This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi’s , Yisschar Frand, Noach Isaac Oelbaum, Akiva Tatz, Paysach Krohn, Yitzchak Aminov, Jay Shapiro, , Yossi Bilus, Yoav Babachanov, Dr. Abba Goldman
Everywhere one turns, they can smell and see, the breathtaking scent and colorful sight of flowers because this time of the year, which corresponds with the holiday of Shavuot, plant life is in full bloom.
We, humans, identify things through association, the start of the Baseball season with the holiday of Pesach, fresh start of a new year – Rosh Hashana, flowers and cheesecakes are part and parcel with the holiday of Shavuot.
Aside from the aesthetic beauty and the extra pounds that one enjoys on this holiday, when one focuses on the spiritual part of Shavuot, there is a glaring and obvious question about this Yom Tov. Why is it called Shavuot?
The word – Shavuot – means “weeks.” It marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot.
The main event of the holiday was commemorating the giving of the Torah which was a far-reaching spiritual event-one that touched the essence of the Jewish soul for all times. Our sages have compared it to a wedding between G-d and the Jewish people. Shavuot also means “oaths,” for on this day G-d swore eternal devotion to us, and we in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to Him.
However, if we had to pick a good name for the holiday of Shavuot, it would seem like there is a much better name for the holiday: Simchat Torah! Why not? We received the Torah on Shavuot. We celebrate that event — Simchat Torah! What could be a more logical name for this holiday? “Torah he chayenu-Torah is our life” Hey!! That’s another good name for the holiday. We received the Torah on that day so isn’t it appropriate to have Torah in the heading?
It seems like one is ordering deli at a Chinese restaurant. The main event should be incorporated in the title and here it’s not.
In addition, the Torah never refers to Shavuot by a particular calendar date as it does with all other holidays. Passover is described as the 15th of Nissan, Sukkot – the 15th of Tishrei, and so on. Yet, Shavuot is mentioned as “seven weeks or 49 days after Passover.” The Torah implies that if theoretically no one would count the seven weeks, Shavuot would not take place that year. Shavuot can only exist when and if the counting preparations have occurred. Why is this so?
Intriguingly, the answer lies in what we, the world, perceive as being sacred, and identifies us the most – our name. “Can’t mess with our name” we cry and point to the privacy laws. How dare they?! The name is our essence! We spent much time in naming a child. The name of something – defines it. What interesting is how Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch compares the Hebrew word for ‘name’ (shem) with the Hebrew word for ‘there’ (sham). A name defines an object. It tells us where it is and of what its essence consists. The name “shem” goes there “sham”; it’s one in the same. We see “shem” is on the move. Where is it going? That depends on its name. Nevertheless it’s in motion till it runs out of gas. Then we die.
We learn: Avraham had ten nisyonot – 10 tests based on his name. The root of nissayon – test is “nasa” – to elevate. Apparently, Avraham
So it seems, man is constantly on the go and that “go” – “sham” is spent on preparation. What is important is that the preparation should be allocated through the guidelines of the Torah. The holiday of Shavuot and the weeks before defines life’s concept. Life is the embodiment of preparation. We learned the famous Midrash: “we are in a corridor waiting to get in to the grand ball room. Remarkably, we learn: one receives credit not just with accomplishments but also the time spent. His preparation counts. The seven weeks preceding Shavuot is part in parcel with the holiday, for it is the essence of life, similarly to a name, where there is a mission. There are challenges daily and man perfects his name every step of the way. Interestingly, when someone is sick, a name is added, perhaps, because he exhausted his name. With a new name added, he now has a reason to live for he has to work on the challenges that the new name brings.
The highly competitive Jewelry business is such that we often, I say “we” for I was once a part of it, have to run from office to office, building to building to receive the merchandise that we need or approach clients to “make the sale”. Manny Polack is one unique individual who allocated his time wisely, leaving not one moment wasted. It took Manny about seven years to finish the entire six volumes of the Mishna. He accomplished that feat by studying the mishnayot while waiting for the elevators between buildings! There is a considerable amount of down time – waiting for elevators. I often dreamed if we can just beam up or down to our destination like they do in the fantasy science fiction show – Star Trek. Manny was able to take advantage and use that wasted time wisely.
