We are blessed with many beautiful Yomim Tovim. Yet, only Shavuos requires weeks of preparation, counting the days and weeks. At first, this seems somewhat strange, since Pesach and Sukkos comprise thousands of halachos and minhagim that must be done exactly right. If the matzos are not baked correctly, not only haven’t we performed the mitzvah properly, but we may have eaten chometz. If we don’t have kosher arba minim, not only haven’t we been yotzeh the mitzvos, but we might be making a brocha levatolah. Yet, the Torah does not compel us to prepare for seven weeks; we must just get it right, even if it just takes a day. Yet, the one Yom Tov that has no mitzvos unique to its one de’Oraisa day ordains that we prepare for almost two months. What is the inner meaning of our pre-Shavuos labors?
One answer is that receiving the Torah is all about having the proper middos (Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos 3:17). The Torah will not enter, let alone abide in, a person who is arrogant or stingy, sunken in illicit desires or constantly angry and irritable. This takes time and no one can do this for us. Thus, Shavuos requires the greatest hachanos. But there is also another answer that applies to each of us every year. Chazal (Nedorim 38a) teach that each of the forty days of Kabbolas HaTorah, Moshe Rabbeinu learned and forgot until the Torah was granted to him as a gift. In fact, the Gemara just bit later (Nedorim 55a) notes that Klal Yisroel traveled from the midbar of Sinai to a place called Matanah, which means “gift.” Their drosha is that “only one who considers himself like a midbar, [which is open to all] and everyone steps on, receives the Torah as a matanah.” Indeed some meforshim (Me’or Einayim, Parshas Yisro) remind us that “every Shavuos we must each go through this process of becoming like the midbar so that we can receive the great gift of the Torah.”
How exactly do we go about this difficult task, which is apparently the only way to merit our annual Kabbolas HaTorah? Rav Chaim Kanievsky taught us how. He writes (Orchos Yosher, “Torah”) that “there are bochurim who think that learning Torah will come easily to them. When they find that it does not, they give up and eventually stop learning altogether. But this is a terrible mistake. It is impossible for learning to come easily… The truth is that it is only in the beginning that it is difficult to learn Torah. Although there will always be tests, once you learn and enjoy the pleasure of Torah, the most difficult part is over.”
Rav Chaim, perhaps in our time the most inspiring prototype of hasmadah and ahavas haTorah amongst us, is teaching us a powerful and crucial lesson. It is up to us to be mekabel the Torah, at least annually, despite any obstacles the yeitzer hara has thrown in our way. Once we get past that hurdle, we can almost coast along. We all know the story (Bava Metzia 84a) where Reish Lakish accepts the yoke of Torah and is immediately weakened physically. Rashi reveals that the very acceptance of the “burden” of the Torah diminishes a person’s strength. This would seem to be our annual test. We make a commitment to learn, we stay up all night, but we are weary and it is difficult. At that point, we should get our “second wind” and realize that we are now in the system. We have weakened the body so that the soul can soar. Our neshomah is singing even if our body is aching. This is necessary so that, as the Ramchal (Derech Hashem) teaches, we must favor the soul over the body in the constant battle between them.
An extraordinary vignette with the Chazon Ish (see Doresh Tov, “Shavuos,” page 57) may illustrate this concept. The Chazon Ish arrived to the wedding of one of his relatives to stand by the kallah, since her father had passed away. They davened Maariv before the chupah and the Chazon Ish strangely did not wear his hat. His brother, Rav Meir, asked him about this unusual phenomenon. His response is amazing and should be a teaching moment for us all. Rav Meir later reported that the Chazon Ish had been learning intensely and had “literally divested himself of all gashmiyus (physical being). He therefore felt at that moment that putting on a hat would feel to him like putting an entire house on his head.”
Although we may not be able relate to such incredible spiritual effort, we can get an inkling of what our Kabbolas HaTorah should be, each of us on our own level. This may explain another reason why we lain Megillas Rus on Shavuos. The posuk (1:18) states that when Nomi saw that Rus “misametzes” (was determined) to go with her, she stopped trying to persuade her to leave. Rav Moshe Chodosh, rosh yeshiva of Ohr Elchonon, explains that Rus’ extraordinary commitment at that moment was all that she needed to do to enter Klal Yisroel. It is all about the initial decision and willingness to accept everything in the Torah, despite seemingly negative consequences and even suffering. Our Kabbolas HaTorah, too, must be all encompassing and determined, ready to sacrifice all for Torah, its study and halachic guidelines.
We should note that all of this is stated directly by Chazal (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashonoh): “All Yom Tov korbanos mention chet (sin), but the one for Shavuos does not. As long as you have accepted the yoke of the Torah upon yourselves, I consider it as if you have never sinned.” It is certainly worth all that effort to be sinless and pure, but it takes a serious and absolute commitment to the holy Torah itself. It is related (Sefer Moach Veleiv) that in his old age, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz raised his hands toward heaven, declaring, “Master of the universe, You know that I have given all that I have in this world for the Torah.”
Interestingly, the great mashgiach, Rav Eliyahu Mishkovsky (quoted in the introduction to Mishnas Eliyahu), cited the Gemara (Sotah 35) that Daf Yomi just learned: “Why was Dovid Hamelech punished? Because he called the Torah zemiros” (Tehillim 119:54). Rav Mishkovsky is troubled by the question of what Dovid did wrong by calling the Torah “songs.” He explains that one can sing songs, but cannot do so constantly. There must be a break. Even the most talented and musically committed people cannot sing constantly. When it come to Torah, however, the commitment must be to non-stop, uninterrupted learning or else one will forget, as did Dovid, something that even the schoolchildren knew. This is ideally what Kabbolas HaTorah entails.
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, however, has a different take on what happened to Dovid Hamelech. He points out that there are actually two equally necessary attitudes toward Torah. One is indeed the song-like beauty and pleasure of the Torah. But the other is the yoke of the Torah that is a discipline, commitment and requirement. Dovid tilted, presumably only temporarily, to the song aspect of Torah, and on his lofty level was punished. However, the chastisement illustrated what had happened. He momentarily forgot that the Luchos could not be placed on a wagon and had to be carried on the shoulders. This showed that he needed to tilt back to balance the song-like aspect of Torah with its depiction as a burden and ohl (see Sefer Hazikaron Pachad Yitzchok, pages 13 and 72). According to the rosh yeshiva, the music of the Torah is neither mistake nor sin, but must be balanced by the rigorous Kabbolas HaTorah which conveys the yoke of the Torah as well.
I close with a line that was originally meant as a joke, but in light of these words takes on a seriousness of its own. Chazal (Shabbos 88a) famously tell us that Hashem held the mountain above us, forcing us to receive the Torah. Rav Yisroel Meir Shushan suggested tongue-in-cheek that one of the reasons Hashem did so was to make sure that there would be no cell-phone reception at Sinai so that no one would be checking their messages. Our own Kabbolas HaTorah should include making sure that we are not disturbed during our learning and davening by the intrusions of the outside world in the form of technology. Just as Chazal said that no donkey brayed and no dog barked, they also mentioned that no bird tweeted either. Hopefully, our Kabbolas HaTorah will include accepting the song of the Torah, even as we accept the yoke of being avdei Hashem all of our lives.