An article I wrote about Shavuos appears at Religion News Service, here.
Category Archives: Shavuos
Shavuos – The Matter of Meaning
The average price paid to climb Mt. Everest – for permits, equipment and guides – is between $35,000 and $45,000. And hundreds have died in that exploit.
What impels people to undertake so expensive and dangerous a quest? A misguided search for meaning.
Philosophers argued about what ultimately motivates humans. Nietzsche said power; Freud, pleasure.
Both tapped into something real. The power to, through our choices, change our lives and history, is a manifestation of gevurah, “strength.” In Jewish eyes, though, that doesn’t mean subjugating others; rather, as Ben Zoma in Avos (4:1) defines it, “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature.
And Freud was on to something too; the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Not physical, but rather ultimate, pleasure: “basking in the radiance of the Shechinah.”
The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard was insightful. He wrote of the human “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve something truly meaningful as life’s ultimate goal.
Some imagine “meaning” in climbing Everest. Others envision meaningful accomplishment in meriting mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, for, say, the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls.
For those who recognize our divine mandate, though, the ring for which to reach is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos.
All good fortune to the Everest climbers.
Come Shavuos, we look to a different mountain.
© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Emor — Simple Jews
The Baitusim, a sect in Talmudic times often associated with the Tzedukim (or Sadducees), had a congenial approach to establishing the date of Shavuos, which the Torah describes as the fiftieth day from a particular point (Vayikra 23:15-21).
The Sinaic mesorah defines that starting point as the second day of Pesach (designated by the Torah as “the day after the Shabbos” – “Shabbos” here meaning the first day of the holiday), the day the omer sacrifice was brought. Thus, Shavuos could fall on any day of the week.
But the Baitusim seized on the Torah’s reference to that first day of counting as “the day after the Shabbos” as indicating that the fifty days must start after a literal “Shabbos,” on a Sunday, the first one after the omer, ensuring that Shavuos, too, would always fall on an Sunday.
A Baitusim spokesman defended his group’s position to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: “Moshe, our teacher, loved the Jews and… established [Shavuos] after Shabbos, so that the Jewish people would enjoy themselves for two days” (Menachos, 65a).
Hashem, he was asserting, certainly wanted His people to have a “long weekend” each summer.
An enticing thought, perhaps. But not what Hashem commanded. And Judaism is all about doing what He commands, whether it sits well with us or we think we have a better, “improved” idea. It isn’t our prerogative to “reform” divine will.
Our mandate is to be tamim, “simple,” “perfect,” “trusting.” It was, after all, our ancestors’ declaration of Na’aseh vinishma, “We will do and [only then endeavor to] hear [i.e.understand]” that earned us the Torah.
Which declaration, of course, took place, according to the mesorah, on Shavuos.
As Rava told a heretic who ridiculed his alacrity, “We Jews proceed with simple purity, as it says [in Mishlei 11:3], ‘The simplicity of the upright will guide them” (Shabbos 88b).
Notes the Shem MiShmuel: The “seven weeks” that are counted from Pesach to Shavuos are pointedly called sheva Shabbasos temimos – “seven perfect weeks.” Weeks, the word is hinting, for us to grow in what merited us the Torah, our temimus.
© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Behar – Don’t Serve Servants
“They are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:55).
Although the Talmud’s comment on the phrase “They are My servants” – “but not the servants of servants” (Bava Kamma 116b) – has a technical, halachic meaning, it also hints at a broader one.
In other words, not only does it say that a Jew cannot own another Jew, it also signals that Jews are not to indenture themselves to causes other than the Jewish mandate. Not to a political party, social cause or personality. A Jew’s exclusive ultimate role is to be a servant of Hashem.
Because the freedom we were divinely granted from Egyptian bondage was not what many consider “freedom” – libertinism, the loss of all fetters. It was a passage from being “servants to servants” – to Egyptians and Egyptian mores – to becoming servants of Hashem. As Moshe, in Hashem’s name, ordered Pharaoh: “Let my people go so that they may serve Me” (Shemos 9:1).
The Hebrew word for freedom, cherus, the Mishna (Avos, 6:2) notes, can be vowelled to render charus, “etched,” as the Aseres Hadibros were on the luchos. “The only free person,” the Mishna concludes, “is the one immersed in Torah.”
