guide them.

And now, once again, we are at the time of year when the power and potency of that day reigns supreme, and we are able to tap into its energy.

Yom Tov comes and Yom Tov goes, and we search for the appropriate mindset and idea to help us connect, so that, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner would say, “the Yom Tov doesn’t pass us by, but, rather, we pass through it, experiencing its blessing.”

As we celebrate Zeman Mattan Toraseinu, the best and most appropriate preparation is to focus on how blessed we are, with the gift we received, and what those moments at Sinai and their reverberations mean to us.

We all know it’s true. It’s 2017 and neshamos are dimmer than ever. It’s hard to feel ruchniyus, to acutely sense kedushah in a crass, immoral world, but it is there.

If we take a moment and contemplate, and conduct an honest self-assessment, we will realize that whatever might give us a degree of happiness – a new car or home, a delicious meal or a great vacation – isn’t the real deal. The feeling it gives us does not compare to the elation we feel when we gently stand up after a good shiur or seder, having learned with a child or chavrusa.

Those fortunate enough to walk into a shul and see their son or grandson hunched over a Gemara have experienced a joy unlike any other.

No amount is too small. A good vort, a kushya shared on the way out of shul, or a short shiur has the ability to thrill unlike anything this world has to offer.

Friday morning, my friend called to share a vort that he had heard at a sheva brachos. It was a great thought. Exhilarating, in fact. It brought both of us more joy than any juicy piece of meat or lashon hora.

Because even today, we can still feel the joy of kabbolas haTorah. Every time we hear a good sevorah, vort, or shiur; every time we work hard to understand a Gemara, Rashi, or Tosafos, the joy that was felt at Har Sinai is felt again.

Everything else is fleeting. The world was created for Torah. The joy that was felt on that day in Sivan so many years back and all those feelings that were apparent on that day are eternal. We can feel them anytime we delve into the holy words of amar Abaye and Rebbi Yehuda omeir.

Hashem gave us the ultimate gift, and when we express our thanks, we allow ourselves to become vessels that contain it and open our hearts to its light. Hanosein matana lachaveiro tzorich lehodio. This means that when a person gives someone a gift, he must inform the recipient. But lehodio also has in it’s root the word hoda’ah, thanks, indicating that when a person gives a gift, he expects it to be acknowledged. Therefore, we say thank you every day. Asher bochar banu. You chose us. And on Shavuos, we celebrate it.

On Shavuos, when we reaffirm that we only exist for the Torah and our nation has a unifying goal, we allow the Torah to shine its light into our hearts. We remain awake at night, demonstrating our appreciation of the Torah’s role in our lives. We read through the entire Torah in Tikkun Leil Shavuos to show that we treasure every sefer of the Torah and the knowledge contained therein.

We pledge to take it all very seriously and endeavor to understand whatever we can.

Rav Archik Bakst, rov of Shavel, once met a friend, a fellow talmid of Kelm, who shared a vort from their rebbi, the Alter of Kelm. The friend said the vort with obvious excitement, explaining that he had just heard the idea that week and it had changed his life.

Rav Archik listened and said, “My dear friend, we were together at the shmuess when the Alter shared this idea. I was moved by it then, but you mached it avek. You waved the thought away. And because you made it unimportant, it became unimportant to you. It was as if you heard nothing, so this week, when you heard it again it and accepted it, it was as if you were hearing it for the first time.”

What, asks the Meshech Chochmah at the end of Parshas Yisro, did Moshe Rabbeinu personally gain from kabbolas haTorah? He had already been worthy and was able to rise Heavenward even before the giving of the Torah. This was an indication that Moshe Rabbeinu had personally achieved perfection before Sinai.

The Meshech Chochmah’s answer is instructive and relevant. Until Mattan Torah, he says, Moshe Rabbeinu and man were able to serve Hashem with ruchniyus. The novelty of kabbolas haTorah was that, suddenly, acts of pure gashmiyus were invested with kedushah. Man was directed to sanctify himself, his corporeal needs, and his animal instincts.

This, says the Meshech Chochmah, is the idea of Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu at the sneh, the burning bush, “Shal na’alecha mei’al raglecha – Remove your shoes from on your feet. Remove the vehicles for your gashmiyusdike living. Remove your chomer as you approach Me. Here you must be an angel.” That was before Matan Torah. Afterward, the shoes became part of the package – the package called a mentch, to whom the Torah was given.

After Matan Torah, Hashem tells Klal Yisroel, “Ve’anshei kodesh tihiyun li – And holy people be unto me, ” (Shemos 22:30). The Kotzker Rebbe would translate this command to mean, “Be mentchlich heilig. Be holy within the context of being human.” Figure out how to exist within society, to be a father and a husband and a friend who is holy. We are meant to be people who live elevated lives, not malochim.

On Shavuos, we celebrate this concept. Hakadosh Boruch Hu desires our service. He gave us the Torah to guide us and address our physical existence. We celebrate the potential of man, who can use the Torah as the ladder to climb to ever loftier heights.

The Creator didn’t ask us to become angels, but rather, to remain mortals, to incorporate the Torah and its laws into the realities of our humble little lives.

The Gemara states that while regarding other Yomim Tovim the rabbis disagree how much of the day should be dedicated to the purely spiritual, on Shavuos, “hakol modim debe’inan nami lochem.” They all agree that we need to please the more physical side as well.

We can understand this to mean that on Shavuos, we need “lochem,” to proclaim that the physical is part of the Shavuos celebration. We demonstrate through our actions that Torah has affected and touched our base desires as well.

