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Shavuot is, by comparison, a quiet holiday. Every other holiday has a lot of activity, a lot of hustle and bustle surrounding it. Pass-over? Clean the house, make a Seder, read the Hagada, eat matza. Rosh Hashana? Blow the shofar, listen to the cantor and the rabbi. Yom Kippur? Don't eat or drink - so do a lot of both the day before. Sukkot? Outdoors eating and the lulav and etrog. Chanuka? Light the menora, celebrate in public, get gelt. Purim? A big Megila! Shalach Manot (food gifts), a big feast, etc.
But there isn't a specific ritual, a separate, concrete mitzva associated with Shavuot. Every holiday we go to the synagogue and read the Torah, but only on Passover do we eat matza, only on Sukkot do we dwell in the sukka, etc. But what's special about Shavuot?
Exactly what's special about Shavuot? You see, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, so its rituals have to reflect its historical and spiritual uniqueness. Matza on Passover, because that's what the Jews ate; it instills in us humility and submission to G-d. The sukka on Sukkot, because that's what the Jews lived in and it unites us, bringing us together as one.
And that's exactly what's special about Shavuot. You see, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, so its rituals have to reflect its historical and spiritual uniqueness. Matza on Passover, because that's what the Jews ate; it instills in us humility and submission to G-d. The sukka on Sukkot, because that's what the Jews lived in and it unites us, bringing us together as one.
And on Shavuot - nothing, because when the Torah was given we were overwhelmed. Our souls fled our bodies when G-d began speaking the Ten Commandments. And nothing, because Torah transcends specifics.
The Torah is not just a collection of laws prescribing or proscribing certain activities. The Torah is the blueprint of life, enveloping a person from his first moment to his last, directing all the details in between.
Torah is a living Torah because it is dynamic and whole.
In other words, one lesson of Torah is Divine Providence, His conception and vision of the whole of creation and His comprehension of all the details of creation. G-d's knowledge encompasses the intricacies of man, the "chosen of creation," as well as the minutest particle of matter.
On Shavuot, G-d gives us the Torah and we're confronted with the nothingness of everything else. Creation is irrelevant without Torah.
We must therefore serve G-d in all our ways and in all ways - in whatever situation or context. Learning Torah, fulfilling the 613 mitzvot (commandments), simple actions and encounters of daily life - all reveal the word of G-d, the "I am the L-rd your G-d." For when G-d says, "I am," it follows that we are not.
Perhaps we can understand this better by an analogy. A child truly and wholly devoted to his parents does not see himself as independently significant. He is, in a sense, only an expression of his love and awe of his parents.
So, Shavuot commemorates the historical and spiritual uniqueness of the giving of the Torah. That uniqueness reveals not a specific part of our relationship with G-d, but the fact of the relationship itself.
One might say that when it comes to Torah, when it comes to G-d's giving and our receiving, it's all and nothing.
This year, the upcoming holiday of Shavuot takes place in the week between the two Torah portions of Bamidbar and Naso. One of the subjects found in both of these portions is the Sanctuary in the desert and the distribution of the duties connected with it, when the Sanctuary was carried from place to place.
This emphasizes the fact that even when Jews find themselves in a desert, they have the ability to erect a Sanctuary for the Divine Presence to dwell among them, and in every one of them.
Just as there is a desert in a physical sense, a place of desolation, where extreme climatic conditions prevail, a place of poisonous snakes, etc., so is there a "desert" in a spiritual sense, created by harmful ideas; and such a spiritual desert can be found also in a land which is materially a flourishing garden.
Our Torah teaches us that when Jews find themselves in such a spiritual desert, it is possible, necessary and imperative to erect a Sanctuary, carry it, and go forward, step by step, until eventually the environment and situation change from a spiritual desert - into the blessed and holy land, with the complete redemption.
In the spiritual desert, in which some of us find ourselves, where a desolate aridity and void prevail in matters of Judaism, we must all help each other to make this environment into a sanctuary, a fitting place for G-dliness.
The portion Bamidbar is the beginning of the whole book of Bamidbar, which is called "Sefer HaPikudim - the Book of Numbers." Both in the beginning of this book as well as towards its end, the Torah tells us how the Jews were counted: First in the desert of Sinai, after receiving the Torah, at the beginning of their wanderings through the waste and terrible desert; and the second time at the end of the 40 years' wandering, on the eve of their entry into the Land of Israel.
