Category Archives: Shavuos

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Mortal Etiquette vs. Immortal Truth

As you may have noticed, the first day of Shavuos falls on the fourth day of the week this year. Were any Tziddukim around today, they’d be unhappy. They held that Shavuos must always fall on a Sunday.

There are, however, no Tziddukim left. They, of course, were one of the camps of Jews during the Bayis Sheini period that rejected the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Torah Shebichsav – explaining, for example that “An eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, and that “totafos” refers to what we call tefillin (one of which is worn, moreover, not as the unelucidated passuk seems to state “between your eyes,” but rather above the hairline.)

The Perushim determinedly preserved the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and it is to them that we owe our own knowledge of the mesorah.

The Tziddukim’s insistence on a Sunday Shavuos, though, holds pertinence for the contemporary Jewish world.

Because the Tziddukim invoked support for their position from the Torah Shebichsav, accepting at face value the word “haShabbos” in the phrase “the day after the Shabbos” (when Sefiras Haomer was to commence). The mesorah teaches us that “Shabbos” in that passuk refers to the first day of Pesach.

But there was also an underlying human rationale to the Tziddukim’s stance. The Gemara explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety. It would be so pleasing, so proper, they reasoned, at the end of the Omer-counting, to have two days in a row – Shabbos and a Sunday Shavuos – of festivity and prayer.

“Propriety,” in fact, was something of a Tziddukian theme. The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Kadashim. The mesorah prescribes that the ketores, the incense offered there, be set alight only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand.

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

(Daf Yomi adherents recently learned [115b] about a Tzidduki attempt to indirectly, and improperly, favor a daughter in an inheritance law.)

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of the central message of Shavuos itself, when we celebrate Mattan Torah. Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous and unifying declaration there: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!”

In other words, “We will accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding. Even if it is not our own will. Even if it discomfits us. Even if we feel we have a better idea.”

It’s impossible not to see the relevance of “Naaseh v’nishma” to our current “you do you” world, to contemporary society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” to developments like a self-described “Orthodox” movement that hijacks the terminology of halachah to subvert it, in an effort to bring it “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Yiddishkeit has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter can surely emerge from a kedushah-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

Shavuos is generally treated lightly, if at all, by most American Jews. But its central theme speaks pointedly to them. Mattan Torah’s Naaseh v’nishma reminds us all about the true engine of the Jewish faith and Jewish unity – namely, the realization that Judaism, with apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2017 Hamodia

When “Right” Is Wrong

There is a social media page titled “Justice for Harambe,” Harambe being the gorilla that was shot to death in the Cincinnati Zoo after dragging around a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into its enclosure.  The page’s description says it was created to “raise awareness of Harambe’s murder.” Within hours of its posting, the sentiment was endorsed by more than 41,000 people.

Over in the Netherlands, a woman in her 20s was recently cleared by the Dutch Euthanasia Commission for assisted suicide, because of “incurable post-traumatic-stress disorder” brought about by abuse she suffered as a child.  Although she had experienced improvements after intensive therapy, the doctors judged her to be “totally competent” to end her life.

And Shavuos is coming.

That was not a non sequitur.  Because the first day of Shavuos, zman mattan Torahseinu, falls on the first day of next week.  Had the Tzaddukim and Baitusim been successful in their quest to fix the date of Shavuos, however, it would always fall on that day.  Still confused about the connection?

It’s subtle but clear.  During the Bayis Sheini era, those groups asserted that it would best serve people’s needs to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: Shabbos and, immediately thereafter, Shavuos.  (In Eretz Yisroel, of course, Shavuos is observed on a single day.)  And so they advocated amending the mesorah.

Although they provided a textual “basis” for their innovation, the Gemara (Menachos 65b) explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety – two days in a row of rest just seemed “right.”

But the mesorah states otherwise, that the phrase “mimochoras haShabbos” in the passuk that tells us when to begin counting Sefiras HaOmer, does not mean “the day after Shabbos,” but rather the day following the first day of Pesach.  And so, Shavuos can fall on days other than Sunday.

The desire to supplant the mesorah with what “seems” to “enlightened minds” more appropriate appears to be a theme of Tzadduki-ism.  The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, advocating that the ketores brought in the Kodesh Kodashim be set alight before the kohen’s entry into the room, rather than afterward, as the mesorah teaches.

Although here, too, they mustered scriptural “support,” the Tzadukim were in fact motivated, the Gemara explains, by “what seemed right.”  To wit, they argued, “Does one bring raw food to a mortal king and then cook it before him?  One brings it in already hot and steaming!”

In both the date of Shavuos and the avodas Yom Kippur, the mesorah was defended assiduously by the Perushim, the champions of the Torah Sheb’al Peh. The Tzaduki mindset, however and unfortunately, lives on.

