Shavuos: Say Cheese!
From where does the custom emerge for us to eat dairy products on Shavuos? In general, the entire Yom Tov seems preoccupied with food! “Everyone agrees that on Shavuos one needs to have physical enjoyment as well” (Pesachim 68b). The karbon, sacrifice, of the shnei halechem, two breads, was brought as well, another hint to edibles. The Yom Tov is called “chag hakatzir”, the holiday of the harvest (of the grain in the field). It is most surprising that a Yom Tov celebrating our holy and spiritual Torah should have such a physical stress?! Shouldn’t we rather fast the entire day and separate from earthly drives? What does this all mean?
A fundamental and inspiring lesson lies behind all this. Chazal (Eruvin 54a) tell us that “this temporal world is like a wedding, one must grab and eat while the food is available”. The simple meaning of this dictum is that one must accomplish as much Torah and mitzvos as he can while he is alive. There is another depth here as well. Why is this world like a wedding? Imagine that one attends the most exquisite and fancy Jewish wedding ever held. The hall and its ambience are breathtaking, the food is unbelievable, the fifty-piece band is heavenly and the guests are most distinguished! Interestingly, there is one short phrase that determines whether this event has any worth or not. The groom must say the marriage pronouncement of “harey at mikudeshes li…, You are sanctified to me (as my wife)…” That is the most important element, worth more than any of the fanfare present. With it, we have experienced a breathtaking wedding. Without it, the entire event would be almost worthless! So too, this world is a beautiful party filled with all kinds of exciting delicacies, foods, music and enjoyment. Our job is to be “mikadesh it”, to dedicate ourselves to sanctify and elevate it, by using it for the service of Hashem. We do not shun the world. We strive to use it as a conduit to thank Hashem. Hence, just as “you are holy to me” makes the wedding, so too, when we bring Hashem into the picture by elevating the mundane, we make the world!
When one partakes of a delicious meal, his body feels it very strongly and his emotions are stirred. He can take this elevation and use it to thank Hashem ever so passionately. Whereas, without this physical stimulation, he never would have risen to these grateful feelings. Thank You Hashem for giving me such delicious food and for creating such a graceful world. Thank You Hashem for my beautiful spouse and family and for all of the good which You bestow upon me to enjoy and savor. I recognize what You do for me and I wish to serve you better now! The world is a wedding and we are the Groom who sanctifies her!
With every one of the ten commandments that Hashem uttered, the world filled with a varied fragrant scent (Shabbos 88b). Why was this necessary? I suggest that this was precisely to show the significance of physical sensations and their importance to Torah observance. Hashem does not want us to negate our bodies and their feelings. He wanted to keep our nerve endings stimulated in order to show us that a Torah Jew knows how to use this world to draw inspiration and closeness to Him through his pleasurable experiences. The Angels in Heaven wanted the Torah, but Moshe fought for us to get it. Moshe said that only physical humans can properly keep the Torah. We have the opportunity to elevate our physicality.
It is well understood now why the Tashbaitz states that we learn many laws regarding a wedding specifically from Matan Torah. Indeed this was the wedding between Hashem and us in a very deep way! Shavuos is the Holiday that Hashem states that He wishes for us to eat and enjoy pleasures for ourselves. This is to teach us that the entire foundation of our service of Hashem does not focus on self-denial or torture. Rather, it revolves around taking enjoyments and using them to grow closer to Hashem. To grow in our gratitude and appreciate of what He has given to us.
Milk represents a mother’s care for her baby. It is the most nourishing and delicious substance that a mother can offer her child. It is a vehicle of love and closeness from which a mother and child form a close bond. We are enjoined to partake in milk products as a reminder that Shavuos is a time to feel Hashem’s love for us. It is a time to partake of earth’s delights and to thereby elevate and be mikadesh, sanctify, them by letting them bring out our warm appreciation and feelings towards Hashem.
The lesson is vital and relevant. Our bodies have feelings and through them we can draw close to Hashem. It is specifically for this Holiday that we find food stressed repeatedly. For it is in this Shavuos celebration of our accepting the Torah that we acknowledge the importance of our bodies. May we be inspired this Shavuos as we take in all of the enjoyment that Hashem brings us. May we recognize how much He cares for us. The dairy products hint to the ultimate nourishment and care that one has for their children. We are Hashem’s people and we will smile when we say “cheese” at our fantastic wedding with Hashem!
The Shlah HaKodesh writes that each Yom Tov ties into the Parsha which is read at the time that it falls out. What then does Bamidbar have to do with Shavuos and Kabbalas HaTorah?
