Parshas Behar-Bechukosai (5769)
Imagine being told one day that before your beloved grandmother passed away, she deposited a special gift in a safety-deposit box at the bank with the specific instructions that it be given only to you. How thrilling would that be!
You then rush to the bank, where the teller hands you a beautifully-wrapped gift with a note from your grandmother attached to it. It says: “Dear Michael, please know that the gift that I am giving you is very special and dear to me. It is a book full of amazing wisdom, deep lessons, brilliant advice and instructions for living that has been in our family – handed down from one generation to the next – for many hundreds of years. Please guard it and cherish it – and learn from it and teach it your kids and grandkids – for it is our family’s most precious possession.”
Think about how excited you would feel at that moment – holding this treasured book of history and wisdom in your hands and feeling the love of so many generations before you whose only wish was that this amazing book would be passed on so that you could one day have it. Such a book you would no doubt make sure to open daily – reading from it with your family and absorbing its great wisdom and life lessons.
Truth be told, this is more than an imaginative exercise. There actually is such a “book” filled with the most amazing wisdom and life instructions, that has been handed down from one generation to the next for well over 3000 years, and which has been deposited for safekeeping and preserved just for us in “safe-deposit boxes”, or Holy Arks, in shuls all around the world.
This book – the Torah - was given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai 3321 years ago, an event we will be celebrating on the upcoming holiday of Shavuos. [To learn more about this holiday, click on: http://ohr.edu/yhiy.php/holidays/shavuot/] It is our “heritage’ (see Deuteronomy 33:4), given to us with love by our Father in Heaven with the “attached instructions”: “You shall place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul … you shall teach them to your children to discuss them … (Deuteronomy 11:18-19).
For the better part of our history, we Jews have always been grateful to G-d for this amazing gift of Torah, and we gladly took it upon ourselves to learn from it and to pass it on to our children. As a Jew prays to G-d each night during Maariv (Evening Prayers): “With an eternal love have You loved the House of Israel, Your nation. Torah and commandments, decrees and ordinances have You taught us. Therefore, Lord, our G-d, upon our retiring and arising, we will discuss Your decrees and we will rejoice with the words of Your Torah and with Your commandments for all eternity.”
The following insight from the great Chassidic Master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, shows just how much our ancestors appreciated the gift of Torah:
Many Jews around the world have the custom to stay awake and study Torah the entire night of Shavuos. One explanation given for this time-honored custom is that the Jews at Mount Sinai “over-slept” on that historic Shavuos morning! G-d had to "wake them up" to teach them the Torah. We rectify this by staying up all night, to ensure that we won't sleep late on this day.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak asks how is it possible that the Jewish people, who had literally been counting down the days in eager anticipation of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, could actually sleep late when that day finally came?
He answers this enigma with a famous Midrash (see Sifri Deuteronomy 33:2) which teaches that G-d first offered the Torah to the other nations and they rejected it until he came to the Jews at Mount Sinai who accepted it with the words “naaseh v’nishma” (we will do and we will obey). With this Midrash in mind, explains Reb Levi Yitzchak, we can understand how our ancestors were sleeping at the time when they were to receive the Torah. You see, when they heard that this amazing Torah with all its beautiful teachings and wisdom for optimal living was being offered to all the other nations first, they thought that there was absolutely no chance that the nations would reject it – after all, who wouldn’t want such a gift? - so they gave up any hope of their receiving the Torah and they went to sleep!!
Yet, sadly, in the last hundred and fifty years or so, many Jews have forgotten all about this wonderful gift and how we got it – some don’t even see it as a “gift” but as a burden - and they have neglected the study of Torah, thus missing out on all the amazing beauty and wisdom in its many pages.
Luckily, a good many Jews still come to synagogue every so often and some even get called up to the Torah for an aliyah – especially at Bar-Mitzvahs. And although they might not realize it, when they recite the Birchos HaTorah (the Blessings over the Torah), they are actually acknowledging that the Torah is a book of wisdom and truth given to us by G-d as a gift for us to cherish.
Rabbi Simcha Wasserman gives us insight into the nature of these Birchos HaTorah and how they express our feelings toward the Torah:
He asks why is it that one who is called up to the Torah recites not one but two different blessings – one before the reading begins (“Blessed are You …. Who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah …) and one after the Torah has been read (Blessed are You … who gave us the Torah of truth …)?
Reb Simcha explains as follows: When a person receives a nicely-wrapped gift from his friend he right away expresses his gratitude and thanks – even though he has no idea if he will even like or benefit from what’s inside – just for the fact that his friend gave him the gift. And when he unwraps the present and sees what’s inside and how amazing it is, he thanks his friend a second time for the gift itself.
So, too, is it with the blessings we make when reading from the Torah in shul. Before we open up the nicely-wrapped Torah, we say “Blessed are You, G-d … who selected us … and gave us His Torah”, thanking G-d just for the fact that He chose to give us this gift, even though we have yet to look inside it. However, after we have read from the Torah, and we see what is written inside – so much wisdom and beauty and truth – we thank G-d again for the actual gift itself and we say, “Blessed are you, G-d … who gave us the Torah of truth”.
This year, as we celebrate another Shavuos two weeks from now, and we commemorate G-d’s giving us the Torah, His most precious possession, let us commit ourselves to taking some time out of our busy lives to study some of that Torah (either in a live class or online … whatever) and to see what this gift that has been handed down to us by our ancestors for thousands of years is truly all about.