The antithesis of allocating
The Torah quotes an interesting dialogue between Yaakov and the Angel of Eisav, whom he fought with. The Angel asked to be released because it was morning and he had to go back to heaven. Yaakov responded that he would not release the Angel until he gave Yaakov a blessing. The Angel asked Yaakov what his name was and, when Yaakov answered, then told him that he would no longer be known as Yaakov, he would from here on be called Yisrael. Then Yaakov turned the tables, and asked the Angel what his name was. The Angel responded, “Why are you asking me what my name is?”
This is a very strange dialogue, to say the least. The Angel’s response was not “I do not need to tell you my name” or “I am not allowed to tell you my name.” Nor was it “I do not have a name.” The Angel merely turned the tables and asked Yaakov, “How will you benefit from knowing my name?”
Why does Yaakov want to know his name? And what does the Guardian Angel of Eisav mean when he says “Why are you asking my name?”
Rashi alludes to these questions. Rashi explains the Angel’s response as “we Angels have no set names — our names are dependent on the current mission for which we are being sent.”
This answer, however, does not fully suffice. The Angel in question DID have a definite mission. He must have had a name associated with that mission. We in fact know who he was. He was Sama-el, the archangel of Eisav. We continue to deal with him up until this very day. He has one function — he is the instigator against the Jewish people. He is the embodiment of the Satan. He has one task in which he has been engaged in throughout the millennia. So why did he refuse to reveal his name to Yaakov? What did he mean when he asked, “Why are you asking my name?”
Yaakov told the Angel “We have had a battle and I know that this will be an ongoing battle. Explain your essence to me. What are you all about? Let me know your “name” – Yaakov was looking for the key to pass on to his children and grandchildren throughout the generations — information regarding how to deal with the archangel of Eisav in this ongoing struggle. “Tell me the nature of our fight,” Yaakov asked. By disclosing his name, Yaakov would be able to learn the essence of the angel. What would make him tic?
The Angel’s answer to this question was “it does not help to know my name, because I am not just one thing that you will have to conquer.” The Angel alluded to the fact that throughout the generations he would be changing. Sometimes, he would be Hellenism. Sometimes, he would be Socialism. Sometimes, he would be Communism. All the tests and all the philosophies and all the battles that we have had to fight throughout the generations are embodied in this one Angel. He could, in fact, not define his essence for Yaakov because the nature of his essence (which represents our struggle with Eisav) keeps changing. Sometimes, it pushes us from one direction; sometimes it pushes us from the opposite direction. It is always a different fight.
There is a dispute in the Talmud [Chullin 91a] whether the Angel appeared to Yaakov like an idolater or like a Torah scholar. Which is it? A Torah scholar looks a lot different than an idolater! What did he look like?
The answer is that he could be both. There is no one definition and there is no one battle plan. We can never say that we have conquered the archangel of Eisav because he can always rear his ugly head in a totally different manifestation in the future.
This is the archangel of Eisav. “It does not help for me to tell you my name. There is no battle plan. I cannot tell you this is who I am because I am ever changing.”
Perhaps, he did not disclose the name for he knew Yaakov would indeed discover his true essence and prevent him from infiltrating the Jewish nation. Eisav’s Angel, no matter how complex can be defined because every name, its essence, has a destination.
Many years ago, I read an interesting article regarding Governor John Connolly’s wife – Nellie, who was one of the passengers in the car where President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy instilled a vibrant fresh energy in the American people. He inspired the nation to become doers not takers.
“We were all in our 40’s,” she recalled of the events leading to the assassination “We didn’t think the world owed us a living. We thought we owed the world, and we were ready to charge.”