True freedom doesn’t mean being retired and moneyed, lying on a beach with sunshine on one’s face and a cold beer within reach, without a care or beckoning task.
In the words of Iyov, “Man is born to toil” (5:7). True freedom, counterintuitively, comes from hard work. Applying ourselves to a higher purpose liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and is what can bring true meaning to our lives.
Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote:
“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.
“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”
A timely metaphor, as we progress from Pesach, the holiday of our release from bondage, to Shavuos, the day we entered servitude to the Divine. And when, like on Pesach, we will sing the words of Hallel.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Klal Yisrael’s Second Marriage
It’s intriguing. Three words are used to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim (yetziah, geirush and shilu’ach; see, for examples, Shemos, 20:2, 11:1 and 8:17).
And they are the very same words used as well to refer to… divorce (see Devarim 24:2, 24:1 and Vayikra 21:7).
The metaphor seemingly hinted at by that fact is that Klal Yisrael became “divorced” from Mitzrayim, to which it had been, in a way, “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor.
But the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Mitzrayim is followed by a new metaphorical matrimony. Because that is the pointed imagery of the event that, mere weeks later, followed Yetzias Mitzrayim: ma’amad Har Sinai.
Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to that event (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros. And not only does the navi Hoshea (2:21, 22) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (vi’airastich li…, familiar to men as the pesukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women, from actually studying Nevi’im).
But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai: The chuppah, say various seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.
In fact, the bircas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai. “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth,” rather than “made holy” like “mekadesh haShabbos”).
The metaphor is particularly poignant when one considers the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.
It is in Devarim (24, 2) and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband. The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, strikingly, is the one forbidding Jews to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16). Like the woman described in Devarim, we cannot return, ever, to our first “husband.”
More striking still is the light thereby shed on the confounding Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah.
The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by Divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by the individuals – “lifi ma’asov” – “according to his merits.”
The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree determines“first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to second ones.
The implications, if intended as such regarding individuals, are, to say the least, unclear. But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the “national” level – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage-metaphor – provide a startling possibility.
Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage,” to Mitzrayim, was indeed divinely decreed, foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”
And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and permanent one, was the result of the choice Hashem made – and our ancestors made, by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Mitzri society and culture – and their willingness to follow Moshe into a dangerous desert. And, ultimately, when they said “Na’aseh vinishma,” after which they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Har Sinai.
And a fascinating coup de grâce: The Gemara in Sotah referenced above describes the challenge of finding the proper mates. Doing so, says Rabbah bar bar Ḥana in Rabi Yoḥanan’s name, is kasheh k’krias Yam Suf – “as difficult as the splitting of the Sea.”
© 2022 Ami Magazine
Yisro – Consecrated Coercion
Last week, I offered the idea, based on the three Hebrew words, shiluach, yetziah and geirush, used to describe both the exodus account and a marriage’s dissolution, of Yetzias Mitzrayim as Klal Yisrael’s “divorce” from Egypt and Har Sinai, as its subsequent “betrothal” to Hashem.
The latter image, in fact, is clear from the Midrash Rabbah (Acharei Mos 20:10), which comments on the words “the day of his marriage” in Shir HaShirim (3:11): This, comments the Midrash, is Har Sinai.
And from the Mechilta D’Rabi Yishmael on Yisro, which quotes Rabi Yehuda as explaining that “Hashem from Sinai came” (Devarim 33:2) conveys the image of “a groom going out to receive his bride.”
The chuppah at a Jewish wedding recalls (“bisachtis hahar,” Shemos 19:17) the mountain lifted over the head of the people at Sinai; the candles borne by parents, the lightning; the groom walking forward to greet his bride, the aforementioned Mechilta.
And the end of the birchas eirusin at a Jewish wedding refers to Hashem as having “sanctified His people Israel through chuppah and kiddushin.” Not “with the mitzvos of chuppah and kiddushin, but through those things themselves – namely, at Sinai.
But the mountain above the people is also understood by Chazal as a threat. Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says that “Hashem overturned the mountain above the Jews like a barrel and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, good; but if not, there will be your burial’” (Shabbos 88a).
