By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Shavuos, the sixth and seventh of Sivan, separates us from everyone else. On this Yom Tov we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem. We were lifted above all mankind for eternity. With the giving of the Torah, the Jewish nation was born. It was at Har Sinai that we became the Bnei Yisroel.
And what does that mean?
The Gemara in Maseches Pesachim (68b) teaches that “Chetzyo LaHashem vechetzyo lochem,” half of the Yom Tov of Shavuos is dedicated to the service of Hashem and the other half is for our own benefit.
This teaches us that it is not sufficient for us to say that we accept the Torah and will study it diligently. The Torah must touch our souls, impact our actions, and improve our behavior.
We all know the story about the man who approached Hillel Hazakein and asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah “al regel achas,” while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “Mah de’aloch senei lechavroch lo sa’avid, ve’iduch zil gemor – Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you. As for the rest, go study.” What was Hillel telling this man? Is the Torah really only about ve’ahavta lereyachah kamocha?
Hillel may have been teaching a vital lesson regarding talmud hameivi liydei maaseh, that Torah study is about altering the way we behave, positively affecting the way we act. The basis of Torah is to know that its study has to influence our actions and the way we treat others. It is only after we accept this premise that we can set about learning. “Mah de’aloch senei lechavroch lo sa’avid, ve’iduch zil gemor.”
Perhaps we can interpret the Gemara to mean that Chazal are teaching us that Shavuos is “chetzyo laHashem vechetzyo lochem,” they are stating that we are not only frum when we learn, daven and do mitzvos bein adam laMakom. We are also frum in the way we behave bein adam lachaveiro and in the way we conduct ourselves as we go about our regular, daily pursuits. We are honest and upstanding. We don’t lie, cheat, steal or otherwise harm others in order to get ahead.
This past Shabbos at the Torah Umesorah Convention, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky told a group of talmidim a fascinating insight from his father, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l.
Rav Yaakov recounted the following story. The town of Slabodka, home to the famed yeshiva which carried its name, was a suburb of the larger Lithuanian city of Kovno. The two were separated by a river, with a bridge that ran across it to allow people to travel between the two locales. The bridge, however, was built of wood, not of steel. That way, in case of war, the townspeople would be able to defend themselves from invaders by simply burning down the bridge.
During the winter, when the river froze over, the ice would often crash through the wooden structure and cause it to break up. When the weather warmed, the river became unfrozen and began flowing once again. Enterprising boaters would then open a ferry system with small boats, called lutkas, to transport people from one side to the other.
There was a local Slabodka rov who was bothered by this. He was mekareiv cantonists, those who were forcibly conscripted into the Russian army as youngsters for periods of up to 25 years. When they returned home, they were ignorant of their religion and brutish from their life experiences of the past decades. This rov would reach out to them and return them to the religion and the people they were mercilessly ripped away from. He would learn with them and reignite the spiritual flame within them.
Each Shabbos, irreligious residents of Slabodka and Kovno would make use of the ferry service to commute to the other city. To prevent people from riding on the boats on Shabbos, this rov took Shabbos walks with the cantonists near the area where boats departed from. Though they were non-observant, the irreligious Jews, out of respect for the rabbi, wouldn’t ride the boats as long as he was there.
One Shabbos afternoon, as the rov was walking back and forth by the dock, a gentile boat owner very gently approached him and respectfully said, “Rabbi, isn’t it time for you to go daven Minchah?”
If he could convince the rabbi to leave the area, the boat owner thought, the people would ride on his little boat and he would be able to make money once again.
The cantonist, with whom the rabbi was walking, erupted in furious anger, screaming and threatening violence against the hapless boat owner. “How dare you speak like that to a rabbi?” he thundered. “I am going to beat you up for speaking that way. Don’t you dare tell the rabbi when he must go…”
Rav Yaakov, upon relating this story, asked why it was that the gentile Slabodka boat owner spoke so respectfully while the Jewish man spoke so gruffly. He explained that the Torah and mussar of the Slabodka Yeshiva were so powerful that even residents of the town behaved differently. Thus, even a person who had never stepped foot into the yeshiva, and never studied a word of Torah or observed any of its mitzvos, behaved differently.
A resident of Slabodka was transformed into a more respectful being merely as a result of living in the same town as the yeshiva. Its Torah and mussar affected him. The cantonist, having been away from town for so long and not having had the benefit of a Torah education, was so markedly different from even the gentile man. He was robbed not only of the benefit of studying Torah, but of the influence of growing up in its shadow.
That is the power of Torah. That is what Torah is meant to accomplish. That is the level of behavior demanded of us, who study and observe Torah.
The words of Rav Yosef recorded in Maseches Pesachim (66b) are often quoted to convey the extraordinary spiritual power of Torah. On Shavuos, he would partake of a meal consisting of the finest meat. He explained: “Eeh lav hai yoma dekogorim, kama Yosef ika beshuka.” Rav Yosef was saying that if not for this day of Shavuos, there would be no difference between him and all the other Joes in the street.
We generally understand Rav Yosef’s comment to mean that the study of Torah is not just an intellectual pursuit. It transforms those who absorb its lessons and strive to make themselves into better and holier people.
We can take it a step further to mean that the greatness of Shavuos is that it celebrates the transformative force of the Torah on our lives. If we remain with the same personality traits we possessed prior to our study of Torah, then we are indeed just another Joe. If our limud haTorah falls short of changing us, the day’s gifts have been wasted.
With the lesson that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky brought home from the story of the ferry boat driver, perhaps we can take Rav Yosef’s message a step further. The power of Torah is so potent that it transforms not only those who study it, but also those in their company and dalet amos.
Rav Yosef explained at his special seudah on Shavuos that if not for the Torah that he studied, we would have so much more trouble from the Joes in the street. If not for the transformative power of Torah, the Joes in the street would make our lives unbearable. It is only through the Torah that we learn that even the Joes can be made into better people and taught to behave towards us with a modicum of respect and civility.
Thus, the more Torah we study and the stronger we cling to its commandments and precepts, the more protection we are afforded from those around us. Halacha hee beyoduah Eisav sonei l’Yaakov; it is a law built into the universe that Eisav hates Yaakov. It is a law of nature, a fact confirmed by rivers of Jewish blood and tears. The nations of the world detest the Jewish people. The reason that they are not always at our throats is because when we engage in Torah study and adhere to the Torah way of life, they are kept at bay. When we step out of line, they are ready to lunge at us.
The Torah, whose giving we celebrate on Shavuos, transforms us into better and happier people, and raises our life to a different realm. As a side benefit, it improves not only our character, but the moral fiber and integrity of our neighbors and others we come in contact with. It protects us from pestilence, pogroms and perversion of justice. Even in our modern society, it saves us from the awful afflictions which have accompanied us throughout our history in exile whenever we deviated from the Torah.
When we witness anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head, in the heart of this country and in other areas of the world, it should serve as a reminder to us to return to Har Sinai with brotherly love and compassion, ke’ish echod beleiv echad. The Medrash Tanchumah Hakadum, states that when Hashem saw the people who were about to become Am Yisroel standing at the foot of Har Sinai in complete unity, he declared that now they are worthy to receive the gift of the Torah.
May Hashem look down upon us now and and witness our dedication to the Torah and how we unite to help our brothers in distress and declare us worthy not only of Torah, but also of the geulah hasheleimah vehakrovah, bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.
Chag sameiach. Ah gutten Yom Tov.