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Parshas Naso (5768)

Shavuos: The Forgotten Jewish Holiday?

This coming Sunday evening, June 8th, Jewish people all across the world will be getting together with their families to celebrate the holiday of Shavuos - "The Festival of Weeks" - which commemorates the Revelation at Mount Sinai when G-d gave His beloved Torah to the Jewish People.

One has to wonder why it is that the holiday of Shavuos is so unpopular (relative to the other Jewish holidays) among the majority of Jews in North America today, and, in some circles, is virtually unknown. Could the reason be that Shavuos always comes out every year right after Passover - and we are all "holidayed-out" from the matzoh, maror, and other Passover foods that we stuff ourselves with at the Seder? Or maybe it has to do with the fact that there aren't a whole lot of rituals associated with Shavuos. There are no succahs (huts) to build and to decorate. There is no cleaning of our homes from all the chametz (thank G-d!). A shofar isn't blown, and there is no Kol Nidrei sung in the synagogue. We don't light a menorah (candelabra) and we don't dress up in crazy costumes. Shavuos is, in a sense, a "ritually- challenged" Jewish holiday.

Okay, so we do have a custom on Shavuos to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese blintzes. And there is a long-standing tradition for Jews to stay up all night long on the first night of Shavuos in anticipation of receiving the Torah on the following morning. But if chocolate cheesecake with graham cracker crust and truffle topping doesn't talk to you (or if you're lactose- intolerant), and you're also not into Torah "all- nighters" - then there isn't much left in the way of ritual that's going to get you (and the kids) all excited about the holiday. And there may be other reasons for Shavuos' lack of popularity as well. But whatever the reasons for the general lack of observance of and excitement for the holiday of Shavuos, I believe that there is something unique about this holiday which, if anything, should make Shavuos the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.

But first, a little background about the Jewish holidays is necessary in order to understand and appreciate the essence and beauty of the holiday of Shavuos.

SHAVUOS IS NOT A "MEMORIAL DAY"

There is a very important reason why the celebration of Shavuos involves practically no rituals, while all the other major Jewish holidays are so rich with customs and special traditions. And it has to do with the fact that the other holidays are days upon which we commemorate significant events and miracles that occurred in the history of our people, and which defined us as a nation.

Take Passover, for example. Passover celebrates our ancestors' exodus from Egypt and the freedom of the Jewish people to serve G-d. Well, for the better part of our history we have not been truly "free" from foreign oppression and various forms of anti-Semitism that inhibited us from living a Jewish lifestyle and from serving G-d as a Jew should. So each Passover, we get together at the Passover Seder and we perform various rituals that serve to remind us of the true freedom that our nation experienced as we left Egypt, and we yearn for a time when we will we once again be truly free. And the same is true of many of the other rituals associated with the Jewish holidays. So that all the mitzvahs (commandments) and rituals of the Passover Seder and the other major Jewish holidays commemorate and "bring closer to home" the concepts and experiences that are a collective part of our Jewish national history and of who we are as a Jewish nation.

Shavuos, on the other hand, is not just a "Memorial Day", commemorating something that our people once had or experienced. You see, on Shavuos, some 3300 years ago, our ancestors stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and celebrated as they received G- d's "Big Instruction Book for Life" - the Torah - and now, so many years later, we still have it and we're still celebrating!! We might have lost our freedom over the course of our long history; we might not have sat under G-d's "cloud of glory" - represented by the sukkah - ever since the clouds left us after 40 years in the desert. But the Torah that we received on Shavuos way back when is still with us, and has been faithfully studied and adhered to by the Jewish people throughout these past 3300 years.

So there is really no need to perform rituals on Shavuos that "commemorate" the "past event" of receiving the Torah. All we really need to do to celebrate Shavuos properly is to open up the book - the Five Books of Moses or the Talmud or any other Jewish book of Torah and its Divine wisdom and - viola! - we are right there at Sinai, learning from the same Torah that our ancestors heard and learned from so many years ago.

TORAH: THE GREAT UNIFIER

The greatness of the Torah that G-d gave to us at Sinai lies not just in the fact that it has stayed with us, and has been a source of strength and wisdom for all Jews throughout the millennia. It is far more than that. As Ben Bag-Bag wrote in Ethics of our Fathers (Chapter 5 Mishnah 25):

"Turn and turn about in it [the Torah], for everything is in it; and within it shall you look, and grow old and gray over it, and do not stir from it; for there is no better portion for you than this."