The soul descends into this world to make an abode for G-d in this material and earthly world. When a Jew looks around and sees that the world around him is a spiritual "desert" full of materialism and sometimes even crassness, the thought may occur: How is it possible to carry out this mission? So the Torah tells us that there is no cause for apprehension, for this is the way Jews began their mission when they became a nation and received the Torah at Mount Sinai. With the strength derived from the Torah, they made it through the vast and terrible desert - a bleak wilderness in every respect, where in the natural order of things there is no bread and water, but only difficulties and trials. Moreover, wherever they made their way through the desert, they transformed the desert into a blooming garden - through Miriam's well that caused the desert all around to bring forth all sorts of vegetation and fruit.
This is also one of the significant teachings of the above-mentioned countings, where each was counted individually, regardless of his station and standing in life, and each was counted as no more than one and no less than one, to underscore that everyone has his mission as a "soldier" in G-d's army. And, although in an army there are various ranks, from an ordinary soldier to the highest in command, each one individually and all together carry out the Divine mission to make for G-d an "abode" in this world, even in a desert. Indeed, precisely those who were counted in the second census - those who were brought up in the desert - merited to enter the Land of Israel.
Adapted from letters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
by Jay Litvin
"What kind of a G-d wouldn't want a son to be with his mother on a Jewish holiday?" my mother asked, exasperated when I said we couldn't drive on Yom Tov. "For 36 years you didn't care about Shavuos. Now you care, but you can't bring your children to be with their grandmother?" I knew I was in trouble.
"I'm glad you've finally decided to be Jewish," she continued. "But do you have to be so religious that you can't eat in your own mother's house? This is what G-d wants?"
I brought the complaint to Rabbi Yosef Samuels, the Milwaukee-based rabbi who brought me to Torah.
"The Torah is not sentimental," he explained. "It deals with the truth, and sometimes the truth is not what people want to hear. But if you trust the truth - which means if you trust in G-d - it and He will eventually lead you to where you want to go, though you may never know just how you got there."
My mother didn't buy it. Neither did my sisters. Looking back, I'm not sure I did, either.
Maintaining family ties is a tricky, often painful affair for a ba'al teshuva. Religious observance can impose separation from those you most love, often at the worst of times: weddings, Bar Mitzvas, family gatherings, even funerals.
"Okay, he's getting married in a Reform synagogue. Can't you come to the wedding anyway?"
"I'm sorry the anniversary dinner will be at a non-kosher restaurant. But we'd really love for you to be there."
"We're not Orthodox. We think her conversion is fine."
The strain continued through my parents' final years. My family and I disagreed over the level of medical care to administer. The debate between "quality of life" and halacha [Jewish law] was intense. My father passed away after a long illness. But heroic measures helped bring an additional six wonderful years to my mother.
Usually we avoided such disagreements, choosing to keep the peace. I did not discuss spiritual matters with my family. I learned this lesson in my first years of Torah observance. I was provocative, projecting an "I've found the truth and you haven't" arrogance. Back then, I thought that my new community of religious friends could supplant my family. But I found how wrong I was. I only have one set of parents, and two sisters. No one can replace them.
My wife and I invest great energy in creating a Torah-observant family. I envision down the road my dining room table filled with children and grandchildren. The table stretches forward through generations. Rabbis and scholars, businessmen and teachers, mothers and fathers are seated there, all embracing the Torah. And though the Torah they embrace is a Torah of truth and not sentimentality, my vision is very sentimental. And I am very grateful for, and proud of, the life my wife and I are forging.
But no matter how wonderful my fantasy, it does not replace the love I feel for my parents and sisters, or ease the pain I feel when there is distance between us. And so whenever we can, my sisters and I share our lives.
On my last visit to the U.S., my sisters and I went to the cemetery to visit our parents. It was very intimate. My sister brought rose petals still fresh from her daughter's wedding and spread them over the grass under which lie our father and mother. I laid a stone I had brought from Safed.
One sister read a beautiful piece about how when you lose sight of a boat as it crosses the horizon, the boat still exists; and even though you can't see it, you know there are others on the opposite side waiting to welcome those on board. I brought a Book of Psalms, from which I had intended to read one or two chapters. I read haltingly in Hebrew, my sisters in English. When we had finished the two I picked out, one sister said, "Let's read another one." This continued for a half-hour, as we said a dozen.
