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Parshas Bamidbar/Shavuos - Some Thoughts on Receiving the Torah
This Shabbos is Parshas Bamidbar and, beginning Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), we begin the celebration of Shavuos, which we lovingly refer to as “Zman Matan Torseinu” – the Time of the Giving of Our Torah.
Since the last days of Pesach, we have been ‘out-of-sync’ with our brothers (and sisters) in Eretz Yisrael re: the Torah readings: When we were reading the Torah portion for our second-day Yom Acharon shel Pesach (that was on Shabbos, April 11), acheinu b’Eretz Yisrael jumped ahead to read Parshas Shemini. But now, we all must be on the same parshah page because the parshah which always precedes Shavuos (whether in Israel or the Diaspora) is Parshas Bamidbar (see below). It’s a good feeling to know that worldwide Jewry is once again on the same page regarding our Torah and Avodah in our yearly review and reading of the Torah HaKedosha.
On that preliminary note, here are some additional thoughts on the all-important concept of receiving the Torah:
Making Oneself Like a Midbar: Chazal tell us that the reason why Parshas Bamidbar always precedes the holiday of Matan Torah is because there is a critically important message here: In order to receive the Torah, a person must make themselves like a midbar – like a wilderness that is barren and empty and pristine, like a slate that has been wiped clean. Shavuos is the time when the Creator gave the Torah to His people; subsequently, it is also the time when we, the Jewish people, become the ones to receive the Torah (not just at the time of the Revelation, thousands of years ago – but every year at this time, as we ‘cycle’ through the time of this particular moed, a time of ‘meeting’ with G-d). In order to be receivers of Torah, then we must become appropriate vessels so that we can properly obtain/contain this precious commodity.
This well-known saying of Chazal – that in order to receive the Torah, one must make themselves like a midbar – has been discussed and examined by many: We cannot come to learn the concepts inherent in Torah if we are like vessels which are already ‘filled-up’ with pre-conceived knowledge. Only if we are intellectually honest enough to clear the cerebral decks, so to speak, will be able to learn from our teachers and from the holy Text that which is essential to know. This is hard to do, but it is a necessary first step. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should throw our critical thinking out the window. But, it does mean that when we come across a halachic or hashkafic idea that “I’ve never seen/heard before!” we should be prepared to attempt to understand and/or incorporate that idea into practice or purview without prejudice.
We have learned in Shemos that when Moshe Rabbeinu was inside the Egyptian metropolis, he was unable to communicate with G-d; rather, he had to ‘step-away’ before he could decipher what G-d needed to tell him. The frantic pace of modern-day living and all its distractions can effectively prevent a person from breaching even the most basic concepts of Torah. We need to learn to step back from the mundane and to turn off those devices which are always demanding our attention and distracting us from our spiritual goals. We need to make ourselves more like a midbar as a prerequisite to becoming effective receivers of the Torah.
Making a Step-by-Step Program: We know that the moed of Matan Torah is inexorably linked to the Counting of the Omer; that is to say, the day/date that Shavuos falls upon is not specified in the Torah by reference to a specific month•day (as are all other Biblical holidays), but rather, after counting forty-nine days (beginning on the day following Yom Tov Rishon shel Pesach), then the fiftieth day is Shavuos. The holiday of the Giving/Receiving of the Torah is linked to a Counting process.
There are many things we can learn from this, but one p’shat is that in order to receive the Torah properly, we must ‘count-up’ to that event. Each day of the Omer is a step towards the Revelation at Sinai; each day is marked with its own special blessing (“Blessed are You … Who commanded us on the Counting of the Omer”); and each day of counting implies a step upwards towards that goal.
