Shavuot: The True Acceptance of Torah

5 06 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Yitchak Cohen

Shavuot: True Acceptance of Torah  

The common denominator of the Shalosh Regalim is that there is a commandment to be joyous on each of the holidays. What does the Torah mean to be b’simcha? The Gemara in Pesachim notes that there is a disagreement between Rav Yehoshua and Rav Elazar in understanding the two verses, “Atzeret tehiye l’Hashem Elokecha” and “Atzeret tiyehe lachem.” One verse means that the holiday should be spiritual and the other verse tells us to rejoice with physical pleasures. Rav Eliezer says there is a choice on how to fulfill the mitzvah of simcha on Yom Tov. Either one can devote time to tefilah and limud hatorah or to physical enjoyment. Rav Yehoshua says Chetzi l’Hashem v’chetzi lachem-divide the day between the two pleasures. However the Gemara says this disagreement doesn’t apply to all the holidays.


Regarding Shavuot all opinions agree, “Chetzi l’chem v’chetzi l’Hashem.” It needs both aspects. One would think that Shavuot would be a day to devote more time to Torah and tefilah because it is the anniversary of the day when the Torah was given. Yet this day must also have “lachem,” it must be experienced physically. This teaches us that the Torah wasn’t given to us as a means of restricting, obligating, or restraining us from worldly pleasures. Rather in Birchat Hatorah, we ask Hashem, “Vaherev na..”-make it sweet, make it something that we will enjoy. The Kli Yakar writes on the verse, “Vehikravtem mincha chadasha.” Every day a person should have a tremendous desire for Torah as if he had just received it the first time. There should be a fresh newness and joy when studying Torah. “V’samchta l”hashem Elokecha“-your whole body should be b’simcha when learning Torah as if sampling a delectable new dish. This is the koach of Torah, the pleasure it can give a person.


Why is Torah called Torat Emet? Is there another Torah which is false? Torah is not about living for oneself or losing oneself in physical pleasures. It is Hashem’s instructions on how to live. If we follow its precise directions, we will perceive the world with a different perspective. Indeed it is only through Torah that we can come to see the truth of life. 

Parshat Shavuot

17 05 2010

Based on a Short Vort by Mrs. Shira Smiles


The only festival that has a Torah mandated period of preparation is Shavuot. Blowing the shofar in Elul is a rabbinic obligation, and cleaning for Pesach has no set time. However, the 49 day sefira count and the shloshet yemei hagbalah (the three day preparation) always precede the yom tov of Shavuot. Why does Shavuot need such intense preparation?

According to Chassidic teaching, Shavuot is a day of judgment akin to Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana we are judged for what will happen to us physically, while on Shavuot our spiritual potentials decided. All of our spiritual moments, feelings of inspiration, and our level of kavana in prayer, Torah study, and mitzvot during the coming year are determined on this day. We know that the real, internal aspect of life is our soul. We need to make sure that we are worthy to attain these eternal spiritual levels. Therefore, the Torah demands major preparation before Shavuot so we will be ready to be judged favorably on this holy day.

May we merit that Hashem give us a year where we can feel connected during the spiritual moments in our life. May we be zoche during this sefira period to take the key component of self, our soul, and develop it to its fullest, so that we can then be inscribed in the sefer hachaim-the true spiritual life.

Shavuot: Accepting The Torah – Between Man and Man

16 05 2010

Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Ten Commandments were presented on two sides of the tablets of the law to teach us that the laws between man and Hashem and between man and man have a certain equality.

The first of the commandments between man and man is “Lo tirtzach,” the prohibition of murder. According to halacha, murder is defined as premeditated killing out of hatred. The outcome does not render an act as murder, but the intention.

Our Sages compare humiliating someone to murder. The Maharal explains that humiliation belittles a person’s divinity. The person ceases to see his own spirituality and significance. Similarly, causing someone to be killed, even if the person was destined die anyway, denigrates the value of life.

Additionally, a person needs to realize that his own life is precious. The Orchot Tzadikim writes that a person who does not value his life and dies as a consequence of his own negligence is more guilty than a murderer. Life is too precious to waste. On the other hand, saving a life is like saving the whole world, because the universe is more whole with that person’s divine image.

Giving people a sense of significance is also giving them life. Being with a person in their time of brokenness, visiting the sick, comforting a mourner, and validating the good qualities in others, are ways of increasing the Divine light in this world. “Lo tirzach” parallels “Anochi Hashem.” This is because affirming someone’s spirituality is akin to acknowledging Hashem.