Afterwards, at lunch, my older sister told us she had recently joined a synagogue for the first time in her life. "I want to learn more about Judaism and study Hebrew," she said. "Do you think I'm too old to start?"
My other sister (also older than me) belongs to a Reform synagogue. She told us that she had started going to classes with an Orthodox rabbi, while her husband studies with the same rabbi at a "lunch and learn" several times a week. She explained that they were not planning to "become Orthodox," but enjoyed the depth of the learning.
I was pleased with these activities, but they meant less to me than the simple pleasure we were sharing at the restaurant and the closeness we had felt at the gravesite. I knew now that it was intimacy I sought, not religious confluence. I basked in our family unity and marveled at my parents' ability to keep us together, even in death.
On the ride from the restaurant, we all agreed that the visit to the cemetery had been "just perfect." I was returning to Israel in a couple of hours, and when we said good-bye, we each said "I love you" to the others. At that moment I felt the presence of the other three who had come to join us in this moment of parting, the three who created the bonds that had and will continue to hold us together.
Perhaps I imagined it, but as we kissed good-bye I felt we had been joined by my mother and father, who I knew were smiling; and that all of us were being surrounded and enveloped by G-d - whose mystery and benevolence unceasingly unfolds in the most unexpected ways.
"But if you trust the truth - which means if you trust in G-d - it and He will eventually lead you where you want to go, though you may not ever know just how you got there."
Jay Litvin was the medical liaison for Chabad's Children of Chernobyl program. He passed away recently after a long battle with cancer.
Each year on the festival of Shavuot we relive the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people by G-d at Mount Sinai by hearing the Ten Commandments read in the synagogue from a Torah scroll. It is a special mitzva for every man, woman and child to be in the synagogue on Shavuot to hear the Torah reading. This year, the Torah reading that tells of the giving of the Torah will be read on Wednesday, May 26, in synagogues around the world. Many Chabad-Lubavitch Centers sponsor "ice cream" parties (in keeping with the ancient tradition of eating dairy products on Shavuot) for the young and the young at heart. To find out about the closest Shavuot ice cream party call your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center.
Freely Translated Letter
Rosh Chodesh Sivan, 5735 
To All Active Friends of the
Beth Rivkah Schools, and to the
Participants in the Annual Dinner,
Greeting and Blessing:
I was pleased to be informed about the forthcoming Annual Dinner, on the 25th of Sivan - the month of Mattan Torah, when the Torah was given to us at Sinai.
Mattan Torah has a special relevance to Jewish women and daughters, as has often been emphasized. According to our Sages of blessed memory, when G-d was about to give the Torah to the Jewish people, He told Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses] to speak about it first to the women, and then to the men, as it is written, "Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob (= the women) and speak to the sons of Israel (= the men)." In this way, the Torah (meaning "in struction"), which is eternal, has given us an everlasting in struction, for all times and places, that Jewish women, mothers and daughters, have a special mission and task to help ensure that the Torah and Mitzvoth [commandments] will always be "received" and kept with devotion and joy.
Also in the portion of the week in which the Dinner is taking place, there is a distinct relevance to Jewish women in the Mitzvah of Challah - which is one of the special Mitzvoth that have been given to Jewish mothers and daughters; a Mitzvah which is connected with generous Divine blessings for themselves and the entire household.
Another Mitzvah which has likewise been given specially to Jewish mothers and daughters (including the very young who have reached the age of training in Jewish living) is the Mitzvah of lighting the candles to usher in the holy Shabbos and Yom Tov [holidays]. We have had occasion to point out how particularly significant this splendid Mitzvah of candle-lighting is, not only for the mother and daughter lighting them, but for the whole family. This is clearly reflected also in the direct beneficial effect of the shining candles in the home and for all seated at the table.
The said Mitzvoth, together with the other Mitzvoth given specially to Jewish women - in addition to all the Mitzvoth which are incumbent upon Jewish women equally with men - underscore the importance of Torah-education for girls, especially in preparation for the time when each of them becomes Akeres Habayis, the "Foundation of the Home," the ba'leboste who largely sets the tone and pace for the conduct of the Jewish home.
