Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Fire of Torah

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Yomim Tovim commemorate events that transpired in the past and contributed to the formation of our destiny as a people. On these special days, the Divine energy that generated the original supernatural occurrence flows once again and we are able to attain historic levels if we properly prepare ourselves.

On Shavuos, enter almost any bais medrash anywhere and all through the night you will hear a happy din comprised of voices raised in argument combined with others singing and humming softly to themselves. You will witness people rising above fatigue, and nature itself, standing and shuckeling by a shtender.

The hubbub proclaims a resounding call of “Boruch shenosan Torah le’amo Yisroel.” We are thankful that Hashem chose to give us the Torah. It defines us and our lives, providing life with meaning and joy.

Those sounds sing out the eternal song of the Jewish people, demonstrating for all that we seek to relive the moment at Sinai on this night, and every day of the year. We feel the energy present on this day and attempt to tap into it so that we may be reinforced in the way we live our lives.

Today, surrounded by all sorts of challenges, personally and communally, our dedication to our goal remains as strong as ever. There are problems with chinuch, parnossah, shidduchim, kids-at-risk and abuse, to name a few, but we resolve to deal with them in the spirit of Torah. Yeshivos and the religious community of Eretz Yisroel are beleaguered by an onslaught of hate, but we are not defeated. Instead, we seek to recreate that moment at Sinai, as all generations have done since that day in Sivan thousands of years ago.

My dear friend, the very eloquent Rav Moshe Tuvia Lieff, was instrumental in transforming the community of Minneapolis, Minnesota, into a Torah stronghold, with a first-rate kollel, yeshiva and flourishing kehillah. During his years as rov there, he suggested a new direction for the school and some of the baalei batim balked, feeling his approach was too radical. The rov suggested that they travel together to discuss the innovation with his rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum.

Rav Shmuel greeted the group and listened to the question. He removed a Gemara Shabbos from the shelf and read the account (daf 88) describing Maamad Har Sinai and the manner in which Hakadosh Boruch Hu was “kofa aleihem har kegigis.” Hashem held the mountain over the Jewish nation and told them that if they wouldn’t accept the Torah, it would crash down upon them.

Why, Tosafos famously asks, was this necessary? Hadn’t they just said, “Na’aseh venishma”? Tosafos answers that there was a possibility that they would be frightened and regret their quick acceptance when they would see the fire with which the Torah would be given. Therefore, they needed the additional impetus of the threatening mountain.

Why, asked Rav Shmuel, was the fire itself necessary? Why couldn’t Hashem deliver the Torah to the Jewish people without the fire, obviating the need to hold the mountain over the heads of the Jews?

“It’s because Torah un aish, Torah without fire, iz kein Torah nit, is not Torah!” the rosh yeshiva explained. “The fire isn’t merely an added ingredient, but the actual essence of Torah, even in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

The delegation got the message, returning home even more committed to properly teaching Torah. Anyone who visits that beautiful kehillah knows that they were successful.

The music to your ears that is heard in the bais medrash is the hiss and crackle of that aish, the fire that is Torah. To those who possess refined hearing, it can be perceived throughout the year, but on the night of Shavuos everyone can hear it.

Torah is life itself. That is why we recite a brochah each morning asking Hashem, “Veha’arev na,” to make the Torah sweet for us. We don’t recite that brochah upon observing any other mitzvah. Torah is not a pursuit. We don’t study and follow it because it’s a mitzvah, but rather because it is life itself. As we say each evening, “Ki heim chayeinu ve’orech yomeinu.

A bochur at Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim was involved in a shidduch when some issues cropped up. Generally a diligent and focused masmid, the boy was having trouble concentrating on his learning, as he was preoccupied with the challenges he was facing.

He decided to leave the bais medrash and take a walk outside. As he was making his way through the bustling hallway of the great yeshiva, he passed Rav Elya Boruch Finkel. The perceptive maggid shiur noticed the bochur’s demeanor and pulled him aside. “Moishe,” he said, “is everything okay? You look anxious.”

