Shavuot: always receiving
The year was 1935, and the Spanish government was making elaborate plans to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s birth, seemingly a great honour and proud moment for Jews everywhere.
CHIEF RABBI DR WARREN GOLDSTEIN
Yet, while many Jews around the world welcomed the initiative and prepared celebrations of their own, some had reservations. These concerns were addressed to the leading Torah sage of the time, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. Here is his extraordinary response:
“We do not need to commemorate the Rambam’s birth, for he lives on wherever teachers and students discuss his words; his teachings upon which we meditate every day are his eternal remembrance. This has been an everyday occurrence for many generations – the wellsprings have not ceased to this day.”
Stamps and statues. Plaques and paintings. Buildings and bridges. Google Doodles. These are the traditional ways we commemorate the great people of the past. And the 1935 Spanish government sought to celebrate the legacy of the great Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, in much the same way. But we Jews aren’t in the habit of memorialising our leaders and teachers.
Rav Chaim Ozer’s objection was based on the fact that we live with the Rambam – with his writings and teachings – every day. His philosophical ideas and halachic rulings form part of our collective Jewish consciousness. To commemorate an 800-year anniversary is to live in the past. Torah is about living in the here and now. The Rambam is not a historic relic; he is a figure of the present.
What, then, is our approach to history? Jewish history is rich and replete with important events. The Torah is filled with mitzvot (commandments) that are a remembrance of the past. Our holy days, the chaggim, are linked to historical events. And yet, there is tension between the past and the present. The Torah is very much about how we live life today. It seems to be rooted in both the present and the past.
This vignette about the Rambam provides a window into understanding the Torah’s approach to history. We do more than remember the fact that the exodus from Egypt took place – we relive that liberation. The Rambam himself codifies – based on the Talmud – that a person is obliged in every generation to see themselves as if they had personally gone out of Egypt. And it’s not just once a year. We live by the exodus daily – by its messages of faith in G-d, of the importance of freedom and of resisting tyranny, and of dedicating that freedom to something greater than ourselves.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, quoting from the writings of our sages, says Jewish time is not linear, but cyclical; that every year, when, for example, Pesach comes around, it’s not that we are remembering an event that happened in the distant past, but rather that we experience the same spiritual energy that was unleashed in the world at the time of the original Pesach.
Similarly, when we keep Shabbat each week, we commemorate the anniversary of the creation of the world. But we also re-experience what it means that G-d is our creator, that we owe Him everything, and that the world is constantly being renewed and refreshed by G-d’s pulsating energy into the molecules of the universe. We re-experience the same energy that G-d unleashed into the world on the seventh day of creation – the energy of rest and rejuvenation and returning to source that was introduced on the very first Shabbat of human history.
This same principle applies to every one of the events that are recorded in the Torah, and that we are called on to remember. We are not merely remembering; we are reliving and re-integrating the experiences, and making them part of our daily lives, tangible and relevant in every way.
Arguably, no festival embodies this idea quite like Shavuot, which is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah exactly 3 331 years ago. The Kli Yakar points out that when the Torah calls on us to celebrate the festival of Shavuot, it does so without mentioning that it is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at all. We infer that Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah from the date on which the festival takes place (the 6th of Sivan), but there’s no explicit mention of it. Why would the defining dimension of Shavuot not be directly stated by the Torah?
He answers that the Torah did not want us to fixate on one day as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, to relate to this day as a memory of the distant past.
Our relationship with the Torah is immediate and visceral. We receive it – we incorporate it into our lives – every day. When the Jewish people are approaching Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the verse says, “In the third month of the children of Israel leaving the land of Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.” Rashi notes that it says “this day” and not “that day”. “That day” would imply an event in the past, “this day” implies that it’s happening today. Right now. Let us stop for a moment now and realise that at this moment in time, we are actively receiving the Torah from G-d.
The Shema speaks about “these words that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 6:6). Rashi, on that verse says, that “today” means that the words of Torah should always feel as new and fresh to us as the day they were given. This is not some ancient, dusty manuscript stored away in a museum somewhere. This is a living Torah, a Torat Chaim. It gives us our mission and purpose; direction and guidance on how to live and why to live, and what our ideals are. It is something of immediate relevance, every moment of every day.
The Talmud cites the verse in Proverbs which compares our relationship with the Torah to a suckling infant with its mother; the more we draw out of it, the more life-giving nutrients are produced. The Torah is an endless reservoir of spiritual sustenance. No matter how deep you go, you can always go deeper. A small child, for example, can learn the first verse of the Book of Bereishit, “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth”, and understand it in a very basic way. And the greatest Torah sage of the generation can learn that same verse with all of its nuances and mystical meanings in a much deeper way. In each case, it’s the same Torah being learnt. But there’s always something new in it.
There’s a unique offering which was brought in the Temple on Shavuot – two loaves of bread, made from the newly ripened first grains of the wheat harvest. The Torah calls this offering the Mincha Chadasha – the “new offering”. Why this focus on newness? By now, the reason should be clear. Shavuot is a celebration of freshness and renewal. It’s a celebration of renewed inspiration and renewed challenge. It’s a celebration of Torah today.
We must live life dynamically, not statically. We do not remain in frozen perfection like the angels; we struggle constantly to become better people. We do not remain set in what we know and what we’ve experienced; we must always search in the Torah for new knowledge and fresh inspiration. This is the way G-d wants us to live, and He sets the example. As we say in the morning prayer service, G-d “renews the works of creation in His goodness, at every moment of the day, always”.
Just as G-d recreates the world from afresh, moment by moment, every single day, we should be recreating our own personal world on a similar basis, always looking for renewed inspiration, receiving the Torah into our lives that is as fresh as the day it was given.
Shavuot is a great place to start.
Why we refuse to forget
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.
Strength in diversity
The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul
Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.
The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”
The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.
In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.
The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.
And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.
Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health
There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)
Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy
The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?
The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.
What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?
Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.
Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.
Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.
In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.
Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.
The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.
Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.
Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.
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