Although that intimidation was mitigated later in history, when, in the time of Esther and Mordechai, the people re-accepted the Torah entirely willingly [ibid], what is the significance of the coercion in the first place?
The answer may lie in Devarim 22: 28-29, where the law is set down in the case of a man who forces himself upon a young woman. He is fined the sum of fifty silver coins but also must (if the woman wishes) marry her and, unlike in any other marriage, cannot ever divorce her.
The implication for Hashem’s relationship with Klal Yisrael should be self-evident.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Galus and Gastronomy
Some people, like pollster James Zogby, see Israeli offerings of hummus and babaganoush as a form of “cultural genocide.” And cookbook author Reem Kassis says that the marketing of hummus as an Israeli food makes her feel that she doesn’t exist.
I can’t say whether hummus was originally an Arab or Israeli delicacy, only that I enjoy it with a bit of olive oil and paprika on a pita. But I have what to say about Jewish cuisine and what it teaches us. You can read what here.
Shavuos – Happy Anniversary
In contrast to Pesach’s matzos and Sukkos’ sukkos and arba minim, Shavuos is unique among the Shalosh Regalim for its lack of any positive ritual-commandment.
That may have to do with the holiday’s association with Mattan Torah.
Because that experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, the acceptance of Hashem’s Torah and His will. Hashem was the actor; our ancestors’ response was to receive, to submit to the Creator.
Mattan Torah is famously compared by various Midrashim to a wedding, with Hashem the groom and His people the bride. (Many chasunah minhagim reflect that metaphor: the chuppah recalls the mountain held over the Jews’ heads; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the shattering of the luchos.)
And just as a Jewish marriage is legally effected in the kallah’s simple choice to accept the wedding ring or other gift the groom offers, so did Klal Yisrael at Har Sinai create its eternal bond with the Creator by accepting His gift of gifts.
And so, a positive, active mitzvah for the day would arguably be in dissonance with the day’s central theme of receptivity.
Shavuos’ identification with our collective identity as a symbolic bride, moreover, may well have something to do, too, with the fact that the holiday’s hero is… a heroine: Rus, whose story not only concerns her own wholehearted acceptance of the Torah but culminates in her own marriage.
It isn’t fashionable these days to celebrate passivity or submission, even in those words’ most basic and positive senses. But Judaism, unlike fashion, is eternal.
© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Love, Hate and the Holocaust
Considering that a survey last year revealed that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was, a large and impressive Holocaust exhibit would seem to merit only praise.
And praise the “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” exhibit currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan has garnered in abundance. It has received massive news coverage in both print and electronic media.
First shown in Madrid, where it drew some 600,000 visitors, the exhibit will be in New York into January before moving on.
Among many writers who experienced the exhibit and wrote movingly about its power was reporter and author Ralph Blumenthal. In the New York Times, he vividly described the artifacts that are included in the exhibit, which includes many items the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland lent for a fee to the Spanish company Musealia, the for-profit organizer of the exhibition.
Mr. Blumenthal wrote that the museum, within sight of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, had to alter its floor plan to make room for large-scale displays like a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a Deutsche Reichsbahn railway cattle car parked on the sidewalk, placed there by a crane.
Inside, among the 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings from Auschwitz, are concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of the camp’s electrified perimeter, prisoners’ uniforms, three-tier bunks where ill and starving prisoners slept two or more to a billet, and, “particularly chilling,” an adjustable steel chaise for medical experiments on human beings.
There is a rake for ashes and there are heavy iron crematory latches, fabricated by the manufacturer Topf & Sons There is a fake showerhead used to persuade doomed victims of the Nazis, ym”s, that they were entering a bathhouse, not a death chamber about to be filled with the lethal gas Zyklon B.
And personal items, like a child’s shoe with a sock stuffed inside it.
“Who puts a sock in his shoe?” asks Mr. Blumenthal. “Someone,” he explains poignantly, “who expects to retrieve it.”
Another essayist, this one less impressed by the exhibit – at least in one respect –is novelist and professor Dara Horn, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature.
Writing in The Atlantic, Ms. Horn approached the exhibit carrying in her mind the recent memory of a swastika that had been drawn on a desk in her children’s New Jersey public middle school and the appearance of six more of the Nazi symbols in an adjacent town. “Not a big deal,” she writes. But the scrawlings provided a personal context for her rumination on her museum visit.