The young man told Rav Elya Boruch about his quandaries, explaining that the situation was weighing him down and he was unable to concentrate on his learning.

Bist nisht in di sugya?” Rav Elya Boruch asked in alarm. “How terrible! Let’s fix that right now.”

Rav Elya Boruch took the young man by the arm and led him into his office. The maggid shiur locked the door, putting his schedule of shiurim, chaburos, vaadim and chavrusos on hold. He spent the next three hours with the bochur, thoroughly learning the sugya. They didn’t discuss the shidduch or its impact on the talmid. They focused only on Rashi’s p’shat, the questions of Tosafos, the diyuk in the Rashba and a nuance of the Rambam.

Three hours after walking into the room, the bochur felt like a new person. He was newly energized, happy, clear-minded and ready to face the world with a smile. Why? Because the wise rebbi discerned that there is no anguish quite like that of “not being in the sugya.” When in the sugya, one has the vigor to face any challenge, because Torah is life. Without it, man is weak and listless. With it, he is vibrant and recharged.

Ki heim chayeinu.

The Chofetz Chaim once explained this concept with a moshol. The posuk says regarding the Torah, Ki lo dovor reik hu mikem - It is not something empty from you” (Devorim 34:27). The Chofetz Chaim would say that when a bottle of milk is emptied, it still remains a milk bottle. Although the drink that defines it is no longer inside, the vessel is still a milk bottle, albeit an empty one. But a person without Torah, said the Chofetz Chaim, is not only an empty person; he is actually lacking in life itself. Man’s identity is tied to his connection to Torah. Without it, he isn’t merely empty. It is as if he doesn’t exist.

We can thus explain the statement of Chazal, “Resha’im bechayeihem kruyim meisim - The wicked, even when they are physically alive, are referred to as dead.”

We recently celebrated the special day of Lag Ba’omer, commemorating the life and lessons of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. One of his enduring teachings was his refusal to accept the opinion that “Torah will be forgotten from Yisroel” (Shabbos 138b). Rabi Shimon argued with his colleagues and proclaimed, “Chas veshalom. Torah will never be forgotten.”

To prove his contention, he quoted the posuk which states, “Ki lo sishachach mipi zaro.” Chassidic masters point out that the last letters of those words spell the name Yochai, hinting to his name.

People ask why there is a custom to celebrate the hilulah of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai through lighting fires. Perhaps it is to remind us of this message. On this day of Lag Ba’omer, the plague affecting the talmidim of Rabi Akiva - the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh - ceased wreaking havoc, and the transmission of Torah from Har Sinai was able to continue, as it does until this very day. On the day of Lag Ba’omer, the Toras Hasod of Rabi Shimon, talmid of Rabi Akiva, was sealed and delivered. Jews the world over celebrate the events so important to Torah study by remembering that Torah is given and studied through fire, with burning enthusiasm.

We danced and sang, secure in the knowledge that the Torah is as real and vibrant today as when given at Sinai, in fire, with thunder and flashes of light. The miracle is that we still feel it. Even as the flame under the collective Jewish soul gets turned lower and lower and darkness sweeps across the earth, we still sense the fire of Torah.

The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos relates that Moshe Rabbeinu told the malochim that the Torah was more suited to the lower worlds than to the heavens, arguing that they had no parents, no yeitzer hora, and no work-week. The commandments of the Torah clearly don’t apply to them, he said.

In giving us the Torah, Hashem was proclaiming His desire for His holy, precious Torah to rest among the lowest form of life, namely man. Hashem passed over the serofim, the ofanim and the chayos hakodesh, gifting the Torah instead to adam, whom he had created min ha’adomah.

This is the meaning of the shirah that the malochim sang, conceding to Moshe at the time, “Hashem Elokeinu, mah adir Shimcha bechol ha’aretz.” Through giving the Torah to us, Hashem’s Name will be glorious in all the worlds, in the lowest regions and spheres as well. Our Torah speaks to us in all situations, in all places, and at all times.