This is what the Annual Dinner is all about.
The Beth Rivkah Schools provide true Torah-education to many hundreds of girls (may their numbers grow), to enable them to carry out their G-d-given mission in life, in the best and fullest measure. It is therefore an extraordinary Zechus [privilege] for the friends of Beth Rivkah to be partners in such a vital cause. I hope and trust that all friends of Beth Rivkah will know how to express their privilege and responsibility, by generously helping Beth Rivkah not merely maintain its facilities but also to expand them in order to meet the urgent challenges of the present times.
May G-d bless each and all of you, with your families, and prosper you in all your needs, materially and spiritually.
With the traditional blessing to receive the Torah with joy and inwardness on the Festival of Mattan Torah and throughout the year,
- (Back to text) to separate a portion of dough when making bread in remembrance of the portion set aside for the priests in Temple times
1 Sivan, 5764 - May 21, 2004
Positive Mitzva 112: Proclaiming the Impurity of a "Metzora"
This mitzva is based on the verse (Lev 13:45) "His clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall grow long and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry; Impure, impure." Tzaraat was a leprosy-like disease that no longer exists. One who contracted tzaraat, known as a "metzora," became ritually impure. In order to prevent the impurity from being transferred to another person, it was necessary that the impure person stand out so others would take notice and be careful. A person who has become impure by tzaraat is commanded to have a tear in his clothes, grow his hair long and let people know - by declaring himself impure. Other types of impurities must also be made known to the public.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
There is a Midrash which tells of how the Jewish people designated their children as the guarantors of the Torah. It is perhaps in this vein that the Rebbe stresses each year that all Jewish children should be present in the synagogue on Shavuot to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments.
Shavuot this year will take place on the evening of May 25 through the evening of May 27. The Ten Commandments will be read on the first day of Shavuot in synagogues around the world on Wednesday, May 26.
Why do we need to bring the children? So that they can become familiar with the "terms" of the guarantee. The children's presence in shul actually confirms our guarantee.
In Hebrew, the word for guarantor is "orev." Orev can also mean pleasant or sweet. What sweeter guarantors can we have than our children, who can help influence our own deeds to be pleasing?
One of many beautiful concepts in Judaism is that the Jewish soul can comprehend long before the mind does. With this in mind, we see how imperative it is to bring even babies to shul; though their minds might not yet comprehend where they are, their souls certainly do.
This Shavuos, on Wednesday, May 26, let us all bring our guarantors to shul to hear the reading of the Torah.
To the guarantees and guarantors,
A very happy Shavuos.
Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses...(1:2)
In order to know the number of people in each tribe, first they were counted according to their families and then each member of the family was counted. This shows us the importance of the family. The existence of the Jewish people is based on and dependant on the actions of each family.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai...(Numbers 1:1)
G-d chose a desert in which to give the Torah. He spoke to the Jews in a place where everyone enjoyed free access, to show us that every Jew has an equal obligation and share in the Torah.
(Bamidbar Rabba and Michilta Beshalach)
A man of every tribe, a man who heads his family division (Num. 1:4)
It is easier for a person to be considered great by strangers than by his own family, who know his faults well. If a person is appreciated by his "family division" - those who know him well - it is a sign that he is worthy of being at the head of his tribe.
As they camped, so shall they set forward (Num. 2:17)
The Jews were told to behave in the same manner while they were traveling as they behaved in their own dwellings when they set camp. This was emphasized before starting out on their journey, because some people tend to become lenient about observing mitzvot when traveling.
"Shavuot" is from the word "shvua" - oath. On the day that the Torah was given, both G-d and the Jewish people made a mutual vow to each other. We swore to G-d that we would never exchange Him for another G-d and He swore to us that He would never exchange us for another nation.
(Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh)
A group of Chasidim of the Shpoler Zeide from a rural area had been suffering for years under the heavy yoke of their cruel landlord, a high-ranking member of Poland's nobility, who owned all the land in that area. He was constantly raising the rents on their homes and the leases for their businesses.
What hurt most, though, were his vicious anti-Semitic twists. He had tried to force them to open their businesses on Shabbat. But his most recent depravity was the worst: he had issued a degree that in all buildings on his extensive properties, a depiction of the Christian god had to be displayed. The Shpoler Zeide's Chasidim travelled to their Rebbe to tell him this latest tale of woe.
