Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shavuos / Shavuot Dvar Torah

A rabbi, a priest, and a minister were swapping stories – why not? One time, the was caught in a snowstorm so terrible that he couldn't see a foot in front of him. He wasn’t even sure which direction to walk. He prayed, and miraculously, while the storm continued for miles in every direction, he could clearly see his home 20 feet away. That’s nothing, said the minister. He’d once been out on a small boat when a hurricane struck, with 40-foot waves: the boat was sure to capsize. He prayed, and, while the storm continued all around, for several feet in each direction, the sea calmed, and he got back safely to shore. “Well,” said the rabbi. “Wait’ll you hear what happened to me. One Saturday morning, on the way home from synagogue, I saw a wad of $100 bills on the sidewalk. Of course, since it was Shabbos, I couldn’t touch the money. So I prayed, too: and God answered! Everywhere, for miles in every direction, it was still Shabbat… but for 10 feet around me, it was Thursday.”

Well, it’s a silly story. Right? Actually, it’s an awful story, an awful joke (what kind of rabbi is that?) but it has stuck in my imagination forever.

It sticks because it’s so bizarre: we can’t make Shabbos go away, and so, too, like the Yiddish expression says, Shabbos Mitvoch (Wednesday Sabbath). It’s a joke – we can’t really make any old day holy. Or maybe we can, because this year, Shavuos happens to come out on Wednesday – mitvoch! In Israel, especially, it’s a little day in the middle of the week… a 25-hour blip; nothing – Shabbos mitvoch.

Holiness, in the middle of nowhere. Where have we seen this before? Take a look at Hashem’s choice of location for matan Torah, giving the Torah. Not in a village, not by the edge of the sea, the rocky mountains… nowhere. Literally, nowhere. In the wilderness. On a nothing of a mountain that the rockies would laugh at.

Any place, even the most humble, can be holy… it just has to be chosen by Hashem. And what a great self-esteem message for us! Any person, too, can be holy… as long as we’re chosen by Hashem. We are!

The message of this extraordinary “Shabbos mitvoch,” Shavuos, is that any time can be holy, too. And not just the times chosen by Hashem. When we came out of mitzrayim, the first mitzvah of the Jewish people as a whole was to create a calendar.

To observe the new moons, because that’s how we’ll know when to celebrate the yamim tovim. We decide when to celebrate. Hashem told us the dates, but not when the months start; that’s up to us to observe from the position of the moon.

In fact, even though things are not going exactly according to plan these days with no Sanhedrin, no bais hamikdash, the actual dates are STILL up to us to determine: we just do it on a fixed calendar that was established thousands of years ago. Even Yom Kippur, the day with the most dire consequences if we get the date wrong – even then, we have the power to decide when it’s celebrated.

That’s why in Kiddush we talk about bnei Yisrael as “Am mekadeshei shevi’i”… the people who make the seventh day holy. The power isn’t just in Hashem’s hands, it’s a partnership; we’re working together with Hashem and the day wouldn’t be holy without either Him or us.

On Shavuos, Hashem proves to us that even Wednesday – a day in the wilderness, so to speak – can be holy if we deem it so, doing His will by setting the calendar.

But as isolated as Shavuos is, floating in the sea of an ordinary week, it’s not really all alone - it does have a connection.

One of the names of Shavuos is a hint to this: Atzeres (from the mishnah and Talmud). In Hebrew, it means “stopping.”

Where else do we see the name Atzeres? On Simchas Torah, which is called Shemini Atzeres, the eighth day, the culmination of the joy of Sukkos. We count eight days, then stop and celebrate the Atzeres. Same with Shavuos. We count 49 days, then stop and celebrate the Atzeres. If the message of Pesach is freedom, the message of Shavuos is stopping, or – better, Atzar – boundaries.

Freedom – just to be hang around – is meaningless, unless you define the boundaries of freedom.

I once heard a story about somebody who was learning the many laws about lashon hora. A friend said, “that must make it really hard – you must have a tough time talking about anything now!” The person said, “au contraire… actually, learning the halachos makes it possible for me to speak freely, without worrying that I’m going to do anything wrong.”

The kind of freedom Moshe begged Hashem for in Mitzrayim was not the liberty to hang around doing nothing. It was the freedom to take Hashem’s will and make it our own.

But we weren’t ready at the time of Pesach for anything more than freedom – removal of the limitations of slavery. Now, through counting our way to Shavuos, at last we have become ready – for the essential freedom-through-boundaries that the Torah gives us to live our lives according to the will of Hashem.

[Chazal point this out by saying (Eruvin 54a) that “Cherus” (Freedom) and “Charus” (engraven) emphasizes

the fact that “Only that freedom is true freedom which recognizes the engraved commands on Hashem’s luchos]

May we all fulfill our destiny as part of am mekadshei shevii; the chosen-and-choosing people – constantly, consciously sanctifying the mundane through the will of Hashem.

Good Yom Tov… and this time I really mean it!

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