Very soon we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuoth, the holiday of matan ve Kaballat HaTorah, the giving and the receiving of the Torah. Our sages ask why the name of Shavuoth–Holiday of Weeks, and Yom Bikurim–the Holiday of First Fruits, are the only names given for it in the Torah itself. Why does it not mention that it’s the holiday of the giving of the Torah as does the Talmud? Because, they answer, the Torah is teaching us a lesson in humility. Humility is needed to absorb Torah, and therefore it loses no time in teaching it. And because, says another sage, God gives the Torah from the beginning of creation! It was always given from the beginning of time. It is simply that there were no people willing to receive it…that is until Israel stood willing at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
The festival of Shavuoth has fewer concrete mitzvoth than its companion festivals, Pesach and Sukkoth. Still, it is a holiday that seeks to recreate, in a visceral way, the experience of receiving the Torah. Just like at Passover, when we must consider that we were the slaves that exited Egypt, there are observances at Shavuoth that seek to place us at Sinai. A midrash asks why the Torah tell us that God addresses the Israelites as “you who are standing here today and you who are not standing here today.” To teach us that every Jewish soul–past, present and future–stood at Sinai when the Torah was received. We eat a dairy meal to remember how we refrained from meat at the time of the reception of the Torah. The word milk, halav equals in number value 40, reminding us of the forty days in which Moses spent day and night receiving Torah. And we also eat it, says yet another sage, to remind us of the argument that Moses gave the angels when they would not surrender it from their guardianship. “You angels, don’t you remember how you were eating milk along with meat when Abraham served it to you? You obviously were not taking this Torah seriously! You don’t deserve it!” (Midrashic humor). Sadly, this year, we cannot stand in our pews as we hear from the Torah about the Torah being given, like we do every other Shavuot. But with this in mind, at least as we listen to the YouTube Supplemental beforehand, we relive the Jewish people’s receptiveness and selection to receive it.
More intensively, at the time of Shavuoth, we seek to become vehicles of Torah learning. Just as the Jews that stood at Sinai had minds and souls fully probed with Torah insights and knowledge, so too, we, their childrens’ children, seek to study the Bible in a macroscopic way. The effect of such an intense learning is to feel an even deeper kinship with the first Israelites, who were infused with the spiritual and the intellectual content of Judaism at Mt. Sinai. I hope, therefore, that you will join with me in advance of sunset Thursday for a Zoom Tikkun Leil Shavuot, in which we will look at some sources on revelation, and in honor of this year, on the subject of triage in the case of a response to the pandemic.
Your presence and your attendance at this year’s Siyum is most coveted. We hope you will join us for this special installment on Thursday, May 28th. We will begin our short Mincha service at 5:45pm, followed by a study session. Then we will do a “Maariv” service with Yizkor and a sermon at 7:00 pm. Normally, we wait until starlight–until the very end of the 49th day in its entirety. But since this year is not normal, we will begin early enough to stream before sundown. Our study session, complete with cheese blintzes, cheesecake, coffee and tea, will end around 8:00 pm. Of course, you will have the option of providing your cheese blintzes and the coffee you prepare for the occasion😊
The Berdichever Rabbi once asked why is it that when Moshe counts the people in the book of numbers, it says, “as God commanded Moses, he counted them at Mt. Sinai” (Numbers 1:19). Usually, the phrase is reversed: “Moses counted… as God commanded.” The Berdichever teaches something additional: “that which God commanded (the Torah) is numbered like the Israelites. That is, there are 600,000 letters in the Torah just as there are 600,000 Israelites. That which God instructed is the number of the Jewish people.” From this idea, our rabbis said that every Jew is like a letter in the torah scroll. If he or she is vibrant, the letter is clear. If he or she is muted in their faith and practice, the letter can become faded, thus making the entire scroll, the entire Jewish people, unfit. All of us must be counted and all of us must play our parts clearly and energetically. Summer beckons–but so does your heritage, your Jewish religion–always. And when we stand up and be counted, as we did, all of us at Sinai, fantastic things can happen.
Hag Sameach in advance, and I hope very much to see you at our Siyyum! You’ll like the virtual blintzes and you’ll like the lessons learned– I guarantee it!