We, Jews, have the Torah that is G-d’s gift to us and through its guidance we’ll be able to use our valuable gift of taking charge and go through, not just the seven weeks of preparation, but also life’s challenges, making use of our wonderful name properly.
Archive for Shavuot
The scripture (Parshat Yitro 19:1-25) describes in detail the monumental event of the Jewish people receiving the Torah. But one may raise his eyebrow as to where our ancestors were camped when the revelation occurred. The literal translation of where they were standing was, under the mountain. We assumed the Torah is indicating they were near the mountain, but Rashi, the mainstream commentary on the Torah, seems to believe that G-d raised the mountain over the heads of the Israelites and threatened them ‘if you do not except the Torah I’m going to drop the mountain and kill you now!’
Presumably, this seems to be contradicting to what we were led to believe, so proudly,’NA’ASSE VE NISHMA’; meaning we will accept the Torah so blindly that we will do the commandments first, and receive the explanations later. All the other nations probed ‘what’s in it?’ and then rejected it; however, our ancestors embraced it. ‘Hey! We agreed on the conditions without even looking at the contract, so why is G- d forcing us for no reason? ‘
Rabbi Jay Shapiro, one of my mentors, quotes Rav Eliyahu Lapian’s parable and explanation on the contradiction. I think this parable is really cool. Back in the days, there was a king that was very popular and loved by all. He had an important meeting cross-country and the optimal form of transportation was the royal train. It was a three-day trip, with planned designated stops all throughout the country. Towards the end of his route to the meeting, the royal train pulls into this town. It seemed like the townspeople were hungrily ready for his arrival. Banners were hanging on the rafters of the train station with the words ‘WE LOVE YOU KING’; the band was playing his favorite song in between a presentation by the second grade choir of its prestigious school; the clowns were juggling; the hot dog stand was full.
All were waiting to see the Majesty King; the enthusiastic noise was getting more intense. After fifteen minutes, a guard emerges and made an announcement. ‘The King loves you all but he had a long day and he’s trying to get some sleep; he has a major conference tomorrow and he would appreciate some quiet.’ After he returned back to the train the crowd continued the noise. ‘WE LOVE YOU KING!’ they proclaimed showing more of their intense love. The band played louder; the juggler added another ball; more hotdogs and Marino’s ices were added. A little while later, a guard emerged from the train, this time slightly agitated and a bit more firm, ‘We ask you nicely, the King has a very important meeting tomorrow and needs his sleep. Please refrain from noise’. The guard disappeared back into the train presumably satisfied that his words made an impression. But that did not stop the crowd; they anticipated this day for a while and were eager to show their love and affection to the king.
Ten minutes later six guards appeared on the high platform next to the locomotive, carrying submachine guns (they had machine guns in those days? No, I actually altered the story a bit to bring home the point). The head goon with the dark sunglasses spoke up, ‘Whoever makes another sound will be shot’. As a result of these frightening words, one can hear a pin drop among the three thousand well-wishers.
Rav Lapian asks, ‘Do they still love their king?’ The answer is yes, but now they fear him as well as love him. If there would be no fear, the important mission would not have been accomplished properly, even though the right intentions were at heart.
In order for us to function as proper Jews and to adhere to his laws correctly, progressively and efficiently, one has to incorporate a little fear as well as the love that one dearly possesses for Him, or else there will be total chaos. A person may eat pig and say ‘I appreciate the food G d has giving me’. There is an expression, which is used frequently ‘I love G d in my heart and I’ll show it my way’. This is considered inappropriate; there has to be rules and they have to be followed. For example, if one violates Shabbat he will pay the consequences. Logically, it makes sense to have law and order, or religion will be a free for all.
The word Torah means “instruction” or “guide.” The Torah guides our every step and move through its 613 mitzvahs. The word mitzvah means both “commandment” and “connection.” Through the study of Torah and fulfillment of mitzvahs, we connect ourselves and our environment to G-d. G-d’s purpose in creating the world is that we sanctify all of creation, imbuing it with holiness and spirituality.
