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Shavuos Musings

The prevalent custom in most Jewish communities is to remain awake the entire night of Shavuos learning Torah, eagerly anticipating the upcoming acceptance of Torah on Shavuos morning. Magen Avrohom, quoted in Mishna Berura, explains that on the eve of the Revelation at Sinai, the Jewish nation went to sleep as usual, exhibiting a lack of excitement toward the receiving of Torah. To rectify our ancestors show of indifference, we must annually demonstrate our great excitment for Torah by learning through the entire night of Shavuos.

Rav Tzadok of Lublin [in Pri Tzadik], however, takes issue with this Magen Avrohom. While the Sages indeed tell us in Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer Ch. 41 that Klal Yisroel slept through the original Shavuos night, there is no mention, says Rav Tzadok, of their sleep being considered improper. In fact, Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer seems to indicate that this sleep was especially appropriate and was actually part of the process of Kabbalas Hatorah. Chazal liken Klal Yisroel’s sleep to that of a bride on the eve of her wedding. Moshe awakened Klal Yisroel in the morning, says Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer, just as the bridesmaid customarily awakens the bride on her wedding day and ushers her to her waiting groom. Why then, asks Rav Tzadok, is the current custom to remain awake?

The answer, he explains, is as follows: Prior to Kabbalas Hatorah, the only way Klal Yisroel was able to connect with Torah was by putting their bodies to rest. Their physical aspects could not possibly connect with the spiritual entity of Torah, and therefore had to be shut down, to allow their spiritual dimension to connect with Torah unhindered. This is similar to a bride who, prior to her marriage, cannot connect with her groom on a physical level. The deepest connection she can muster with her groom, therefore, is while she is asleep. While awake, the absence of physical contact is acutely felt, preventing a feeling of oneness with her groom. While asleep, however, she can connect fully with her groom in the dimension of her thoughts and dreams, uninhibited by the lack of physical contact. Thus, a bride’s sleep on the eve of her wedding, is the deepest expression of love, for it is indicative of a yearning to be freed from the bonds of the physical dimension in which the separation between her and her groom is painfully felt. Such, says Rav Tzadok, was the nature of the Jewish nation’s sleep on the original Shavuos eve. Prior to the Revelation at Sinai, Torah was an otherwordly entity, accessible exclusively by means of transcending the physical world. Putting their bodies to sleep was thus an expression of Klal Yisroel’s intense desire to connect to Torah to the fullest degree possible prior to Kabbalas Hatorah.

After Kabbalas Hatorah, however, the equation changed entirely. God gave us the Torah at Sinai with every one of our physical senses participating in the awesome experience. As we were wed to God’s Torah, our bodies as well as our souls became intimately connected with the hitherto ethereal entity we knew as Torah. Torah was transformed from being an intangible entity into something to be experienced with every aspect of our being. We were suddenly able to breath Torah, feel Torah, taste Torah, and enjoy Torah with every fiber of our being. It was the experience of a bride finally physically bonding with the groom she had formerly associated with exclusively on an emotional plane.

While prior to Kabbalas Hatorah, Klal Yisroel expressed their love for Torah by laying their bodies to rest, post-Kabbalas Hatorah, we express our love by reliving the phenomenal experience of Kabbalas Hatorah itself. We remain awake the entire night, satiating our bodies’ physical cravings with the Torah we learn. We involve our bodies in the experience of fusing with Torah, thus giving expression to the all-encompassing nature of our connection to the Torah we received at Sinai.

Indeed, our Sages tell us [Pesachim 48b] that Shavuos is the only holiday on which the obligation to celebrate with physical enjoyment is unanimously agreed upon. On the day of Kabbalas Hatorah, we must involve our physical senses in the celebration, for it was on this day that our bodies were finally able to fully connect with God and the Torah. On a broader level, we must apply this lesson year-round, finding physical fulfillment in both the mitzvos we do and the Torah we learn.

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Shavuos, contrary to popular belief, is not part of the Jewish calendar.

That’s right. No, I have not taken leave of my senses; or, at least, you’ll need better proof than this. I repeat. Shavuos is not part of the Jewish calendar.

There is no calendar date for Shavuos, and indeed, in Talmudic times, Shavuos could fall out on one of three calendar days- the fifth, sixth of seventh of Sivan- depending on when the Sanhedrin declared the new month(see Rosh Hashana 6b). It is only now that our monthly calendar is predetermined by a set cycle, that Shavuos invariably falls out on the sixth of Sivan. This phenomenon is due to the fact that, contrary to all other holidays, the Torah does not specify a date for Shavuos, instead setting its observance for the fiftieth day of the Omer count.

The question: Why? Does not Shavuos celebrate the Giving of Torah at Sinai, which certainly took place on a specific date, much like Pesach celebrates the date of the Exodus? Don’t we say in the Shavuos prayers, “this festival of Bikkurim, time of the Giving of Torah”? Indeed, how can we possibly call Shavuos such when we celebrate it on the sixth of Sivan, whereas the actual Revelation took place on the seventh?

Our Sages tell us that a Jew must live every day of his life as if the Torah was given that very day. Far from mere mental imagery, Ramban (glosses to Sefer Hamitzvos, Shikchas Halavim) asserts that it is a positive commandment to live our entire life with our minds and hearts at the foot of Mount Sinai as the Revelation unfolded.

It seems clear from this commandment that the Revelation was not a one-time event which occured in time; it was a new dimension of existence under the aura of Godly revelation, which was merely launched on the seventh of Sivan into perpetual existence. Hence, celebrating the calendar date of 7 Sivan as the date of the Revelation would be inaccurate, for the Revelation took place no more on that day than on every other day following it for the next three thousand three hundred twenty-two years and counting.

What we can celebrate, instead, is the ability we received at Sinai to capture the Revelation for posterity. Whereas, prior to the Revelation, we were incapable of translating our brushes with God into lasting experiences which would keep us in His presence forever, at Sinai God offered us a God we could take home with us, so to speak.

This gift, however, is likewise not limited to any given calendar date. Whenever and wherever we find revelations of Godliness, we possess the ability to internalize those experiences so that they remain with us ad infinitum.

There is but one stipulation to this God-given gift- proper preparation. Wandering the streets of God’s world, we will inevitably bump into Him from time to time, yet if we do not condition ourselves to receive Him, He will never stay around long enough for us to invite Him into our lives forever. The flash of Godliness, sans a retaining mechanism built of sweat and toil, will quickly fizzle into oblivion.

For this reason, we celebrate the gift of the Revelation that we captured for eternity, not as a calendar date, but as the culmination of forty-nine Omer days during which we thoroughly prepared our souls to be worthy of receiving the God we were about to invite into our lives forever.

To celebrate the Giving of Torah is to celebrate our achieving the ability to receive Torah such that it would remain a part of us forever. It is not a commemoration of a one-time gift, but a reaffirmation of an eternal capacity we received all those years ago, to capture every spark of Godliness we encounter and inject it into our very souls. If we prepare ourselves properly, we will soon find our souls aflame with a burning fire of Godliness, built of millions of sparks which simply refuse to die down regardless of how much time has passed since they were first lit.

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