Rav Yerachmiel Bauer, a prominent Bnei Brak mechanech, noticed Maran Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach toiling to prepare a shiur. He wondered why the rosh yeshiva, who had been delivering shiurim for decades and learned each sugya numerous times, needed to spend so much time preparing. Rav Shach explained that the actual substance of the shiur was not what took so much time. He knew what he wanted to say.

“Most of my time and energy goes into one thing: If I say a shiur that will satisfy the brightest students, then the mediocre and weaker talmidim are being deprived. If I lower it to suit their level, then I am cheating the metzuyonim out of the challenge they deserve. So I work hard, going through the shiur again and again, to make sure that the points are understandable to every talmid and the shiur will still stimulate the bright talmidim as well. The responsibility of the maggid shiur,” concluded the aged rosh yeshiva, “is to everyone, because the Torah belongs to everyone.”

This is what we celebrate on Shavuos. The Torah belongs to everyone. Even if someone has learned less than he would have liked to, even if he feels distant, he should be heartened by the fact that Hakadosh Boruch Hu didn’t choose to give his most precious treasure to angels. He chose lowly man. As we say in the piyut of Asher Eimasecha on Yom Kippur, “Yet You desire praise, from clods of earth, who dwell in a valley, of meager accomplishment, whose works are poor.”

He chose us. Asher bochar bonu. He gave us the Torah, despite our limitations and struggles. For more than 3,300 years, it has been our oxygen, our sustenance and our nourishment. Let us draw it close to our hearts and rejoice, confident in its ability to lift us, stimulate us and make us whole. The Torah speaks to everyone on their level. We should never become disenchanted or depressed, feeling that we have sunk so low that we are not worthy of redemption any longer.

Although we are human, we are special. All of us, not only those who are bright and accomplished, are gifted. We all stood at Har Sinai. We all heard the word of Hashem and received the Torah. There is something there for each one of us. It has the power to enhance our lives and give it meaning, no matter where and who we are. On Shavuos, we celebrate that fact.

Every Yom Tov has its own mitzvos. Pesach has matzah. Sukkos has sukkah and Arba Minim. Why doesn’t Shavuos have any identifying mitzvah? Because we commemorate the day we received the Torah at Har Sinai by living as Jews and fulfilling the mitzvos. We celebrate Shavuos by living a life of Torah and following all its precepts.

The Gemara in Maseches Pesochim (68b) states that half of the Shavuos day is dedicated to the service of Hashem and the other half is for our own physical benefit. Because we are people and not angels. We have physical needs and limitations. We note that the Torah is spiritual and that it governs the physical.

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

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. Limud haTorah must transform us, channeling our lives toward a steady upward journey of elevated performance and accomplishments.

It is often repeated that the 600,000 letters which comprise the Torah correspond to 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 that each Jew has a letter in the Torah. The Torah is the collective embodiment of every individual Jew who adheres to its precepts and commandments. Every Jew can find their place there.

Life is full of nisyonos, tests. There are always confrontational people and ideas seeking for us to deviate from the words we heard at Sinai. There are countless temptations lurking wherever we turn, attempting to cause us to veer from our Divine mission.

Our generation is blessed in many ways. The Olam HaTorah is growing by leaps and bounds. More people than ever have dedicated their lives to Torah study. Mitzvos that once required mesirus nefesh are easily observable, and difficulties in matters of kashrus and shemiras Shabbos are things of the past.

As an am kadosh, we are commanded to behave differently than the “Yosef beshuka.” As recipients and bearers of the Toras Emes and the Toras Chesed, we have to cleave to the values that have helped us endure the dark exile surrounded by the “Yosefs beshuka.”

During the Sefirah period, we climbed the ladder of the 48 ways with which Torah is acquired. We have refined our character and prepared to recreate the acceptance of Torah on the date it was originally given.

Let us strive to strain our ears to hear that song, and for our mouths to sing it and our faculties to play it, so that we can be zocheh to kabbolas haTorah on these great days of 6 and 7 Sivan.

Chag someiach. Ah gutten Yom Tov.


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