Raanana Community Kollel
Cheese Cake Or Torah?
Rabbi Binyomin Lipson
Over three thousand years ago, on the morning of the sixth of Sivan, more than three million of our ancestors experienced the awesome Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, and every year, on the sixth of Sivan, we commemorate their experience by observing the festival of Shavuot. The Gemara (Pesachim 68b) relates a dispute amongst the Sages as to the proper way in which to celebrate the festivals of Pesach and Sukkot. Should these holy days be devoted exclusively to prayer and Torah study, or should they also include physical enjoyments like eating and drinking? However, interestingly, the Gemara concludes that even those Sages who stood behind the former approach to Pesach and Sukkot, maintained that on Shavuot one is definitely required to eat and drink. What is so unique about Shavuot that makes it the one festival on which the requirement of physical enjoyment is never called into question? As the Gemara answers, “Because this was the day on which the Torah was given!”
This seems more than a bit puzzling. Certainly, the Jewish people’s experience at mount Sinai was one of pure, untainted spiritual revelation. Consequently, if there is any day of the year that we would expect to be completely devoted to spiritual pursuits it would surely have been Shavuot. How does eating and drinking on Shavuot encapsulate the essence of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people?
In conjunction with the above question, there is another curious fact concerning Shavuot that requires understanding. When enumerating each one of the festivals, the Torah always mentions the specific day of the year upon which it is to be observed. However, Shavuot remains the one glaring exception. In difference with all the other holidays, the date of Shavuot is never actually mentioned in the Torah. Rather, the day on which we will observe Shavuot is always determined by the counting of the Omer during the seven-week period which precedes it. Thus, the uniqueness of the day is also reflected by the name Shavuot, meaning “weeks” although seemingly it only expresses the method by which we determine when to celebrate it, and not the intrinsic nature of the day like the names of all the other festivals.
In exploring these questions, there are several practically relevant points concerning our attitude towards Shavuot and our own personal acceptance of the Torah that rise to the surface. First of all, from the Gemara’s assertion that festive eating and drinking are essential aspects of Shavuot we see that the primary role of the Torah in our lives is to instruct us how to attain spiritual achievement in our everyday affairs, and not just while involved in “religious activities”. When we accepted the Torah on Mount Sinai, we endeavored to grow into a “holy nation” who, while living within the bounds of the physical world, would strive to utilize every opportunity to seek out a deeper and eternally meaningful level of existence. The Divine mission of the Jewish nation is not relevant to its rabbis and spiritual leaders alone, but rather, with the giving of the Torah, the plumber and the storekeeper, the taxi driver and the international businessman also bear the responsibility of proclaiming the supremacy of the world’s Creator by conducting their affairs in accordance with His directives. Thus, each person, through his own unique challenges and struggles, is presented with the opportunity to bring to light facets of holiness which only he is capable of revealing.
And second, from the name of this festival we learn that the Torah lifestyle that we accepted all those years ago and which we subsequently reaccept with every coming Shavuot is something that requires much preparation. Just as a building cannot be constructed without a foundation, we cannot expect that our acceptance of Torah will stand up to the trials of daily life unless we first fortify our commitment to seeking the truth and working to acquire the positive character traits which will help us to achieve it. This is one reason that this festival is called Shavuot, as our acceptance of the Torah on this day is a direct product of our level of preparation in the weeks preceding it. Our Sages tell us that perhaps the most basic prerequisite to Torah commitment is the humility to accept the guidance of others who posses greater knowledge than we in the course of making our life decisions. Just as water always descends to the lowest place, Torah knowledge and the gradual self perfection which comes with it are only found among the humble of spirit. Almost by definition, the Torah was only given in order to teach us those aspects of life that we would not be capable of understanding on our own. Undoubtedly, a person who has difficulty admitting that he requires the help of others will certainly not be very apt to accepting upon himself the will of a higher authority.
Whenever we begin a new undertaking, we have no way of knowing how successful we will be. Similarly, we have no way of knowing what new life challenges await us in the coming year. However, one thing that we can do this Shavuot is to try and express, both to ourselves and to our Creator, our deep level of commitment to and belief in the Torah as the guiding force in our lives, regardless of how much we think we will be capable of living up to it. In our liturgy Shavuot is referred to as “The Time of the Giving of the Torah” and not “the time that the Torah was received”. This is because in essence, every year the Torah is offered anew, and it is up to us as to whether or not we desire to receive it.
May Hashem see our sincerity and assist us in the coming year
to further clarify our priorities and help us move a little closer
towards living lives of truth.