Shabuot 5779Friday, June 07, 2019
There is a great and often overlooked power to the holiday of Shabuot. We know it as the celebration of the receiving of the Torah which is no doubt true, but I'd like to explore Shabuot by approaching it through a different angle, offering an amplified depth of understanding of this awesome day.
Our rabbis teach us that each and every holiday doesn't only live in the past, but they also resonate in our present and carry within them the energy force that was implanted in them in their first occurrence. Pesah carries within it a great and latent power of freedom. As the day that liberated our people in history, it then became that day in our Hebrew calendar which made it a fortuitous time for that specific achievement for all of eternity. Thousands of years later, we continue to have the chance to use the days of Pesah to become free once again, not only from Egypt but from all things that constrain us. Shabuot, by extension, is a day where we can acquire a new and relevant acceptance of Torah, morality, self-sacrifice and human excellence, a renewed receiving of the Torah of sorts.
But, I think there is something else that doesn't get the press time that it should. You see, we are taught that when the Jewish nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai all those years ago, ready to accept the Torah, they stood as one man, with one heart. “And Israel camped there opposite the mountain.” The singular use of the word Yisrael and the singular verb of vayichan combine to teach us that they were as one, completely united in heart and in soul. When Rashi quoted this, he added one more ominous point from the Midrash, "They camped there as one." This teaches us that their regular travels did not take place in a unified fashion, which is reflected in the fact that it speaks about them using plural terminology, "vayisau vayachanu". There was something special, epic almost, about this coming together. It happened in an unusually unified way, and therefore, its importance is magnified. Why did they fight, or not get along, on other journeys, but here, when it came to Shabuot, they did so as a unified nation?
The answer is in the power of Shabuot, which also teaches us a fundamental life lesson: the key to Torah, and perhaps all transformative life experiences, is for these to be experienced as a sole entity, free from the usual friction. G-d's intention for our world was to challenge humanity to shine. But through greed, selfishness, and passion, we became a fragmented universal being, shattered into what would become trillions of individual people, all beautiful shards of light trying to shine to the best of our ability, and in doing so, outshine those around us. This was not the will of Hashem, because what he wanted more than anything was for us to shine together, as the prerequisite to receiving the light of the Torah is unity. Torah could only be infused into the world when the people receiving it stopped seeing their own needs as primary and started to act and breathe as one.
Since that seminal day in time, Shabuot now carries within its holy hours the key to achieving unity within diversity. The Jewish people achieved their historic unity through their willingness to recognize that they were not at the center of the universe, but that at the epicenter of their universe was G-d. When we examine what was expected of them in their service of G-d, it was the emulating of His nature, the giving without the expectation of receiving in return, uniting as one and loving one another as they did themselves. In that moment, our unity was not a happy coincidence that simultaneously happened to occur with the receiving of the Torah. More profound than that, one could even say, the unity itself was the receiving of Torah. They stood together and looked to the heavens as “one nation, with one heart”, a complete unit.
"Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction." - Antoine de Saint Exupery.
A funny thing happens when we stand together and look in the same direction. Not only do we see the same thing, but perhaps more importantly, we see the same thing from the same perspective, which, when you come to think about it, is nothing short of miraculous. It was in this great miracle, right there and then, that we merited to see G-d. Even more remarkable than that, we recognized Him, because for the first time in history we were G-d-like; we were like Him. When we are kind, we see and recognize kindness around us. It works the other way too. When we are negative and cynical, we even look at acts of kindness as “strategic kindness”, and our view of goodness can be marred by our own deficient outlook. We see the world through the lenses that ultimately reflect back to us who we really are. At Har Sinai, Am Yisrael was completely united with one another, and so too was completely united with G-d. The mechanism that helped them to accomplish that almost insurmountable mission was the Torah. We saw G-d in ourselves, and our highest selves reflected back in Him.