Chazal (Pesikta Zutrasa, Va’eschanon) state, “Chayov odom liros ess atzmo ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai, shene’emar, ‘Hayom hazeh nihiyeisa le’am.’ Every day a person is obligated to conduct himself as if he accepted the Torah that day at Har Sinai.’” We are all familiar with this directive regarding Yetzias Mitzrayim. In fact, it is the central theme of the leil haSeder, but we don’t think about it on Shavuos.

Imagine if today were the day you received the Torah. Imagine standing at Har Sinai and hearing the words of the Aseres Hadibros being called out. Imagine the sounds. Imagine the site. Imagine being led out of Mitzrayim with very little knowledge or holiness, and trekking through the desert, becoming a better person every day.

Imagine how empty and meaningless your life would be without Torah. No Torah, no learning, no Shabbos, no tefillin, no Yom Tov, nothing that your life is centered around, nothing that gives your life the meaning it now has. You wouldn’t even have potato kugel or cholent, or a nice suit, hat or shaitel. You wouldn’t have a shul to go to and no reason to go to one altogether. Think of everything you do in your day, week and year. Now imagine that there was no Torah.

Imagine that today is the day you discovered the secret of the world. Imagine that today you were invited to study G-d’s word, to bask in His glow, to find meaning, satisfaction and joy in your life. How excited you would be! How grateful and how dedicated!

Today is that day. “Ke’ilu mekabel Torah miSinai.”

Appreciate it. Show it. Feel it.

Hayom hazeh! Today and every day. Despite the degeneration of the world; despite the struggles we experience with every tefillah and the challenge of concentrating fully when we learn; despite the many forces competing for our attention, we have a new kabolas haTorah.

Our human shortcomings are not a hindrance; we weren’t given a Torah despite the fact that we are people, but specifically because we are mere humans.

Rav Yecheskel Abramsky lived in London on an upper story of a building that had a bank on its ground floor. During the German blitzkrieg, when the city endured crushing air attacks, residents of the building took cover in the bank’s vault.

The vault was a large, underground room, lined with safety deposit boxes. Rav Abramsky kept a small Shas in the shelter, and as sirens wailed and people shuddered in fear, he would take out a volume of Gemara and learn from it.

Rav Abramsky’s family noticed that every time he entered the vault, his lips were moving. They thought that he was murmuring words of Tehillim, but then they realized that he was repeating the words of the posuk, “Tov li toras picha mei’alfei zahav vachesef – Your Torah is more precious to me than thousands in gold and silver.”

When asked to explain his habit, he said that he had no need for great wealth and no desire for riches. But when surrounded by boxes that contained jewels, precious antiques and large sums of cash, he felt that it had an effect of him. To calm that feeling, he would repeat the posuk, reminding him that the Torah is worth more than what was in the safety deposit boxes. The real value that we crave is in Torah, he reminded them.

In Lita of old, this concept was widely understood. There was a natural reverence for Torah and its scholars even among the unlearned. In Volozhin, local homeowners would line up at the train station before each zeman to vie for the honor of pulling the wagons carrying arriving talmidim and their luggage. The yeshiva learned through Shas, and when the yeshiva celebrated a siyum, the local people would arrive at the yeshiva and proudly serve as waiters.

Imagine that! Imagine if in your town, the bochurim and yungeleit would dine, and the fine residents, who everyone knows and respects, would go from table to table giving out the food.

Nobody forced them to come. Nobody even asked them to come. It was their special honor, because they appreciated Torah and lomdei Torah. It was an honor for them to carry the lomdei Torah and their belongings to the yeshiva, and it was their pleasure to partake in the simcha of the completion of yet another masechta.

It was special to them. It was valuable to them, as if it was given today. They treated it with respect. They treasured the Torah and the people who studied it the whole day. It was their pride and joy.

We hear these things and smile. They are charming reminders of a world that was. Of a world that we need to recreate.

Shavuos is a time to refocus on what Torah means to us, and on how blessed we are to be able to spend time by a Gemara or Chumash or Shulchan Aruch, and be surrounded by talmidei chachomim and yeshiva bochurim.

The Klausenberger Rebbe arrived in America after the Second World War having lost his wife and eleven children. He married a daughter of the Nitra Rov. Rav Leizer Silver, the legendary rov of Cincinnati and one of the most prominent rabbonim in America of those years, was a special guest at the second sheva brachos, held in Mount Kisco. As he rose to speak, he announced that he came bearing a gift for the chosson and kallah, a check for two hundred and fifty-eight dollars.

“If you wonder how come I am giving that amount, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It’s because that check represents everything I had in my bank account. Every last penny. The rebbe is a talmid chochom, and he will produce talmidei chachomim. I would give everything to be part of that. I wish I had more to give!”

The speech of the quintessential Litvishe rov resonated with the crowd. They got his message about what would yet be, and the glorious future that America might have as a makom Torah. He was telling them not to despair, not to give up, not to say, “It can’t happen here.”

Moreover, he was saying, “We are still here, holding on to Sinai, and as long as we cherish and revere and support those who learn and teach Torah, we have a future.”

The Kadmonim call the moments spent in Torah study “lev hayom, the heart of the day,” its most crucial and life-giving period.

We open our arms wide and accept the Torah, just as our fathers and their fathers have done for thousands of years. We cherish its words, raising our children and helping guide them to see the honey under each letter.

It is who we are and what we are about. Our lives revolve around it. It is Torah.

We, with our feet dragging through the dust of real life, of parnossah and health challenges, and all sorts of temptations, persist in walking with our eyes on Him and on His Torah, knowing that it is meant for us, to give us the tools to climb higher.

Modim anachnu loch shesamta chelkeinu m’yoshvei bais hamedrash. Thank You, Master of the Universe, for allowing us to have a connection with Torah, to have tasted the truest joy of all.

Gut Yom Tov.
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