Monday, 16 September 2019
Local Time In Israel Asia - Jerusalem
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Celebrating Shavuot - The Festival of Weeks

Hebrew: שבועות

By Rabbi Zvi Wainstein

 

carobtreeThe Torah was given by G‑d to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai more than 3300 years ago. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot (The Festival of Weeks) we commemorate this event.  The word Shavuot means "weeks." It marks the completion of the seven week counting period – the Omer - between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot.

One of my favorite songs on Seder night, which brings back many warm wonderful childhood memories, is Dayenu. I would like to focus on a line from the song, which seems to make no sense:-

"Had G-d brought us close to Mount Sinai, and even not given us the Torah, it would have been enough".

If we read through the entire Dayenu it is clear that it does not mean that we could have done without the Torah, but rather that each act of G-d's goodness, enlisted in the poem was so great that each one by itself, would have been sufficient cause for celebration.

One wanders though, what is the tremendous kindness manifested in merely bringing us to Mount Sinai if we did not receive the Torah?

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 59) recounts an interesting dialogue between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages. They were arguing about matters of ritual impurity when Rabbi Eliezer sought to back up his point with three very unusual types of argument.

Rabbi Eliezer said: "If the law is like me, let this carob tree* prove my point."  Upon making this statement the tree miraculously uprooted itself.  

The sages responded: "You can't bring proof from a carob tree!"

He replied: "If the law is like me let the stream of water prove my point." Upon making this statement, the stream miraculously changed the direction of its flow.

The sages replied: "You can't bring proof from a stream of water."

Rabbi Eliezer tried a third line of reasoning:  "If the law is like me, let the walls of the Beit Midrash prove it."  Upon making this statement, the walls of the Beit Midrash started to cave in.

Rabbi Yehoshua yelled at the walls: "If Torah scholars are having a Halachic debate, why are you getting involved?" Upon this the walls remained suspended.  They did not cave in out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua, but on the other hand they did not straighten out, out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer.

At first glance this looks to be a puzzling piece of Gemera. It would seem that the sages who were arguing with Rabbi Eliezer were not interested in miracle proofs; rather they wanted hard legal logic.  If so, why did Rabbi Eliezer keep on bringing new miracle proofs?

The Vilna Gaon explains: The Mishnah in Pirke Avot (Chapter 6, mishnah 6) lists the forty eight ways to acquire Torah knowledge. All these forty eight methods can be divided into three sub categories: - getting by with a minimum (having one's priorities straight), refined character traits and diligence in learning.

According to the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliezer wanted to show the sages that he had all the necessary qualities to be a Torah scholar.  The carob tree symbolizes being "satisfied with the basics" (it was from a carob tree that Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa - a Talmudic sage and miracle worker from the first century - lived on by eating a fixed measure of carobs, from week to week).  The sages were not impressed.   Rabbi Eliezer understood that they meant that having one of the three categories is not enough.

That is why he wanted to have the stream of water prove his point - a stream of water symbolizes humility, since water always flows to the lowest point.

He wished to show them that he also had the necessary character traits to be a true Torah scholar.  The sages replied that this is not proof.  He understood this to mean that two out of three categories is not enough.

Rabbi Eliezer then sought to bring his proof from the walls of the Beit Hamidrash who could testify to his true diligence in learning.  He felt that he now had the proof that he had mastered all three required categories and therefore the sages would accept his point of view.  The sages rejected this based on a legal rule that we always side with the majority opinion.     

We see that in order to truly have Torah knowledge, is not only about studying, but also very much about the type of person one is.  One needs to have correct priorities and be refined in character.

If so, we can suggest the following answer to our original question: What is the tremendous kindness manifested in merely bringing us to Mount Sinai if we did not receive the Torah?

The answer may be, the fact that, fifty days after being slaves and exposed to Egyptian society - the most decadent of its day - we were brought to Mount Sinai. The Israelites had acquired, in that short time, the necessary qualities to be given the Torah - that in itself merits a celebration.

Let us use this special season for getting involved in some Torah learning and acquiring some of the qualities necessary for its acquisition.

Fun Fact

Did you know that the Carob Tree is a member of the pea family? It is also known as St John's-bread or the locust bean.

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