"I've waited a long time for that wicked man to change his evil ways," said the Rebbe furiously. "He must be taught a lesson. It is time for him to hear the Ten Commandments. This is what you must do: Gather for the Shavuot holiday at the home of the Chasid with the largest property. But first, invite the landlord and all of his noble friends to come hear the festival morning prayers. As for you, prepare yourselves for the holy occasion of Receiving the Torah. I will come to join you. So, go in peace and don't worry."
The Chasidim were eager to carry out the Rebbe's instructions. The villagers who went to invite the poritz were received pleasantly, much to their surprise. He promised that he and his associates would attend. He immediately launched preparations for a huge party for all the noblemen in the region, the highlight of which would be the spectacle of the Jewish prayer to which they were all invited.
The Shpoler Zeide arrived in the village on the eve of Shavuot. They quickly realized there would not be enough room on the largest farm for so many people. The Rebbe told them to go to the nearby hill, and raise up a large tent there.
On Shavuot morning, the grassy lands around the hill were crowded with hundreds of Jews, waiting in nervous anticipation. A significant number of non-Jewish landowners and nobility in the region also waited eagerly, looking forward to the wonderful spectacle their host had promised them.
The Rebbe approached the platform to lead the prayers himself. The Jews began to pray with enthusiasm. The gentiles - seeing an old man with a long beard, covered with an oversized white shawl, chanting loudly the words of the prayers - all laughed heartily. But when the Rebbe called out powerfully, "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad," their laughter ceased. It was as if a lion had roared. They were gripped by terror. How could a puny, absurd Jew make them afraid? But they couldn't shake the mood. It was as if the Rebbe's voice continued to reverberate off the hillside. A few minutes later, the praying Jews stood silently, reciting the Amida prayer, after which followed the joyous singing of Hallel and chanting of the Akdamot. The festival joy was palpable. The Rebbe signaled for the Torah scroll to be brought out. The Shpoler Zeide then summoned a very tall, distinguished man to be the Torah reader.
The reader's voice was both musical and powerful. When they reached the section of the Ten Commandments, the atmosphere altered radically. It had been a beautiful, clear, spring morning. Suddenly, the heavens darkened, and tremendous peals of thunder boomed out. Fright took hold of everyone.
The reader's voice rose in volume and intensity. "I am G-d who brought you out of Egypt." Though he did not know even a word of Hebrew, amazingly, the landlord understood everything that was being read. "You shall not have other gods before Me. Do not make any statue or image..." The landlord trembled as he thought of how he had demanded the Jews put up graven images.
When he heard "Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy," his knees buckled. Why had he tried to force the Jews to open their businesses on the Sabbath?
His friends were similarly affected. They too felt they understood the commandments directly. Each one thought about his sins and was seized with fear. Their faces were deathly white. Many of them fainted. After a few moments which seemed like an eternity, the reading drew to a close and the noblemen recovered somewhat. Deeply embarrassed, they slipped away one by one.
After the prayers were concluded, the Jews sat down to the traditional dairy meal. The Shpoler Zeide related: "I assure you that the poritz and his friends will remember today for the rest of their lives and they will never afflict you again. To accomplish this I was forced to trouble Moses himself to come and read the Torah. You have a great merit, my friends, to have been here today.
The Rebbe continued, "Know that your landlord has in him a spark of Jethro, Moses' father-in-law and the priest of Midian, who came to the Jews in the desert and acknowledged the existence of G-d...and that Israel is His chosen people."
After the holiday ended, the duke requested that the Rebbe come to see him. The two men spent hours together alone and the next morning the Shpoler Zeide returned home.
From that day on, the landlord's attitude towards his Jewish tenants changed dramatically. They were able to live in peace, without any unfair pressure from the landlord. Not only that, but with his own money he paid for the construction of a synagogue for the Jews on his estates, insisting, though, that it be built on the hill where the holy rabbi had come to pray.
Shavuot shares a connection to the culmination of the initiative begun at the giving of the Torah: the era of the Redemption. Our Sages compare the giving of the Torah to the forging of the marriage relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. The era of the Redemption, they explain, serves as the consummation of that bond.
(Keeping in Touch, by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger)