By Way of Introduction
From the Baal Shem Tov:
1) When you are engaged in Torah study or mitzvot, do not think it is you who is doing it – but only the Shekhina, the indwelling presence of G!d.
2) As Saadia Gaon explained, the entire Torah is contained in the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. Likewise, all of the Torah is contained in a single word, indeed in every single letter.
3) When the messiah comes (may it be speedily and in our days!) he will give explanations of all the Torah from beginning to end, on all the letter combinations in each and every word, and finally he will make from all the Torah one word.
On Torah Study
4) From the Baal Shem Tov:
“Someone who engages in Torah and prayer without love and awe will not soar heavenward” (Tikkunei Zohar 10). How much more so if he has “strange” thoughts, which are called kedoshim pesulim (unusable holy things) and are handed over to the outside forces! But when he returns in teshuva, then he raises the holy sparks that have been handed over to the outside forces. So when he stands in prayer or engages in Torah study, then the strange thoughts rise up to confuse his Torah study or prayer, for these strange thoughts are his sins, and they stand before him as in war – but their true intent is that he correct them and bring them out from the depths of their profane coverings.
5) From Simcha Bunam of Peshischa;
Moses went up to Elohim, and HaShem called to him from the mountain, saying…
This verse is lacking sense, for just after it says Moses went up to Elohim, one name for G!d, it turns around and uses another name, saying HaShem called to him… Why the change in names? Let’s explain it using the [Zohar’s] midrash that the soul of the messiah is in every generation. The meaning is not that in every generation there is one individual who has the soul of the messiah. What purpose would that serve G!d, if redemption is not brought? Rather, the intent is that in every one of us there is the nature of the messiah, and when G!d wishes to redeem His people he will choose one person who is fitting and reveal to him from above the light of the messiah, and he will be the redeemer (may he be revealed speedily and in our days!). Understand this, for it is a secret. Likewise we find with Moses our Teacher, as it is written, The Children of Israel cried out to HaShem…Elohim saw the Children of Israel, and Elohim knew [that] Moses was a shepherd (Exodus 2:23-3:1).
6) From Menahem Mendel of Kotzk:
In the third month from the Children of Israel’s going out from Egypt, on this day they came to the desert of Sinai… (Exodus 19:1). On this verse Rashi comments, “On this day means on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month. The Torah could have said on that day, but on this day means that the words of the Torah should be as new to you as if they were given today.”
We must try to understand why, if on this day means Rosh Hodesh, Rashi also says that it means that the words of the Torah should be as new as if they were given today. What’s more, they were not yet given on Rosh Hodesh!
His intention seems to be connected to the matter of preparation. For we need to engage in study of the holy Torah so that it should be as it was then, for from Rosh Hodesh until the giving of the Torah they strengthened themselves and rallied themselves with anticipation and urgent preparation for receiving the holy Torah, yearning for it because it was brand new. Likewise we must – every day – similarly prepare ourselves for words of Torah.
On the Names of Shavuot
7) From Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the Kedushas Levi:
I was asked in the city of Lithuania why Shavuot is called in the Talmud Atzeret (Ingathering), when this name is not used in the Torah for Shavuot, but only for Shmini Atzeret. I replied in three ways. The first explanation is on the simple level. In every holiday there are two ways of serving the Creator: in doing the positive mitzvah associated with that holiday (eg, eating matzah on Pesach), and in the negative mitzvah of the prohibition on melachah, creative labor. But on Shavuot that is not the case: we have only one mitzvah, we hold back (neatzrin) from the doing of melachah. And so it is called by the name Atzeret.
The second: as we can see with our own sense of reason, all the holidays derive their name from an event, as well as from the mitzvot that we do on that holiday. Only Shavuot is different, which is named after the mitzvah of counting. Let’s try to understand why this holiday is named after a mitzvah that has already passed, as if the holiday is the completion of the mitzvah…like the meal celebrated at the completion of a tractate of Talmud.
Indeed, it is proper to do such a thing, as Rashi explains concerning Shmini Atzeret (Numbers 29:36), “Your leaving is hard for me…” To what can this be compared? To a prince who invited a king with all his princes to a feast; after the feast, when the king wished to return home, the prince said, “Your leaving is hard for me. Stay (atzor) here a little longer so that brothers should not have to part.” Such is the case here… The reason for the festival of Shavuot is so that we make a holiday out of the completion of the counting of the omer, with which the Creator has given us merit. So it is called Atzeret.