The perceiving of animals as equals to humans – based on the perception of humans as mere animals – seems “right” to many.  The celebrated philosopher Peter Singer famously contended that “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”

That same outlook sees the ending of an adult human life as a simple matter of “choice,” to be exercised by an individual as he or she sees fit.  Professor Singer has in fact advocated the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

Such placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems right” – above the received truths of the Torah stands in precise opposition to the message of Shavuos, when our forebears declared “Naaseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear.”

That is the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of Hashem’s will even amid a lack of our own “hearing,” or understanding.  “We will do Your will,” our ancestors pledged, “even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we might have a ‘better idea’.”  Call it a declaration of dependence – of our trust in Hashem’s judgment over our own.

And so, as we approach Shavuos amid a marketplace-of-ideas maelstrom of “ethical” and “moral” opinions concerning myriad contemporary issues – not only in the larger world but even in the Jewish community, even in groups calling themselves “Orthodox” – we do well to pause and reflect on the fact that our mandate is not to “decide” what seems right to us, but to search, honestly and objectively, for the guidance of our mesorah.

When we choose to do that, with sincerity and determination, in our personal lives and our communal ones alike, we echo our ancestors’ words at Har Sinai, declaring, as did they, that man is not the arbiter of right and wrong; our Creator is. 

© 2016 Hamodia

Children’s Programming

“Nahoul” is a giant bee, or, better, a man in a furry bee costume.  He is one of the intended-to-be-lovable characters on “Pioneers of Tomorrow,” a children’s television program produced in Gaza.

In a recent episode, Nahoul encourages a boy from Jenin to attack his Jewish neighbors.  “Punch them,” he advises.  “Turn their faces into tomatoes.”

“If his neighbors are Jewish or Zionist,” Rawan, the little girl host of the show adds helpfully, “that goes without saying.”  Nahoul then advises throwing stones at “the Jews.”

A bit later in the program, another little girl shares her hope to become a policewoman, so that she can “shoot the Jews.”

“All of them?” the host asks with a smile.

“Yes,” the other girl replies.

“Good.”

Nahoul is likely to meet the fate of other cuddly animals – like Farfour the Mouse, a rabbit and a bear – that were previously featured on the program only to suddenly disappear, the show’s little viewers being informed that each character had been “martyred” by Israelis.

The airwaves in Gaza are tightly controlled by Hamas, the de facto government, and “Pioneers of Tomorrow” is part of that violent and hateful group’s effort to educate the region’s children about what Hamas considers their civic and religious duties.

They educate and we educate.

It might seem a novel thought, but it’s really an obvious one: The surest way to understand a society lies in the entertainment it offers its young.

American culture qua culture is largely aimless.  If it has ideals, they are high-sounding ones like “freedom” and “individuality” but which generally translate as “do what you will” and “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  Reportedly, much of the programming aimed at American children pays homage to the same.

Children’s fare in the Orthodox Jewish world is also telling.  And although it does not use television as a medium, it’s voluminous.  Whether in the form of books, compact discs, MP3s or cassette tapes, there is an astounding array of memorable musical offerings, characters, stories and performances that convey the ideas and ideals that inform the community, and that reflect its essence.  Jewish children are taught about Jewish history, about love for other Jews and for Eretz Yisroel, about the beauty of Shabbos and the meanings of yomim tovim, and about the performance of mitzvos; about the evils of jealousy and loshon hora and about the importance of Torah-study.

And then we have Hamas.

Shavuos approaches.  My wife and I will miss having our children with us.   (They’re all either married or in yeshiva –yes, the marrieds invited us to join them, but their father is a hopeless homebody.)  But when I go to the beis medrash on Shavuos night, I’ll remember all the Shavuos nights spent learning Torah with the little boys, later young men, whom we were privileged to raise, and all the subtle teaching of both them and their sisters that went on around the Shabbos table, and throughout the weeks and years.

And I will remember one Shavuos in particular, quite a few years back, when I was learning in a nearby shul – packed with others, many of them fathers and sons too – with one of our sons, then a 12-year-old.

We spent most of the night engrossed in Gemara.  We began with the sugya of tzaar ba’alei chayim in Bava Metzia, which he was studying in yeshiva, and then continued with the sugya of Yerushalayim nischalka l’shvotim in Yoma, which he and I were learning regularly together.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him.

The experience was enthralling, as it always was, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during Shacharis, Dovie and I both “made it” and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed.  But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank HaKodosh Boruch Hu for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (in the word’s most simple sense) over Yomtov.  Apparently, while Dovie and I were learning Torah, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being “lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood.”

“I encourage him, and he should do this,” said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. “I hope to be a martyr,” he said.  “I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself.”

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuos and to my own son, and I thanked Hashem again.

© Hamodia 2014

POSTSCRIPT:  It turns out that we will indeed be away from home for Shavuos, in Israel, for the bris of Dovie’s and his wife Devorah Rivkah’s  firstborn .  May we all know only happy occasions!