Wednesday, June 04, 2008

We’re Not Budging

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

For the first time in my life, I found myself in Meron on Lag Ba’omer two weeks ago. It is a wild scene, with hundreds of thousands of all kinds of Jews descending on a small enclosed area on top of a mountain.

I was packed together with thousands of people on a small plot of land as we watched the lighting of the traditional flame on the kever of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. It was so crowded that one couldn’t move and could barely breathe.

I had arrived as part of a group and we made up a time to leave. As the hour approached, I looked around me and it was nearly impossible to move, let alone exit the area.

I saw a small opening nearby and tried to get by and push my way through the throngs. But there was a man blocking my way. He appeared to be a normal person, middle-aged, with a long beard. He was reading from the Sefer Zohar. I asked him if he could please step aside so I could get by. He refused. I asked again. I said, “Please.” He said, “No.” Again I pleaded with him and again he said it was impossible for him to move.

I couldn’t get out of there if he wouldn’t move. He was blocking my exit and I really didn’t want to miss the bus back to Yerushalayim. So I surveyed the scene again and ascertained that my only way to that bus was through the area where he was standing. So I tried again. And again.

It was comical, but the hour was getting late and the man wouldn’t budge. Finally, I said to him, “Please tell me why you can’t move. Why in the world can’t you step aside?”

He looked at me and said, “Because this is my spot.”

“Come on,” I countered, “there are hundreds of thousands of people spread out all over the place here. What do you mean that this is your spot?”

“I stand here every year,” he replied.

“You stand on this very spot every year?”

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“What’s so special about this spot,” I questioned, “that you davka have to stand here, that you stand here every year, and that you are scared to step aside for a second for fear that someone might take this spot from you?”

The man turned to me and said, “Because I stood at this spot 500 years ago!” “Ani omaditi poe lifnei chamesh mei’ot shana, v’ani lo yachol lazuz mipo!”

I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly, so I asked him, “Mah atah omeir?”

He repeated that this is his spot, that he must stand there, and that he stood there last year and the year before and 500 years ago.

He was a sweet Sefardishe Yid and seemed to be a perfectly normal person, until that point, although he had a hang-up that he wouldn’t move. So I said to him, “Come on. Zeh meshugah.”

He responded, “Atah tishmah harbeh devarim muzarim bamedinah hazot, aval mah ani agid lechah, zeh emet, vehadevorim amitiyim, zeh hamakom sheli v’ani lo yachol lazuz mipo beshum ofen. Atah chayav lisloach li. You will hear many strange things here in this country, but they are true. What can I tell you? It is also true that this is my spot and I cannot move from here, no matter what happens. I am really very sorry for being in your way, but I hope you understand.”

The man shook my hand and smiled. I didn’t know what to think or say, so I smiled back. I made my way out somehow, but his words haunted me.

Ani omaditi poe lifnei chamesh mei’ot shana, v’ani lo yachol lazuz mipo.”

The words kept on ringing in my ears and I wondered why these kinds of stories always have to happen to me. Why, wherever I go, do I have to bump into such characters? And what message was there in his words for me?

When I started thinking about Shavuos, however, it all came together.

We are a special people. We are different. We stood at Har Sinai 3320 years ago. We heard the word of Hashem and we received the Torah. We stood there packed around the mountain. And ever since, we can’t just move whenever we want or whenever people want us to.

There are many times when we have to say, “Slicha, ani omaditi al Har Sinai. I stood at Har Sinai and therefore can’t just come and go as I please. I can’t do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it, wherever I want to do it. I am guided by the Torah and by Hashem. I have to be better, more honest, more pure, more holy than the society around me.

On Shavuos, we celebrate the day that the Torah was transferred from Heaven and given to man. On this day, we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem. We were lifted above all mankind, for eternity. With the giving of the Torah, the Jewish nation was born. Every Yom Tov has its own mitzvos, Pesach has matzohs, Sukkos has the sukkah and the arabah minim, why is it that Shavuos has no identifying mitzvah? Because we commemorate the day we received the Torah at Har Sinai by living as Jews, and fulfilling the mitzvos; by living a life of Torah, following all its precepts.

We celebrate kabolas hatorah by stating to the world that we are different, that we live differently and act differently because we stood at Har Sinai and received the Torah. We don’t just pick out one mitzvah with which to make that statement, we honor the day by being punctilious about the observance of all the mitzvos. We honor the day by proclaiming to the world, “Ani omaditi al Har Sinai. Ani lo yachol lazuz.”

The Gemara in Maseches Pesachim (68b) states that half of the Shavuos day is dedicated to the service of Hashem and the other half is for our own benefit. In the Gemara parlance, “Chetzyo LaHashem vechetzyo lochem.” It is not sufficient to simply accept the Torah. It is not enough to study Torah. We must internalize the teachings of the Torah and make ourselves better people. Torah must touch our souls and impact our actions.