The second commandment is “Lo tinaf,” the prohibition of adultery. According to the Torah, a whole human being consists of man and woman together. Man’s inborn desire is to provide. He does this by drawing down good and giving it to the woman who turns it into something of significance. A women’s innate need is to be valued. We have to ask ourselves which identity we want to project, our body or our soul. This, in effect, determines what one will wear. Clothing is a statement to the world how you want to be perceived. “Lo tinaf” parallels the commandment not to have other gods. Destroying the bond that makes one human, the bond between man and woman, is akin to idol worship.

The third commandment is “Lo tignov,” the prohibition of kidnapping. Halachically, this is defined as taking someone against his will and holding him for ransom. Kidnapping reduces someone to a piece of merchandise, where one fails to see the Divine spark within the person. It parallels the commandment of “Lo tisa,” not uttering Hashem’s name in vain, because there is no way in which we find Hashem more readily than through recognizing the Divinity in a human being.

The fourth commandment is “Lo Taane,” the prohibition of false testimony. This parallels the commandment of Shabbat. Shabbat is about stepping out of the picture in order to see the full picture. We cannot appreciate life if we never step out to see the Creator and the beauty of His world. Similarly, truth is so crucially important that if a person cannot at least trust his own words, he is completely lost.

The last commandment is “Lo tachmod,” the prohibition of coveting. There are two types of coveting. Sometimes people want something because others have it, not because they necessarily need it. Constant desire for self affirmation from the outside dooms one to jealousy, because a person will always find something that someone else has that he does not. The worst kind of coveting is thinking, “You have it, I want it and since I can’t have it, I don’t want you to have it either.”
How does one uproot envy from his personality? The Ibn Ezra explains that just as it is clear to the country peasant that he will never marry the princess, we need to realize that we are all unique and are given exactly what we need to achieve our own specific mission in life.

This parallels honoring ones parents because both involve seeing Hashem’s providence. The parents you were given were tailor made for you just as the objects you have were specifically meant for you.

The Ten Commandments are so huge in scope that our Sages tells us that the whole Torah comes from them. When Shavuot comes, the main thought we need to bear in mind is to work to make the Torah a part of us. By saying naaseh v’nishma sincerely in our hearts, we not only commit ourselves to learn, but to do and to make it part of ourselves, because this is the most important endeavor we can ever strive for.

Sefirat Haomer: Affording Respect

9 05 2010

Based on a shiur on Chassidut by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Sefirat Haomer: Affording Respect

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students perished because they did not treat each other with respect. The lengthiest period of mourning in the Jewish calendar commemorates this tragic era. Even our mourning for the destruction of the Temple does not stretch as long, which teaches us that Hashem deals very strictly with kavod haTorah. Rav Hirsch notes that the word “kavod” means heavy or satisfied. It is a misguided attitude of not needing others, of being disinterested, and of not affording proper respect to others.

Rashi in Bamidbar points out that Bilaam’s donkey died so that he would not be a source of shame to him, because the donkey witnessed what Bilaam did not. If hashem was careful not to shame Bilaam, who was a murderer and a rasha, how much more so should we be careful not to humiliate a fellow Jew. The Alter of Slabodka explains that people cannot live without kavod. Suicide is a result of feeling bereft of chashivut. Affording someone respect is giving him life. Rav Chaim Volozhner writes in Ruach Chaim that the way to give someone kavod is not to denigrate the person or view him as inferior. Everyone has a tzelem Elokim and has the potential to become like Hashem. We were all created by one craftsman. Our work is to identify the artist’s signature in each person. This involves looking for the good and not concentrating on the negative character traits of others.

Rav Yisrael Salanter notes that the real test is not respecting someone who is a gadol but someone who tries your patience and endurance. Respecting one’s family is much harder than respecting strangers. He would teach, “Worry about the gashmiut of others and your own ruchniut.” Before his students went to bake matzot for Pesach, they asked him what stringencies they should take upon themselves. He answered that they should take care not to raise their voices because the proprietress of the bakery was a widow and it could cause her anguish.

Rav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky was the Rav and Mashgiach in Baranovich. During World War II, when the Jews of Baranovich were confined to a ghetto, he would walk the streets with a smile on his face. When questioned, he answered that he had nothing to give others, not even a piece of bread, at least he could try and give them his smile.” Aside from what a moody person does to his surroundings, he makes people think that they are in some way responsible for the person’s sadness. When Rav Yisrael Salanter encountered one of his students with a long face before Yom Kippur he admonished him that his face was a reshut harabbim and he had no right to make others feel gloomy.

Many people maintain one lashon-hara free hour every day. As we count down the weeks to Matan Torah, let us work on our own tikun hamiddot by setting aside one hour every day to work on kavod habriut. Showing respect to the security guard, the janitor, the parking lot attendant, or the plumber are all little acts of great significance that can have help us reach our goal of perfecting our middot as we prepare for Kabbalat HaTorah.