Shavous Dates: 2018: May 19 night- May 21.
Secrets of Shavuos – Torah for the Taking
The Gemara Shabbos sets forth a curious rule: One is not to give blood on Erev Yontiff (the day before Shavous), as a guard against giving blood on Erev Shavuos. The Gemara does us the favor of giving a reason for the concern before Shavuos, namely that there is an ‘evil spirit’ about at that time named ‘Tavuach’ – (Slaughter) – ready to decimate the nation of Israel if they do not receive the Torah.
One of the many possible questions we could raise on this knotted Gemara is – that seems plausible perhaps to some 3300 years ago when our Bubbies and Zaidies stood at the foot of Mount Sinai – but why is this ‘danger’ relevant to us, such that we encode a law regarding it.
The answer is too simple that we must pause on its profundity- the giving of the Torah is not a historical event, but rather a continual, current very real phenomenon. The cycle of the Jewish calendar teaches us that we are passing through the same stations each year, and every year we have the opportunity to grab from that same treasure house which was sent down on the original Shavuos, the faith and freedom of Pesach, the joy and peace of Sukkos, the repentance and purification of Yom Kippur, the courage and clarity of Channuka, the return and unification of Purim, and so with each Shabbos, and so forth. This is what we have been building up for during our counting of the Omer, to bring ourselves from the depths which we all found ourselves at Pesach, upwards to the Mountain where Heaven touched Earth.
With this understanding, we can look into another Gemara which discusses the preferred conduct of celebrating the holidays. Certain sages maintain that we should treat the day wholly for heaven, focused on learning and prayer, while others take a more human-centred approach, dedicating the day to feasting and socializing. When it comes to Shavuos however, that one is required to also indulge in the more Earthly pleasures.
At first this seems puzzling – of all the days we would conjecture to be fitting to be dedicated to learning, prayer and other lofty pursuits, certainly Shavuos would be a good wager. However, keeping in mind that the Torah is being given as if anew, each year to our nation as a whole, and to each person his portion, we must show Our Father in Heaven how much we want His Torah, and how delighted we are on the day of its giving.
(Another important reason why it is that Shavuos must also be celebrated with physical joys, is noted in the Gemara. The illustrious Rabbi Yosi, explains that he is joyfully preparing a very tender lamb for his meal, “for if not for the Torah, I would be just another Joe in the street”. He is teaching us that Torah was given to man for a reason, and that is because he can elevate and sanctify himself through it, and become connected to his own eternity, just as Rabbi Yosi is eternally enshrined in our chain of history through his greatness which he attained through study and fulfillment and internalization of Torah. It was precisely this argument that Moshe wielded to seize the Torah away from the angels; they felt that man was not worthy to be the bearers and expounders of the Word and Will of The Almighty, to which Moses reproved them demonstrating that the entire realm of mitzvahs relate to a corporeal being in a physical world. The Creator intentionally arranged this, in order that we, down here, would have a hope, a ladder, a path, to raise ourselves and our world up to our divine roots.
In contrast, other religions define and attain ‘holiness’, exclusively through rejection and abstention from the physical. We strive to utilize our inner and outer resources to best serve the Greater good, and not via self-deprivation or annihilation. The balance to use the world, without getting tangled and consumed in it is daunting, and that is why we do our best to grasp as much as we can of our Tree of Life, ‘our Light’ (as the Torah is called in Aramaic/Oral Tradition. )
In our prayers we call Shavuos “the time of giving of our Torah” – we don’t call it ‘the time of receiving of our Torah’, for we are dawning upon the point in our year when Hashem is handing His Torah out – but what is not for sure is whether we will do our jobs to get it. Let us all work and daven to receive as much Torah, Light and Life and Holiness as we can, during this once-a-year Torah-shopping-spree; for what we can get now, while the time is right, we won’t be able to get, even with greater effort and merit, the rest of the year.
Wishing you all a Good Shabbos and an unforgettable Shavuos,