Chetzyo laHashem vechetzyo lochem. We must demonstrate that we are devout not only when it comes to learning and davening. We are religious, as well, in the way we behave and conduct ourselves as we go about our regular, mundane pursuits. Our mantra must be “ani omaditi al Har Sinai.”

The famous words of Rav Yosef recounted in Maseches Pesachim (66b) are often quoted to convey the extraordinary spiritual power of the day. On Shavuos, he would partake of a meal consisting of the finest meat. He explained that, “Ih lav hai yoma dekogorim kama Yosef ika b’shuka - If not for this day, there would be no difference between me and all the other Joes in the street.”

Rav Yosef was saying that the study of Torah is not just an intellectual pursuit. It transforms those who absorb its lessons and strive to make themselves into better and holier people.

The greatness of this day is that it celebrates this transformative force of the Torah on all aspects of our lives. If we remain with the same personality we possessed prior to our study, then we are just another Joe. If our limud haTorah falls short of changing us and does nothing for us, the day’s gifts have been wasted.

Torah is a Divine gift given to man, but it contains myriad obligations. The holiday and the accompanying joy are reserved for those who conduct themselves as Rav Yosef did, channeling their lives toward a steady upward journey of elevated performance and accomplishments.

The posuk recounts that when Hashem appeared to the Bnei Yisroel and offered them the Torah, they responded in unison, “Na’aseh venishmah - We will do and we will hear.” The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (88a) cites Rav Sima’i’s teaching that when they answered thus, placing na’aseh before nishmah, angels descended from Heaven and fastened two crowns on the head of each Jew, one for na’aseh and one for nishmah. Rabi Elazar says that a bas kol rang out, stating, “Who taught my children this secret, which is used by the angels?”

Many commentators question what was so extraordinary about the words na’aseh venishmah that the Jews were so richly praised for uttering them. Many different answers are offered.

Perhaps, allegorically, the greatness of the response was that they understood that acting is of greater importance than listening. By placing na’aseh ahead of nishmah, they demonstrated their understanding that Torah is not just an esoteric theoretical pursuit. They vowed to make the performance of the Torah’s dictates their highest priority. With the statement of na’aseh venishmah, they demonstrated their cognizance that because they stood at Har Sinai, their conduct would have to be different for all time.

When we proclaimed na’aseh venishmah, we were saying that we would never forget the day we stood at Har Sinai and will always act as people suffused with Torah and kedushah.

The Jews were thus deserving of receiving the Torah and declared to be on the level of angels who follow G-d’s word with steadfast devotion, without deviation or question.

At times, we lose sight of what we should be doing. We forget that we stood as twelve shevotim at Har Sinai and proclaimed na’aseh venishmah as one, k’ish echod b’leiv echod.

The seforim hakedoshim state that the 600,000 letters in the Torah correspond to the number 600,000 which is always used to represent the collective tally of the Jews in the Midbar. This is to symbolize that there is a letter in the Torah for each Jew and each Jew has a letter in the Torah. The Torah is the collective embodiment of every individual good Jew who adheres to its precepts and commandments. Each Jew can find his place there. We all have our own spot. We all stood at Har Sinai and we all trace our roots back there.

This is what is meant by the Toras Kohanim at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai. “Im bechukosai teileichu v’es mitzvosai tishmiru.” Hashem says that if we follow his chukim and mitzvos, all will be good. The Toras Kohanim, quoted by Rashi, explains that the words v’es mitzvosai tishmiru mean that Hashem will bless us if we will toil in Torah in order to be able to follow its commandments. Ameilus baTorah is not sufficient if it is not accompanied by the intention to heed the Torah’s mandates. Ameilus baTorah without remembering that we have to be different because we stood on the hallowed ground of Sinai 3320 years ago is not sufficient.

Life is full of nisyonos, tests. There are always people and ideas pushing us from all sides, trying to goad us to deviate from the words we heard at Sinai. There are countless temptations lurking wherever we turn, which attempt to cause us to veer from our Divine mission.

When we are confronted by those who propose deviating from our mesorah and traditional practices, we must remember that we are different. When we are tempted by the glitz that the Yeitzer Hara throws in our path to entice us to sin, we have to remember that our souls stood at Har Sinai. Slicha, we must say, but we aren’t like everyone else. Slicha, ani omaditi al Har Sinai.

On Shavuos, we must remember these words and those we uttered at Har Sinai, na’aseh venishmah, and rededicate ourselves to the study of Torah and devotion to its mitzvos and scholars.

Chag someach.


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