The late Irving Bunim explains the words of the great sage as follows: We are bidden to turn ever and again to the Torah, never to close the pages and declare our study finished. And the reason for that is, as Ben Bag- Bag says, "for everything is in it". The true greatness of the Torah that we received on Shavuos lies in the fact that a child can listen and be thrilled by its narratives, and a philosopher of advanced age can ponder it and become inspired by the deep thoughts implicit in the same narratives. And it's not only at every age and level of scholarship and observance that the Torah has something to say, which can have a major impact on our lives. The Torah also has within it the Divine wisdom and insight necessary to help guide us through all types of problems and struggles that may confront us as we go on in life.

So that a Jew can never say, "The Torah has nothing to say to me. It doesn't speak to me." Turn to it again and again, says Ben Bag-Bag. There you can find guidance in domestic problems, counsel in social relations, and priceless lessons in business ethics - "for everything is in it." And the greatest thing is that it's ours - it belongs to the entire Jewish people - the Torah is ours to consult in every situation, an unchanging and unerring source of direction for our lives.

All these wonderful qualities make Torah the "great unifier" of the Jewish people. You see, some Jews will tell you that rituals don't do it for them, or that they have a different background and customs than you have. But what all Jews have - and what truly unifies us as a people - is the Torah that we received at Mount Sinai with all its life-impacting wisdom and guidance, just waiting for us to study it and let it into our lives. And no matter where a person is religiously, the Torah always has something to say to him, which can give him both guidance and direction.

And this is why Shavuos - the day upon which we once again receive G-d's Torah - should really be celebrated by all Jews today more than ever. For the Torah is the great unifying force for the Jewish people, and, as such, can be truly appreciated by all Jews, at all different levels of ritual observance.

THREE REQUIREMENTS FOR TORAH STUDY

Though the Torah is the heritage and property of each and every Jew, in order to really get something out of Torah study and to grow from it, one has to fulfill certain basic qualifications or requirements. The commentaries explain that just as when our ancestors received the Torah they had to ready themselves in certain ways, so as to be able to appreciate and grow from the Torah, so must the Jews of each generation be "prepared" before they delve into the wisdom and depth of the Torah. The source for this is a very strange verse in Exodus 19:1- 2, which describes the journey of the Jewish people till they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai:

"In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain."

If you look carefully, you will see that the entire second verse is superfluous. The first verse already indicates that the Jews arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai. Why then does the second verse talk about where they journeyed from before they came to Sinai? And it should be obvious that if they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai, that they were going to encamp there. Why then does the Torah mention, not once, but twice, in the same verse that Israel encamped there in the Wilderness of Sinai?

The Ohr Hachaim, one of the great Torah commentators, explains the verse homiletically to be referring to the three basic requirements necessary for the receiving of the Torah and for proper Torah study.

The first requirement is that we apply ourselves to Torah study, with seriousness of purpose and a strong commitment. This is what is meant when the Torah says that the Jews "journeyed [away] from Rephidim". The word Rephidim is a contraction of the Hebrew words rafu ye-dei-hem, meaning "loosening their grip" [on the Torah]. And when it says that the Jews at Mount Sinai journeyed away from Rephidim, it means that they reaffirmed their commitment to take the study of Torah seriously and to devote serious time to it.

Secondly, it says in the verse that the Jews "encamped in the Wilderness". The wilderness, or desert, is a lowly place with not much to boast about. And the Jewish people who were to receive G- d's Torah humbled themselves in submission to the word of G-d, for the words of Torah remain only with the humble. Where a person's ego is pushed aside, there is room for Torah and its wisdom and moral lessons to come in and do their magic. But without the requisite humility, Torah simply won't change the person.

And finally, the Torah says that "Israel" encamped there, implying that there was unity among the Jewish people. They were all together as one "Israel" in their quest for spiritual growth through Torah study. And that applies today, as well. For any Jew, no matter his or her age, level of sophistication, or religious affiliation, to get anything at all out of the study of Torah, there must be a certain sense of unity amongst us, born of the realization that the Torah, as the living word of G-d, has no agendas whatsoever and always favors the truth above all else.

If we apply ourselves seriously to the study of Torah and its instructions for living a meaningful life, push our egos aside to allow room for new insights and growth, and resolve to approach the Torah with an open mind and with a realization that the Torah is what has unified us as a nation, then we will be able to fully utilize the great wisdom and insights that the Torah - our Torah - has to offer, and our lives will be greatly impacted and enhanced.

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