On the holiday of Shavuot, the entire Jewish nation heard from G-d the Ten Commandments. The next day Moses went up to Mount Sinai, where he was taught by G-d the rest of the Torah-both the Written and Oral Laws-which he then transmitted to the entire nation.
We are approaching the holiday of Shavuot. As one is familiar with the counting of the Omer, every day we refine a different character trait. So by the time we reach matan Torah – the receiving of the Torah – we will be in a perfect state, although nobody’s perfect but you know what I mean – perfect as can be. Baruch Hashem, we are all good Jews that have worked on ourselves to a great extent. We do not lie, cheat, talk bad about other people; we do not hurt people’s feelings, lose our patience, etc. We just have to fine tune our character just a bit and we’ll be okay.
However, some of us have a perception that if one does not lie, they’re free and clear to pursue their goals ruthlessly. Some of their ways of getting what they want is done through deception. They are clever and are careful to follow everything according to halacha – the letter of the law – without violating one’s iota.
Rabbi Akiva Grunblatt, one of the Rosh Yeshiva’s of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva, conveyed these two stories which will bring home the point of deception.
The Gemara relates a story where one Jew sues another for money in which he never paid back. The defendant comes to court limping with a cane. The judge calls the two up to his chambers where he asks the defendant, “Did you return the money that you owe?” The defendant, who was grimacing and clearly in pain, asked the person standing closest to him – who happened to be the accuser – to hold his cane while he make an adjustment in his brace. Then he proceeded to tell the Judge, “Your Honor, maybe the accuser had a lapse of memory, but I swear I returned the money I owe him.” Upon hearing the defendant’s testimony, the Judge turns to the accuser and says, “He swore he returned the money. Unless, you have substantial proof, which apparently you don’t, this case is closed.” The accuser was so upset, he took the defendant’s cane, which he was still holding, and banged it against the railing in the chambers where it cracked open. Lo and behold, the money that he owed was placed in the cane. It seems like the defendant deliberately gave the cane with the owed money to the accuser when asked if he returned it. In actuality he did, for a moment. This is a clear case of deception.
Rabbi Grunblatt, who was at one point a high school principal in a Chofetz Chaim branch in Miami, Florida, relates a story involving construction work in the front of the building of the Yeshiva, in which they finally were able to scrape some money together. The workers placed a sign, ‘do not enter’ where they had just put the finishing touches of the wet tender cement. They assumed that by the morning, the cement will be dry and the sign will be removed. However, boys will be boys and with high school boys never-the-less, some mishap is inevitable. Apparently, there were some students who decided to carve their initials on the wet pavement. The accused students were called to the principal’s office the next day where all but one confessed to the mishap. The one student, like the others, was asked if he carved his initials on the pavement. The student paused briefly before answering, “No, I did not put my initials on the pavement.” Rabbi Grunblatt who caught the pause, realized there was a technicality issue, but played along and let him go. He figured he would let the issue simmer a bit for a few days as the other students were doing their after school punishment assignment. A few days later, the boy was called back to Rabbi Grunblatt’s office after complaints arose from the other boys as to why he didn’t get his punishment. “Apparently, the other boys seem to think you’re getting off the hook. Did you carve you initials in the pavement?” The boy answered back “No.” Rabbi Grunblatt then asked him, “Did you carve someone else’s initials?” The boy didn’t answer. “Whose initials did you carve into the pavement?” The boy answered, “Rabbi Mandel.”
People can go on their entire life deceiving others. In many incidents, though, they might not have transgressed any laws. However, there is a moral and higher standard that we Jews should live by. After all, the world looks at us as we are G-d’s chosen people. So we have some big shoes to fill, especially, when we have the Torah. Perhaps if we would be a little more sensitive about deception, we might clear our hearts and feel pure and not feel, “Hey man, I pulled the wool over him.” That feeling taints the heart.