In her essay, titled “Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor: The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right – and fixes nothing,” she recalls her visit to Auschwitz as a teenager participating in the March of the Living, and reflects on Holocaust museums, which she characterizes as promoting the idea that “People would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”
And the current exhibit, she notes, ends with a similar banality. At the end of the tour, she reports, “onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another.”
To do justice to Ms. Horn’s reaction would require me to reproduce her essay in full. But a snippet: “In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities… Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.”
“That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love,” she writes further, “is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-Semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.”
Those sentences alone would make the essay worth reading. And the writer’s perceptivity is even more in evidence when she writes:
“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented –have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world – the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”
Har Sinai is called that, Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna explain, because it is the mountain from which sinah, hatred, descended to the nations of the world. (Shabbos 89a). One understanding of that statement is precisely what Ms. Horn contends. Although her essay appeared the week before Shavuos, she didn’t intend it to have a Yom Tov theme.
But in fact it did.
© 2019 Hamodia
Mountains to Climb
Ever find yourself in a long “10 items or less” supermarket line waiting for the cashier to check the price of kumquats for the lady who apparently considers all her fruits and vegetables to count as a single item?
Well, even if you have, you might compare your experience with the recent one of the hundreds of people bundled up in minus-20-degree weather waiting patiently in line on a narrow path more than 26,000 feet above sea level to reach the summit of Nepal’s Mount Everest. And, in the supermarket, you weren’t likely laden with an oxygen tank – a necessity at that altitude – whose contents were steadily diminishing.
What’s more, you probably didn’t have to navigate past the body of someone who died while waiting on line before you.
What makes people do things like climb what they consider the world’s highest peak (which in fact is probably Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan)?
After all, according to mountain guide Adrian Ballinger, “humans just really aren’t meant to exist” in such places. “Even when using bottled oxygen,” he explains, “there’s only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down. So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam above 26,000 feet … the consequences can be really severe.”
Indeed. At this writing, 11 people are known to have breathed their last on treks to or from the summit of Mount Everest this year. The quest has claimed the lives of almost 300 people since 1923.
I suspect that those who spend considerable amounts of time, effort and money – the average price paid in 2017, for permits, equipment and guides, to climb Everest was approximately $45,000 – are impelled, ultimately if subtly, by the human search for meaning.
Nineteenth century secular philosophers argued about what ultimate essential goal motivates human beings. The German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche contended that it was power; another German, Sigmund Freud, that it was pleasure.
Both tapped into something real, although they were, like all secular thinkers, blind men trying to figure out an elephant. That Hashem has granted humanity bechirah, free will, and that we can, as a result, actually accomplish – change the courses of our lives and, ultimately, of history – is a power unparalleled in all of creation. So the “will to power” that, unfortunately, mostly yields bullies and tyrants is, in its most refined expression, the exercise of gevurah, “strength,” that Ben Zoma defines as “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature (Avos 4:1).
And Freud was on to something too, as the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the most basic ideal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Ultimate pleasure, that is – the pleasure of “enjoying the radiance of the Shechinah.” But the German secularist, of course, couldn’t see past the temporal, ephemeral yearnings of this world to the ta’anug ha’amiti, the “singularly genuine pleasure,” of the next.
Which brings us to the third nineteenth century conception of human motivation, that of the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote of the “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve some truly meaningful, ultimate goal in life.
His approach was popularized by a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, whose 1946 book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was deemed by a Library of Congress survey to be one of “the ten most influential books in the United States.” By the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.
There indeed seems to be an innate human aspiration to achieve something “meaningful,” to aim at some larger-than-oneself “accomplishment,” no matter how strangely some people may define that for themselves. For one person, such meaning may entail achieving a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. For others, the grand vision is the scaling of a mountain, even – especially? – if it entails danger.
For others still, namely those of us who recognize our Creator and His will for us, the accomplishment to reach for is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos. At certain times in history, aiming for that goal also entailed great danger. In our own times, baruch Hashem, it does not, although it may not offer a simple, obstacle-free and easy path.
As for us, well, while we may wish the Everest climbers every good fortune, we’ll be focusing in coming days on a very different mountain.
Have a happy and meaningful Shavuos.
© 2019 Hamodia