The Essence of Shavuot

“The Essence of the Day,” from Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, Nesivos Shalom, Shavuot.

Your word, O God, stands forever in the Heavens. Psalms 119:89

It is written in the holy books that the holy Torah is eternal, and so the receiving of the Torah is also eternal. So on this day of Shavuot, year after year, there occurs a renewed receiving of Torah. And this is why in the prayers of the day we call Shavuot “the time of the giving of our Torah” — not because it is a memorial of the one day in history when the Holy One of Blessing gave us the Torah, but because every single year this holy day is itself “the time of the giving of our Torah,” when enlightenment comes down upon us. That is why, even though when the Children of Israel went out from Egypt the Torah was given on the seventh of the month of Sivan, sometimes Shavuot falls on the sixth (1), because what is important is not when it was given the first time but when this generation receives it anew. This is why, according to the Arizal, at the giving of the Torah [at Mt. Sinai] it is written “Moses will speak and God will answer out loud” (2), because it speaks not of that one instance but of every year when the Torah is renewed.

Since on this day the enlightenment of the actual giving of the Torah descends, with it come all the revelations that accompanied receiving the Torah, the voices and the lightning and the rest, for they too are eternal (3). Indeed, we have a tradition that when the Baal Shem Tov would begin to learn with his students, they would hear the voices and the lightning. Furthermore, our holy sages say that the verse “Go out and see, daughters of Zion, King Solomon in the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding,” refers to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. So on the verse “Moses gave us the Torah as an inheritance (morashah) of the community of Jacob,” our holy sages teach, “Instead of morashah, ‘inheritance,’ read meorasah, ‘a fiancee’,” for Torah is like our beloved, to whom we are betrothed (4).

This wedding takes place on every Shavuot. At this wedding God “gives gifts befitting a king,” for on the day of his wedding the king gives gifts without end (5). Now, imagine there is a poor man outside, who strives and pushes his way into the palace of the king and then, because he does not grasp the possibilities of the moment, asks for a piece of bread to satisfy his hungry spirit (6). Everyone in the palace would laugh at him, saying, “Such a small thing you ask for? Don’t you know that now that you are in the presence of the king you could ask him to make you rich and so free you entirely from your poverty? And here you are asking for a lousy piece of bread!” So on Shavuot, which is like God’s wedding day, our request must be “And bestow upon us Hashem our God the blessing of Your festivals,” the blessing of Shavuot being “you shall offer up a new offering to God” (7), an offering of renewal. We must ask to be made entirely new…

Our sages read the verse “You were shown to know that Hashem is God and there is no other,” and said that when the Torah was given, all seven heavens and all the abysses were opened and shown to us, and we saw that there is nothing but God (8). Now since the giving of the Torah is eternal, and so all of the accompanying signs and wonders, it is only natural that this revelation too should be made known, that every year we are “shown to know that Hashem is God and there is no other,” for this is the highest level a Jew can strive for. That is why it is told that on the day of his death Moses asked God, “Master of the World, there is only one thing I ask from You: that you open all the gates of heaven and the deep so that they may see there is no one but You!” (9)…

Now the extent to which we are “shown to know” depends on us. As Isaiah wrote, “Lift your eyes on high and see who created these,” that is, see the power of the Creator in Creation, for in every moment and in every part of Creation we can see and recognize the Creator of all the worlds (10)… If you cannot see this, you are like “the blind who are considered dead” (11). The Lutzker Rebbe (11) told a story of a man who came to him complaining that he really wanted to serve God, but his business dealings kept him too busy, and so he remained far from God. The rebbe replied, “The Holy One of Blessing is infinite! All of the worlds are like a mustard seed in comparison! How is it that some little dealings in this meager world should hide from you the great and mighty Creator?”

On this day when we receive the Torah along with all of its revelations and signs and wonders, every one of us needs to find within our souls and feel with all of our being that we “have been show to know that Hashem is God and there is no other” and to merit “offering up a new offering to God.” And on the divine wedding day, we should ask only one thing of God: that we not be poor and blind, that we be released from the bonds that imprison us, from all the little things that hide from us the divine light, and that we merit to see, on this day, that “Hashem is God and there is no other.”

1) Other holidays have a specific calendar date: the first, the tenth, the fifteenth… Only Shavuot has no fixed date, because it occurs after counting seven full weeks from Passover, and the intervening months vary slightly in their number of days from year to year.

2) Exodus 19:19; Arizal is an acronym for “the Holy Rabbi Isaac, may his memory be a blessing,” and refers to Isaac or Yitzhak Luria, a 16th century kabbalist who revolutionized Kabbalah and who, along with his school, bequeathed us many mystical rites we take for granted now, such as the Lecha Dodi prayer, the Kabbalat Shabbat service, and the idea of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.”

3) The Torah says that we “saw the voices,” which has been interpreted as a kind of spiritual vision.

4) Song of Solomon 3:11, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 3:2; Deuteronomy 33:4; Berachot 57a; this last sentence was moved from the end of the next paragraph for clarity. We see here that sometimes it is God wedding us, and sometimes it is us wedding the Torah.

5) Esther 2:18

6) Here is where the English fails: the word I translated as “spirit” is nefesh, one of the many words for the various levels of the soul. Nefesh particularly refers to the animal like part of our soul, that most connected to physical survival. I think by using this word the Nesivos Shalom is hinting at the dual nature of this man’s hunger: it is both physical and spiritual, but he only recognizes the physical. This story is of course just like the short story “Bontshe the Silent” by I. L. Peretz, who often drew from Hasidic tradition for inspiration.

7) The first citation is from the holiday prayers, and the second is from Leviticus 23:16, commanding the new grain offering for Shavuot.

8) Deuteronomy 4:35; “there is no other” can be read to mean “there is no other god” or “there is nothing else,” period! The teaching is brought there by Rashi, from Pesikta Rabbati and Shir Hashirim Rabbah.

9) Devarim Rabbah 11:8

10) Isaiah 40:26

11) “The blind are considered dead, as it is written, ‘He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old’.” Lamentations 3:6, from Nedarim 64b

12) Rabbi Shlomo of Lutzk (1740-1813) a student of the Magid of Mezritch, author of Divrat Shlomo, from which this story is taken (Parshat Behukotai)

This entry was posted in Hasidic Masters, Holidays/Days of Remembrance, Prayer, Shavuot, Sholom Noach Berezovsky of Slonim/ Nesivos Shalom and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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