Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, May 17, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Our three pilgrimage festivals are identified with both historical events and agricultural milestones.   Pesach is connected to the spring and planting, Shavuot is at the time of first fruits and the first reaping of the crops, while Sukkot concludes the major harvest and ingathering of the produce.  Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein the great Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon commented that Shavuot is conceptually the most intimately related to its agricultural reference point.  This is because Shavuot is about the acceptance of Torah and the ongoing challenge of studying this divine text for its eternal message.  The reaping and gathering of the crops at Shavuot is very similar, because it's an interim process.  At Sukkot we have completed that year's task, but at Shavuot we are in the midst of this annual process.  So, too, Torah study is a never ending endeavor.  As it says in Pirkei Avot:  It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it (2:21).  So, this Shavuot, let's not only gratefully accept God's gift of the Torah, but also the ongoing challenge of studying and contributing to this endeavor.

            I don't want you, my dear reader, to view this as a Sisyphean undertaking, without reward, satisfaction or conclusion.  Our Sages have told us that there is no study session without accomplishment.  The first Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1882) wrote in his famous work the Beit Halevi: The Oral Torah has no bounds or limits, and in every generation new laws are developed. Each time a person touches it, he discovers a new insight which was previously unknown.  The great grandfather of the Rav is explaining the rewards and necessity of the ongoing nature of Torah study.  It is to this duty that we commit ourselves every Shavuot. 

            There is a problem in the acceptance of this assignment.  The Torah made the chore a bit more difficult by not explicitly identifying Shavuot with the momentous event of the revelation at Sinai.  The identification of this holiday as Zman Matan Toroteinu (the time of the giving of our Torah) is based on rabbinic calculation of the time frame from the exodus to the epiphany.  So, how come the Torah which is so clear about the historical connections to Pesach (the departure from Egypt) and Sukkot (because I caused you to dwell in huts [Leviticus 23:43]) is vague about the historical basis for Shavuot?  Rabbi Yehudah Amital, the distinguished co-Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Lichtenstein's, explains (based on the Maharal M'Prague) that there would be a conceptual problem if we specifically identified Shavuot with the giving of the Torah.  We have an obligation to be happy on Shavuot because it is a festival, and joy is one of the requirements for these occasions.  However, rejoicing over the Torah can't be commanded or mandated, it must originate within ourselves, because the acceptance of Torah is a responsibility much more than a privilege.  This is related to the rabbinic idea that there was coercion at Sinai to accept the Torah (Talmud, Shabbat 88a).  We believe that having the Torah is the greatest of joys, but this joy grows slowly out of a recognition of its worth and centrality to our lives.

            How do I know if I got the point and have made Torah the source of light and happiness in my life?  According to Rabbi Lichtenstein, the criterion to gauge our performance is based on a statement, again, in Pirkei Avot:  Shammai says, 'Make your Torah permanent (1:15).'  The word I translated as permanent in Hebrew is keva.  This can also mean set or constant. This commitment can be understood in a few ways.  First, have I established fixed times within my busy schedule for Torah study?  Then, if I have time when I am freed from normal pressing obligations, do I use those breaks to study?  This second idea is one of attitude, because it implies a yearning for Torah even when I can't actually study it, because of other obligations.  Next, Torah must be a priority in our lives and values.  It should not only inform my behavior towards morality and ethics in my professional life, but help define my goals as well.  Is my professional objective to make the most money possible or is it to make a living so that I can live a Torah life.  Is financial security my ultimate ambition, or is it a means to a meaningful life?  Finally, keva defines my attitude towards study.  Do I make the things that I learn a permanent feature of my existence or are they transient bits of information, like an interesting lecture or documentary?  We must internalize the Torah that we study or hear, and make it part of my very being.  Attending a shiur or Torah class isn't just about entertainment or a useful way to spend free time; it is anticipating life changing inspiration, and opening our attitudes to accept the Torah's conclusions while discarding our preconceived notions.  We get involved in this vital activity to grow and develop both spiritually and emotionally.

            This is the challenge of Shavuot.  The simcha doesn't emerge from the giving of the Torah.  That's why the Torah doesn't openly state that it was given on Shavuot.  The profound joy and eternal bliss comes from accepting the Torah as the word of God and the instruction manual for my life.  As Maimonides wrote (Laws of Torah Study 2:6):  Someone who has made up his mind to fulfill the commandment of learning Torah is right, and should be crowned with the crown of Torah, and he shouldn't think about other things or associate Torah with ulterior motives. There is no end to learning. The more one learns the more one is rewarded. The reward is proportional to the effort made.

At Pesach we accepted the challenge of freedom.  It is often easier to be a slave.  Many of life's worries, like food and shelter, are provided by another.  It isn't always easy to make decisions for oneself.  On Shavuot we accept the added responsibility of giving purpose to this freedom.  We believe that it is Torah study which gives meaning to life and its difficulties.  So, this Shavuot really make it the holiday of reaping, but we reap and gather Torah.  May your harvest be bountiful.  Chag Sameach.     

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