I cannot remember a Shavuos when we all needed chizuk as much as this year. Of course, I don’t know what Shavuos was like during Churban Europa or anything earlier. But during my adult lifetime, more than ever before, we are entering this wonderful Yom Tov full of angst and confusion. Many of us have not davened with a minyan for over two months. Our shiurim have not been the same as the past and everyone is worried about the future. Yet, since we know that there is a new Kabbolas HaTorah each year, 5780 is no different.
Rav Meilech Biderman (Be’er Chaim, Shavuos, page 314) offers us a very useful approach for what we may need this special year. Chazal (Shemos Rabbah 29:9) describe in great detail the level of silence in the universe when Hashem gave the Torah. The birds neither sang nor even fluttered, the oxen did not bleat, angels did not fly or utter praise to Hashem, the sea was hushed, and not a sound was uttered by any human being. Rav Biderman quotes from “tzaddikim” that the purpose of this universal quietude was that “one world had been completed and another began. Furthermore, there was virtually no connection between the previous world and the new one, because the entire world had changed from one end to the other.”
When I saw these flaming words, I thought that surely here was a description we have all felt about this moment in time. Perhaps things will go back to what they used to be, but it is also possible that nothing will again be the same. Indeed, we are entering a new and unknown world that can be quite frightening. However, if we listen to Chazal and Rav Meilech, we can take encouragement from the concept of freshness and rejuvenation. If we start to think of Shavuos as a turning point, not just because of various “openings” in the world, but because “the entire world changed from one end to the other,” we can also begin to revitalize ourselves and recover both physically and spiritually from the malaise we have experienced.
Let us explore.
I learned from my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (see Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, Maamar 47 and Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok 21:9), that there is an intricate relationship between the Ten Statements with which the world was created (Pirkei Avos 5:1), the Ten Plagues and the Ten Commandments. After Hashem created the world and mankind failed to live up to its potential and mandate, He recreated the world for those who would accept and keep the Torah, Knesses Yisroel. In other words, the new world was now created for the upholding of the Aseres Hadibros. The transition from one creation to the next was the Eser Makkos. My own perhaps simplistic understanding of this phenomenon can be understood with a basic metaphor. When an electrician is summoned to fix the faulty wiring in a home, he first shuts down all the current so that he can safely install a new system. When a plumber arrives to stop a flooding basement, he first makes sure that no more water will enter the system; then the repair can be made. When Hashem was recreating the universe for Am Yisroel, each plague shut down one of the Ten Statements with which the world was made (Maharal, Gevuros Hashem, chapters 32-34). As the most basic example, the makkah of choshech (darkness) shut down yehi ohr (let there be light). Appropriately, therefore, only in the dwellings of the Bnei Yisroel was there now light (Shemos 10:23).Therefore, after there was a new world, Hashem gave the Aseres Hadibros, which recreated the world solely for the fulfillment of these Ten Commandments.
When we look toward Shavuos with Torah eyes, we can clearly see that a new world has been created for us. Even the glory of the original creation is over and the Eser Makkos have set the stage for our new world based upon the Aseres Hadibros.
We can now understand more deeply the Medrash that the world came to a standstill so that Hashem could recreate the world. As we learned from Rav Meilech, “one world had been completed and another began.” If we open our eyes wide and are willing to see clearly, we, too, can experience this uplifting phenomenon on Shavuos.
Our world, too, has been largely shut down, often to our mortal chagrin. Nothing can restore our human losses and the tragedies that have befallen countless families. But if we can stretch a bit and see Hashem reorganizing the molecules of His world, we can think in positive terms of what kind of a world we want to have in the months and years ahead.
So what does Hashem want from us in this upcoming special Shavuos of 5780? I do not purport to know, but I would like to share a story that may help. In what seems like a lifetime ago, but was just a short few months, I was invited to speak at one of the local mesivtos at a siyum. Each of the boys had completed a masechta, some larger, some smaller. I shared that I was a child of survivors and that their achievement reminded me of a story I had heard from my father z”l.
One of the most nefarious ruses the Nazis ym”sh imposed upon their prisoners was the so-called delousing for their health. The Jews of Auschwitz were herded out in the middle of a freezing night to be disinfected “for their own good.” Each already shattered Yid was deprived of the little clothing he had on and was made to stand in the snow for sixteen hours of torture. Many literally froze to death, and even those who miraculously made it through the night and next day had barely enough strength to return to their block. When they entered their miserable prison, they found that there was no uniform or even straw on their so-called beds and the cold was shattering. Each of them knew instinctively that whoever lies down will never arise.
But Hashem gave one of them chochmah to help them live. He suggested that each group of ten should form a pyramid, four on the bottom, three on top of them, then two and one on top. Such was the minyan of purgatory. Each group was warmed somewhat by the minimal body heat of his friend, as Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 4:11) suggested long ago. And so, indeed, a few more Jews survived their tormentors.
But one of the groups of two suddenly whispered to his companion, “I have a suggestion for you. You don’t have to accept it, but I would be very happy if you did.” His frozen neighbor was not quite interested in conversation and so responded faintly, “What do you want?” The other man, who had no more strength himself responded, “I have memorized one masechta in Shas, that of Beitzah, and every night I review one daf.” The other Yid, whose teeth were chattering terribly, could only utter a few words: “What does that have to do with me?” His new “chavrusah” responded somewhat triumphantly, “Since we find ourselves here together, would you learn the daf with me and then we can discuss what we have studied?”
More than somewhat miraculously, the listless man was suddenly filled with new life and they did indeed learn, finishing the masechta and coming up with chiddushim that they later shared with others upon liberation.
There are many ways and roads to Kabbolas HaTorah. Sometimes and for some people it is easier than others. But, as Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 2:9) says, “Af chochmosi omdah li – Still my wisdom stayed with me.” Chazal (Koheles Rabbah here) rearrange the words to say, “Chochmah shelamadeti b’af hi omdah li – The Torah that I learned under difficulty is what stayed with me.”
There are many stories of gedolei Yisroel who admitted that the years when they learned Torah under difficult circumstances ended up being their most productive and successful.
It is said that the Shaagas Aryeh stated that some of his other seforim, which were written when he was not poverty-stricken, never achieved the level of his magnum opus, which gave him the name by which he is known to this day.
This year, when we are mekabel the Torah after two extremely difficult months, let us do so with the knowledge that Hashem has been recreating a new world just for us. That is not necessarily an easier world, but it can be the new world that will bring us geulos v’yeshuos. In a universe where everyone – Jew and gentile alike – is saying that there is a new world ahead, we, as maaminim b’nei maaminim, surely believe that Hashem has done all this for a purpose. Let us make the proper kabbalos now, when Kabbolas HaTorah is in the air.
Boruch Hashem, we need not learn Torah in a human pyramid. But we must make the commitment to return to our shuls when possible with the single-minded decision to go there solely to daven and learn Torah. All else must be modeled upon the total universal silence of Mattan Torah, when it became clear that in a world recreated for Torah, nothing else counts and nothing else should be brought into the bais medrash. We need not understand everything that has happened this year. All we need to know is that it is our Kabbolas Hatorah this year that can bring us all what we need and truly want, the new world of avodas Hashem and devotion to Torah in our homes and botei medrash.