Late one night the phone rang. Who would be phoning at such an hour thought the Rav? It must be important. When he picked up the phone all he heard were the sobs of a woman on the other end: "My daughter just got engaged" she cried. "So why are you upset, this is a time of happiness?!" "Oh no Rabbi, you don't understand, she is engaged to a non-Jew". Before the Rav had a chance to say anything, she continued "Now she won't even eat gefilte fish on Friday night."1
When I first heard this story, it had a deep impact on me. How far has this generation sunk to the point where throwing away a chain of thousands of years is not important, whereas not eating gefilte fish any more, well that is the end!
Three thousand three hundred and thirteen years ago, on Shavuos, we received the Torah and there has been a never-ending chain since. The only reason we are here today is because our grandparents have kept that chain going.
Some Jews today find it difficult to be truly proud of their heritage. The whole world looks at Israel as the centre of trouble in the Middle East - the media takes the side of the Palestinians time and time again. Why in fact do the other nations hate us so much and how are we meant to react to the anti-semitism that we see around us?
We received the Torah at Har Sinai. The Gemara 2 asks, "What does the word Sinai mean?" Rav Chisda and Rabbah both explain that Sinai comes from the word "sina", implying "Har sheyardu sina l'ovdei kochavim, a mountain where hatred came to the other nations."
When we received the Torah, anti-semitism came to the world. The simple explanation of this Gemara is that when the other nations realised what they lost out on, they hated us for it. Rav Simcha Wasserman, in the name of his father Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt"l, gave another explanation: When Hashem offered the Torah to us, we were unquestioning. We said na'aseh v'nishmah, unlike the other nations. Once we took that responsibility, we have to keep it up forever. We cannot back out just because we find things hard. There is a myth that Jews who tire of the responsibility can drop this role. This is obviously untrue - a Jew can never change his identity. However much one tries to hide one's identity, a Jew can always be spotted. As the saying goes "You can change your Moses, but you can't change your noses", and the Nazis YSM proved this.
To be Hashem's chosen nation is not an easy task. We can adopt the "Sinai" way - we can look, talk and act the way a Jew should, then through our example we are unique. But what about the person who chooses not to be different? Hashem has another way of reminding him of his uniqueness, and it is something that sounds like Sinai, but really is the opposite - sina (anti-semitism).
So one of the lessons of Shavuos is to make us realise where our responsibilities lie .If we take a look at the period between Pesach and Shavuos, we see an important message which can help us achieve our role as Hashem's Am Kodesh - holy people.
On Pesach, we were physically freed from slavery but then there were 50 days until Shavuos, when we were spiritually freed. During this time, we built ourselves up from a spiritual low to a level at which we were able to receive the Torah. There is a disagreement as to whether the Torah was given on the sixth or seventh of Sivan. According to the opinion that it was given on the seventh, it seems that since people in Eretz Yisrael only keep the first day, which is the sixth, then they are celebrating the wrong day. If we look in the Torah, we will find another problem when it comes to Shavuos. The Torah never talks about Shavuos as the day the Torah was given. Surely this was the high point of Shavuos! Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt'l offers the following explanation. On Shavuos we celebrate the time we were ready to receive the Torah. This was actually the day before the Torah was given - the sixth of Sivan. So although we received the Torah on the seventh, the day to remember is when we were capable and ready to receive it. During Sefiras Ha'Omer, when we are constantly building up one day closer to Shavuos, there seems to be a contradiction in the way we count. On the one hand, we count the day at the beginning of the day (the night before), but when it comes to the weeks, we count at the end of the week, e.g. On day twenty-three we say today is the twenty-third day which is three weeks and two days. Why don't we say which is two days into the fourth week? We only look at the weeks once they are complete?
I heard the answer to this question from Rabbi Zev Leff, shlita. He explains that when it comes to our goals in life, we have to be balanced. On the one hand we have to realise the long-term goal, where we want to aim for - but in order for it to come about, one has to make short term goals and monitor them along the way.
We have all experienced times when we make big plans and they seldom materialise. They may have lasted a day or two but not much longer and the reason is that we haven't set a proper agenda to achieve our goal. This is what Sefiras HaOmer is teaching us. On the one hand, we have to know that Shavuos is our ultimate goal, but at every stage (every day), we are remembering where we are holding and what we are meant to achieve - short term goals. Once we have finished each week, we can look back at that unit that we have covered and then go further to our ultimate goal.
This is a very important idea that we have to grasp. Being the chosen people of Hashem, and doing what He wants us to do is not something that comes overnight. Just like anything else in life that one really wants to achieve, one has to constantly work at it.
In the world in which we live, where the pull towards assimilation is so great, there is only one option --to run our lives based on Torah. The Gemara 3 tells us "Barasi yetzer harah ubarasi lo Torah tavlin" - "I created the evil inclination and I have created Torah as its antidote". The literal translation of tavlin is spice. Just as spices bring out the taste in food, so too when one occupies oneself in Torah, one's natural drive/desire which could be used for the negative is transformed and used for the positive.4
The Gemara tells us 5 that every child in its mother's womb has a private tutor. A malach teaches him the whole Torah. Just before he enters the world, the malach hits the child on the lip and he forgets all the Torah he learnt. What is the purpose of Hashem letting us learn, only to cause us to forget?
There is a parable of a king who was walking through a forest when he heard a beautiful melody. He tried finding the source, but was unable to do so. Instead he decided to memorise the tune and get one of his musicians to play it back to him. Very frustrated, he returned to his palace and offered anyone who could replay this tune a huge reward, but to no avail. No one was able to match the tune. One of the king's prize musicians, after being told that the tune did not match, challenged the king: "How do you know this was not the tune, can you tell me the correct one?" The king replied "You're right, I can't tell you the exact tune, but if someone would play it, I would recognise it straight away."
The same is with Torah. We have all heard the tune, our souls are just crying out to be reunited. As well as seeing huge assimilation in our generation we have also seen hundreds and even thousands of Jews return to their roots. People of all ages, many who have tried different avenues, have come back realising where the path to true happiness and achievement lies.
So Shavuos is the time when we celebrate being able to receive the best 'present' - accepting the responsibility to be Hashem's elite army. This was not a one off occurrence that happened thousands of years ago, but it is something that each one of us in our lifetime by being the next link in the chain has a responsibility to continue.
1 This story happened to one of my Rabbonim in Yerushalyim.
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