Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Preparing for Shavuos – How?





Trivia question: If there is one thing that you should do to prepare for Shavuos, what is it?

Before I propose an answer, let me digress.

We live in very spiritually affluent times. For example, there are more than ten shuls located within a five-minute walk from my home. Yes, that is a lot of choices. But the truth is that the shul where I daven on Shabbos is nearly a half hour walk from my home. Almost every Shabbos, on my way to shul, I meet a Yid who walks a half hour from his house to daven at a shul across the street from my house. (Maybe we should switch houses…)

Either way, I never thought that there would be an upside to oversleeping, until this past Shabbos morning, when I overslept a bit and, rather than come huffing and puffing into shul, decided to daven closer to home. I don’t regret at all davening Shacharis in Kehillah Kedosha Ateres Yeshaya. Aside from the geshmake davening, I had the distinct zechus to hear a drasha from the shul’s distinguished and devoted rov, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen. It was a drasha that began putting me in the right frame of mind for the upcoming Yom Tov of Shavuos.

Not Cheesecake!

Rav Cohen asked the question we posed at the outset: If there is one thing you should do to prepare for Shavuos, what is it? Hint: He didn’t answer, “Make cheesecake.”

In truth, when we think of Shavuos, we think of Torah. Therefore, the first thing that came to my mind was to prepare for Kabbolas HaTorah by learning Torah, learning more Torah, and being more devoted to our sidrei limud. Rav Cohen, however, said that this is not the correct answer.

He quoted the venerated senior posek, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, who writes that the main hachanah necessary for Shavuos is tikkun hamiddos, working on and fixing our middos. Now, if that is the case, we must first understand what tikkun hamiddos means. Before clarifying what tikkun hamiddos means, we must clarify a common misconception.

Many people think that we were all born good. We were born wonderful, and it is our job to make sure to stay good and not become evil. That is not true. (There are religions that believe in this, but Judaism isn’t one of them.) Rav Cohen emphasized that the reality is that people are born with many terrible middos. They are born with kinah, sinah and taavah. We are born with innate jealousy. We can hate others for very superficial reasons. We aren’t hardwired to fargin others…

The Greatest Avodah in Our Lives

The greatest avodah in our lives is tikkun hamiddos, trying to uproot these middos and desires or at least channel them in the right direction. It isn’t easy. There is no substitute for hard work. I remember hearing over and over from Rebbetzin Zlata Ginsburg a”h the posuk of “v’ayir adam pereh yevoled.” A person is born with all kinds of negative instincts. The amazing thing, however, is that Hashem has given us the ability to overcome these natural inclinations and rise above them. This takes a lot of work.

“It takes learning mussar,” Rav Cohen said, “and doesn’t just happen on its own. It is a process. It takes a lifetime of work to slowly refine these middos.”

We are selfish and self-absorbed. It takes work to overcome that and think of others, to be sensitive to others, to forgo our petty needs for the sake of others, and to not give in to the natural pull of all kinds of taavos of Olam Hazeh for Hashem’s sake. It is a lifetime of work!

Of course, learning Torah is such an integral part of Shavuos. Yet, Torah learned by a person who hasn’t started working on his middos can become a sam hamovess, poison. The person can use the Torah or abuse the Torah to justify all his base instincts and middos. For that reason, tikkun hamiddos is such an integral prerequisite for Torah.

Rav Cohen shared this message with such passion that when I left, my thoughts were, “Wow, this tzibbur is a very lucky one to have a rov who tells it like it is, without fear or favor, but it is also a choshuve tzibbur that can handle it!”

The Right Setting for Shavuos

Rav Cohen then said something that he heard from Rav Elya Svei that was extremely prescient, but also needs a bit of explanation.

At the beginning of this article, I wrote that we live in spiritually affluent times. One of the byproducts of this affluence is that nowadays, the common bungalow colony, where people once lived in very small, cramped and subpar structures, is slowly becoming obsolete. The days of sharing a washing machine, and a payphone, with tens of other families are gone. The days of no air-conditioning in the country are also over. Today, many have beautiful, well-outfitted homes in the country. It is not uncommon for people to go up for Shabbosos throughout the year and certainly during the balmy months of April, May and June. The communal infrastructure has also improved tremendously. The shuls are large, well appointed, air-conditioned and full of seforim –  a far cry from the large, poorly lit room with bugs flying around that we remember from the past.

Rav Cohen remembered Rav Elya Svei railing decades ago, “There will come a time when people will be spending Chag Mattan Torah in the country!” To Rav Elya, this was absolute sacrilege. After all, Shavuos was a Yom Tov to be spent in the place where one derived one’s spiritual sustenance throughout the year. If you were a ben yeshiva, it was in the yeshiva, and if you davened in a shul, it was the shul that you davened and learned in throughout the year where you should be mekabel the Torah on Shavuos. To me, what he said was so simple that it didn’t need any explanation.

What Could Be Wrong?

When I shared what I had heard in the name of Rav Elya with someone a couple of decades younger than me, he had a hard time understanding it. He said, “What’s wrong with going to the country? The shul is beautiful. You can learn there all night to your heart’s content. I have a beautiful minyan and a mehudardike Sefer Torah. Is where I spend Shavuos dependent on geography?”

Because he asked me this question, I assume that others might have the same question, so I will try to explain.

Let’s start by talking about the real importance of vacation. It is extremely important for a person to have time to rejuvenate. We can’t be on full throttle 24/7/354. It is a recipe for burnout. We all have a natural need for downtime, for relaxation. Look at the wonderful pictures of the gedolei Yisroel even from pre-war Europe who went “oif dache” – on vacation – during the summer.

Some people today are even needier and need to also get away during the winter. That is also understandable.

Vacation and relaxation mode has a purpose. The purpose? That we should be rejuvenated so that we can properly utilize our kochos and bear the yoke of the rest of year. A good bein hazemanim leads to a good zeman. But bein hazemanim in the middle of the zeman is not the ideal, right?

Shavuos is a time for kabbolas ol, for every Yid to accept the Torah upon himself anew, to be mekabel ol Torah and ol malchus Shomayim of the Nosein HaTorah.

Being in the relaxed country atmosphere is a diametric contradiction to the kabbolas ol that Shavuos represents. There is nothing wrong with going to the country and relaxing there…at the right time.

Just like most people would agree that Yom Kippur is probably not the right time to spend in the country, the same applies to Shavuos.

May we all be able to work on our middos and accept the Torah and the ol Torah with simcha this year.




Walking the Walk Have you ever had the experience of recognizing someone in the distance simply by the way they walk? I have, many times.

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