Our world is in dire need of repair and perfecting. There are many who think the way to achieve this is to bring Torah to the world by being a "light unto the nations”. But, what we are learning is that it is fundamental to achieve unity first. We are taught, “Derech Eretz Kadma Latorah - respecting others comes before Torah”. Most people understand this saying on a basic level, that one needs to have good manners before one can talk about religion. But, that can't be what this verse means, as the Torah spends so much time talking about derech eretz, good character/behavior! In fact, one would probably learn about the derech eretz he needs to embody before he learns Torah, from the Torah itself!
According to what we've learned though, there is a pearl of much deeper wisdom being communicated here. When we received the Torah, the prerequisite was derech eretz, love, unity. The Torah is teaching us that the only thing that can bring Torah, G-dliness, and morality to a world starving for it, is a world of goodness, kindness, and justice, which are all the values expected of every Torah Jew.
In light of this fact, we may ask ourselves, what it is that stops us from loving? What makes us feel apart instead of feeling like a part? The answer is the deeply rooted instinct for survival. We are hardwired to look out for ourselves and to ensure we make the next buck at the expense of the next guy. To truly not feel threatened by others requires a deep sense of belief in G-d. I must have faith that whatever He wants me to have in my life is what I'll get. This fundamental understanding will allow me to give, and allow others space to recognize that they have their own journey. If I disagree with them, it might be because He made them different to me. It is in that belief system that the answer to humility lies. Humility can be hard to come by.
On a national level, it seems like it was almost the only time this absolute cohesion could exist, in what became the greatest revelation in the history of the world, where G-d showed us there was nothing in this world that was beyond His control, or outside of His plan. Only those who left Egypt in clouds of glory and myriad miracles embedded into their collective memories, having eaten manna bread from the heavens, could ratify this. It was those who experienced His plentiful giving during the exodus from Egypt who knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that He had enough for us all. It was through this profound realization that we merited to become one.
"Vayichan Sham Yisrael Neged Hahar" means the “Jewish people camped there opposite the mountain”. But the word vayichan is also understood to communicate grace or “Chen”. They found favor in each other’s eyes. They looked at each other kindly and favorably. It is in that watershed moment that G-d opens the commandments, and the first words ever spoken by G-d to Humanity as a group are, "Anochi Hashem Elokecha - I am Hashem your G-d. Lo yihiyeh lecha Elokim acherim - there is no other G-d but me." When we examine these words through this approach of unity, we realize what G-d said is indeed of earth-shattering magnitude. There is only one "I" in this world and that is G-d. Everything else is "we". When this belief becomes an integral part of our consciousness, we begin to realize there is no place for a person to feel separate or better than another, because the only creation that stands as its own entity is G-d Himself, only He is one. The rest of creation is a team, a family, a collective whole.
This principle is a game changer for how we experience life and our own sense of our place in the trajectory of G-d’s creation of the world. The gematria or numerical value of תורה is 611. The Talmud (Makkot 23) teaches us in the name of Rav Hamnuna that the תורה - Torah - Moshe gave us was 611, because the first two of the Ten Commandments were given to us by G-d. Therefore, תורה צוה לנו משה, Moshe taught us 611 of the 613 missvot. The number 611 is also the numerical value of גמילות חסדים, acts of kindness. They are one and the same.
So, this year, when we receive the תורה , let us also think of the power of connection that has been imbued into this day. It is on this day in history that there lies the power to look at others with favorable eyes, to understand them and not to judge. We can let go of our jealousy and pettiness, reveling in, and celebrating, the successes of others with true joy, not begrudgingly, because we realize that their success doesn’t come out of my pocket, but was always destined for that person. Instead, we focus on the fact that the Supreme Being of our world, who is limitless on every level, is waiting to shower us with every possible beracha, but only when we ask for the nation as a whole and not just for ourselves. Hashem Yivarech et Amo Bashalom.
This Shabuot, may we merit for G-d to bless us with the greatest blessing in this world, its very purpose, the blessing of peace.
Shabbat Shalom & Hag Sameah
Rabbi Shlomo Farhi
May 28 2020
Sivan 5 5780