Reb Moshe Feinstein explains that the theme of the Parsha and indeed the entire Sefer of Bamidbar is one of counting the Jews. Chazal call Sefer Bamidbar, ‘Chumash HaPikudim, the Book of Numbers’. This signifies that each person is important.
When one approaches Torah, the Yetzer Harah tries to convince him that he is not worthy or great enough to learn. Hence, the Torah comes to teach us that each person counts and has his special and individual lot in Torah.
The first words of the Parsha translate literally as, “lift up the heads of the Jews, i.e., count them”. The unusual terminology expresses our point precisely. Lift their spirits by showing them that they each count and are special!
Bamidbar’s lesson carries us into Shavuos. When we each look inside ourselves and reaffirm our commitment to Limud HaTorah. When we recognize how special and precious we are in Hashem’s eyes, this fuels our dedication to its maximum. May we all have a productive and inspirational Yom Tov!
פרשת נשא – שבועות
Wonder of Wonders
איש או אשה כי יפלא לנדר נדר נזיר להזיר ליהוה (ו:ב).
“A man or woman who will separate themselves to become a Nazir for Hashem” (6:2).
The Ibn Ezra’s words on this verse are famous. The Torah uses the word “יַפְלִא, separate” because it contains the root “פלא, wonder, astonishment”. The Nazir committed himself to live with utter self-control! To find a human that separates himself from human desires is a complete wonder to behold!
I heard a beautiful development of this concept from my dear Rebbe, Rav Asher Zelig Rubenstein zt”l. He explained that the wonder is twofold. To take control over one’s physical drives involves efforts on two fronts. One is to keep in check man’s innate physicality, his own body. The second is to not be influenced by negative physical surroundings and society distractions!
Man has two distinct fronts that must be conquered in his daily service of Hashem. First is the physical and luring surroundings which he lives in and second is his internal challenge of laziness and bodily desires which distract him from maximum performance.
Two famous Gemaros illustrate these two battles. First, the Gemara (Nazir 4a) tells of a man who accepted Nizerus upon himself in order to get his personal Yetzer Harah under control. He was striving to control his actual body. Second, the Gemara (Sotah 2a) states that one who sees the Sotah woman, should learn the lesson from her evil actions and separate himself from wine. She has done something promiscuous and perverted. She has made the norms of society to be one of sin and lust. Hence, to fight the negative influence, one proclaims himself a Nazir.
Indeed, this dichotomy has been pointed out so eloquently by the Ramchal (Mesillas Yesharim) to be based upon a Gemara. The Gemara (Megillah 24a) states, “Rabbi Yosse says, once I was walking in the dark of the night and I saw a blind man carrying a torch. I asked him, “my dear son, what is the light for”? He said to me, “true, I cannot see, however, as long as I carry this torch, other people tell me what pitfalls to avoid.”
The explanation is that man has two areas of blindness. One is that his body can be blind to truth and the second is that he is a dark world, which makes it hard to see truth. These are the two aspects of life that we can take control of.
The Nazir inspires us to commit ourselves to the goal of spiritual growth, we can raise above the shackles of our bodies and of world influences. We take the step, as wondrous as it is, to choose spirituality!
Shavuos: Full Body Experience
Chazal teach us that when the Jews stood at Har Sinai their bodies were completely healed from any physical ailments which they had. The Sifrei states that as the Jews were building in Egypt their safety was compromised and a large percentage of people were badly injured and thus lost limbs, including arms, legs, sight and other bodily issues. They were all healed at Har Sinai.
What needs to be understood is why Hashem saw this healing a necessary. Was it an expression of love and perfection or was it something more? The Rambam’s opening words in Hilchos Talmud Torah states so eloquently, “everyone is obligated to learn Torah, young or old, whether he has a complete body or has maladies and defects…” This would have been a most powerful lesson for the Jews to gain!?
Rabbi Mordechai Miller zt”l explains that Hashem was teaching something even deeper. Learning Torah is the most unique experience in all of Judaism. Whereas, when we perform Mitzvos, he uses specific body parts to carry out the action, (his hands, feet, head or mouth,) learning Torah involves the entire body. Torah is a global experience! Hashem wanted to show the Jews this lesson for all generations. Torah must permeate your every fiber. Torah is meant to affect every cell in your construct. Therefore, He restored every body to be fully intact to show how far reaching Torah is.
It is for this reason that the Gemara (Eruvin 54a) states that one who has pains anywhere in his body can relieve the pain by learning Torah. Torah permeates the body. May we merit to have Torah fill our essence!