This idea is reinforced by the application of ‘sefiros’ to the days and weeks of the counting process. I am far from understanding the intricacies of kabbalah, but I do understand (on a basic level) that the sefiros are different levels of closeness to G-d. We see in many siddurim that the first week of Counting is associated with a lower level/sefirah of closeness to G-d (i.e. chessed), and that each ensuing week the sefirah levels continue to rise, so that by the seventh week (having passed through gevurah, tiferes, netzach, hod, and yesod), we arrive at the exalted level of malchus (being close to the King). Not only that, but within each week, each day is assigned one of these sefirah levels, so that we have a calculus-like incremental approach to Matan Torah, rising slightly higher with each passing day of the Omer count.
Here’s the take-home message: In order to receive the Torah properly, we must prepare ourselves through a step-by-step program – otherwise, how will be able to appreciate what is contained in this special Gift?
Each one of us must set aside time for learning Torah every day. The key to this program of learning Torah is to set aside an inviolable time for learning Torah, she’yee’yeh chok v’lo ya’avor. It matters less how much time is set aside for this learning seder; it matters most that this learning seder is always observed without fail. Five minutes a day, ten minutes, an hour, two hours … determine what kind of program is realistic for you, and then be sure to stick to it.
One day, a very rich man came to see Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a for a bracha. This particular person had a reputation for philanthropy and for supporting many yeshivos with his financial largesse, and he was treated with kid gloves and copious respect from all who crossed his path. When he entered Rav Chaim’s study, the people who brought him were hoping that Rav Chaim would accord him honor for all the tzedakah he gave. However, after being introduced to the wealthy many, Rav Chaim looked him in the eye and said, “Tell me, do you have the opportunity to learn Torah yourself? After all, that’s really the main purpose of our lives.” The man hemmed and hawed, and Rav Chaim understood that he himself was not involved in learning on a regular basis. “You have to find time to learn,” Rav Chaim told him decisively. At the end of his visit to Eretz Yisrael, the wealthy man told those who had accompanied him that of all his visits to important people, he had most enjoyed his encounter with Rav Chaim, who had seen fit to “hit him with the truth with no regard to the ‘political-correctness’ of the situation” [from Inside Their Homes, Nachman Seltzer, Shaar Press, 2014].
Adhering to a learning schedule is not only demanding and difficult for the baal teshuvah, but also to those who are already used to learning over many years. Just as the novice must now make more time for spiritual development, so must a talmid chacham add on to their own learning program from time to time. What better occasion is there for doing this then at the moed of Matan Torah?
Praying for Success: Section 110 in Orach Chaim details some of the laws of davening “on the way” when traveling and also details the laws of tefillas haderech. It is interesting to note that the final se’if (paragraph) in this siman (110:8) tells us that one who enters into a Bais Midrash (House of Learning) should pray to Hashem that he should not stumble in his learning and that he should be successful in his efforts in understanding and applying what he has learned [see the Mishnah Berurah there, se’ifei katan 34-36].
It is so interesting that we see the source for this prayer (for success in learning) underneath the heading of “one who travels on the way”! What is life if not for one great journey, whose main purpose is to learn and grow unstintingly in Torah? And, just as one prays for success when going out on a physical journey, so one should pray for success when in the midst of our lifelong spiritual journey; we realize that only with s’yata d’Shemaya will be able to reach our goal.
“Please Hashem, our G-d, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people, the family of Israel. May we – and our offspring, and the offspring of Your people, the House of Israel … all of us – know Your Name and study Your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are you, hashem, Who teaches Torah to His people Israel” [from the Shacharis Service, Blessing of the Torah].
What is This Fear?
What is this fear ?1 One shouldn't stand in the place reserved for him, where he stands in counsel with the elders, with his friends, or in the place reserved for him to pray, nor sit in his special place for sitting in the house. One shouldn't contradict what he says, nor corroborate his words in his presence, even by saying ''you have to agree with what father says'' To what extent should one fear them ? If the son was wearing fine clothes and sitting at the head of a meeting, and his father or mother came and tore his clothes and hit him on the head, and spat on his face, he shouldn't insult them, or be upset in their presence, or show anger towards them, rather be silent, and be afraid of the King, the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, who commanded him in this. However, he can claim against them in court for any monetary loss. (KSA 143:2)