The third way is according to the words of the Ramban on the verse, “Do not wake or rouse love until it desires it!” (Song of Songs 2:7). He explains, “When there awakens in you awe and love for the Creator, you should right away make for it a vessel, that is, right away do a mitzvah, such as give tzedakah or sit down to study. For it is known that such an awakening that comes to you so suddenly is light overflowing from above, and is known as neshama, soul, and you must make for it a body, so that it has strength and substance and doesn’t dissipate, G!d forbid… Such is the interpretation of “Do not awake or rouse love until it desires it (tachpotz),” for chafetz means not only desire but also vessel.
Now at the moment of the giving of the Torah, there was indeed a great awakening in Israel, but they had as yet no mitzvah with which to make a vessel for that awakening – except, we must say, for the mitzvah of holding back from approaching the mountain, against which Moses our Teacher warned them. And it was specifically through this mitzvah of holding themselves back (neatzrim) that they made a vessel for their awakening, and so it is called Atzeret.
8) From Menahem Mendel of Kotzk:
The Men of the Great Assembly established that we call Shavuot Zman matan torateinu, “time of the giving of our Torah” in the Amidah. Why didn’t they call it zman kabalat torateinu, “the time of the receiving of our Torah,” as we learned in Pirkei Avot (1:1), Moshe kibel torah, “Moses received Torah.” Our holy rabbi Simha Bunam of Peshischa said, “It was only the giving of the Torah that occurred in the month of Sivan and which is attached to this time, unlike the receiving of the Torah, which occurs every single day.” We can also say that the giving of the Torah was the same for everyone, but the receiving of the Torah was not – rather, everyone received it according to his ability.
9) From Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger
On Shavuot there are two kinds of drawing close: the hearts of the Children of Israel draw close to G!d, and the Omnipresent One draws close to the Children of Israel. These are the two loaves [offered to G!d in the Temple on Shavuot]. The Children of Israel glory in this holiday and call it “The Day of the Giving of Our Torah,” [focusing on G!d’s drawing close to us], but G!d thinks that our drawing close to G!d is the more important, and so in the Torah G!d calls the holiday “Day of the Firstfruits, when you draw near” (Numbers 28:26).
By Way of Closing
10) From the Baal Shem Tov:
The L!rd G!d planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed (Genesis 2:8). The Holy Zohar explains that gan (“garden”) hints at the nun-gimel (53) weekly sections of the Torah, and ba’eden mikedem (“in Eden,” “in the east”) means that the Holy One of Blessing, who is called kadmono shel olam (“the One who existed before the world”), took great eden (“joy”) and delight in the Torah which was also kadmah la’olam (“before the world”), as it is written, [“The L!rd created me at the beginning of His way, kedem (“before”) His works of old. At the beginning, mikadmei (“at the origin”) of earth,” and] “I was with Him as a confidant, a source of delight every day, rejoicing before Him at all times, rejoicing in His inhabited world, finding delight with Mankind” (Proverbs 8:22-23,30), and as our sages of blessed memory commented, “One thousand years kodem (“before”) the world was created, the Torah was created” (Bereishit Rabbah 8:2). So when the Torah says G!d placed the man whom He had formed in the garden, it means G!d taught him Torah, as it says le’avdah ulshamrah, “to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), and as the Zohar comments, “to work it means the positive mitzvot and to keep it means the negative mitzvot.” The Torah continues, And the L!rd G!d commanded the man, saying… and the Zohar says this means G!d told him how to understand the Torah and study it. For whoever says words of Torah must say them in a way that teaches the listener advice and wisdom and understanding in how to serve G!d…
10) From the Siddur of the Baal Shem Tov:
You must be careful after the tikkun (all night study) not to digress into idle talk until after the Kedushat Keter section of the Musaf service, for then all the jewels that we have made for the Shekhina (through our study) at night rise heavenward, and so we must be very careful to purify our thoughts, [indefinitely, but] at least until this crowning.