By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
An elderly man diagnosed with a serious disease was sitting in a waiting room at Sloan Kettering Hospital, waiting for his turn to begin the chemotherapy process that he hoped would save his life. Stunned by his diagnosis and worried about what would come next, the man sat with his Tehillim, tears flowing, memories racing, fears abounding.
Suddenly, the sound of his name being called punctured his cloud and he rose to approach the treatment room. A young man stepped in his path, put his arm around him, and whispered into his ear, “Mir hubben vos keiner hut nit. We have what no one else has. Gedeinkt. Remember that.”
Over the next few months, every time his strength waned and his thoughts wandered to negative places, those words rang in his ears, the sweet whisper energizing him and keeping him going. “Gedeinkt,” he would say to himself, “mir hubben vos keiner hut nisht,” and push himself to go on.
Those words relate to the Yom Tov of Shavuos we now celebrate. “Mir hubben vos keiner hut nisht.” We have something unique that no other nation has. We have the Torah, and it empowers us with the ability to soar above all, to transcend everything and touch eternity.
On this day, the Creator shared with us His essence, the Torah. He began proclaiming the Aseres Hadibros and called out, “Anochi. I am your G-d.” In that word lay a hidden meaning that Chazal revealed for us. As Hashem began reciting those eternal truths and commandments, He was declaring in that very first word, through its roshei teivos, “Ana Nafshi Kasovis Yehovis. I am transmitting My Soul to you through Torah.”
Through those divine words at Sinai, we were given the means to connect to the eternal Source of life. Torah is a unique gift. It is our national and personal identity and credo, as well as our birthright.
The angels wanted to keep the Torah in Shomayim, but Hakadosh Boruch Hu declared that Torah would descend to the lower realms and find a home amongst his mortal creations of flesh and blood who are challenged with shallow desires.
And until this very day, it’s the light of our lives, the length of our days, the only meaning in a hollow world. We have the means to reach the heavens if we tap into the power of Torah.
Look around and note how desperate we are for clarity. We live in an upside down world, where truth is lies and lies are truth, where fantasy dominates and the facts are minor impediments. It’s always been that way, you may say, and that may be true, but we seek light in the darkness and truth for our paths, and too often we find lights wanting and trustworthy guides vanishing.
We see failed people battling each other for the spotlight and the right to lead the nation that was once a beacon of light to the world. Lies are lofted as bombs, with half-truths offering air support as the future of the country hangs in the balance.
Social mores hallowed since the destruction of Sedom are rapidly being thrust aside in the name of progressive human advancement. Chivalry is not in fashion, nor is modesty, knowledge, literacy or responsibility.
Close to home, fabricators seek to undo customs, practices and liturgy, while discrediting towering figures. Posing as protectors of the religion, they seek to destroy time-honored tradition in the name of progressive thought. Inane theories posted by pedestrian minds seek to edit words written in stone, handed down to man and passed down from generation to generation through the centuries in every climate: cultural, spiritual and financial.
As the sands shifted under the waves of the times, one thing remained steadfast, yet the scoffers think they can temper with that which is inviolate.
Maybe this is not a great sound bite, and it isn’t a cute slogan that can go viral, but it is fact that Torah is the truth, our mesorah authentic, and our practices luminous, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.
The progressive new voices would do well to study history and observe how those who posed as “saviors” throughout the ages fell to the wayside. Let them see that the ones who tampered with Torah died in obscurity and insignificance. Their audaciousness led to irrelevance.
Through it all, we remain lonely at times, but always proud and confident in our millennia-old legacy and the Divine mission statement by which we live.
Torah is neither a theology, philosophy nor a law book. It is an action book, a guide for life. Anyone can open the book and read it, but Hashem wants us to live by it, and when we preceded na’aseh to nishma, we showed that we understood our mission.
When the Torah was presented to us, we proclaimed na’aseh venishma, eliciting the Divine statement of “Mi gilah lohem ruz zeh,” with Heaven eminently impressed by their statement of commitment.
The Aseres Hadibros are not simply ten commandments to be chiseled on monuments at courthouses and sewn with silver and gold thread on rich velvet. They are the essence of life and the oxygen of the universe.
Once, while delivering a shiur at the Stamford Yeshiva on a complicated calculation in Maseches Yevamos, Rav Moshe Schapiro suddenly stopped speaking. The silence hung in the room as the talmidim waited for their rebbi to continue, yet Rav Moshe appeared lost in thought, concentrating on the cheshbon he was in the middle of working out.
Suddenly, he spoke. “Rabbosai!” he exclaimed. “You should know that un Torah, without Torah, iz gornit, there is nothing!”
For his talmidim, that sentence served to instill in them an appreciation for the power and meaning of their learning.
For some reason, hedonistic people who seek to enjoy the pleasures of life and live a self-indulgent existence often seek to minimize the power of Torah in their lives. They see it as a restricting covenant and not as the path to freedom and tranquility. Perhaps that is the fault of the generation and maybe it comes from a lack of knowledge.
However, we know that the statement of Chazal, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah,” is certainly the truth. Freedom is the province of those who delve into Torah. Torah Jews are also happier and have the elixir of life beating in their hearts.
Last week, at the Ohr Vodaas dinner in Monsey, I met Rav Michoel Bender, mashgiach of the Stamford Yeshiva and one of the tzaddikei hador. As I was speaking to him, I was, as usual, overwhelmed by his simplicity and piety and warm smile, I thought to myself that there was no one more free or happy in that room.
Last week I was on the phone with Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin, who lives by the words of the Torah he spends his days studying. He told me quite happily he came across something in Chovos Halevavos that day, which gave him tremendous strength. “It says there that a ma’amin wakes up every day and says Boruch Hashem I am in this place and situation.’”
“And that is for everyone, including me in jail,” he said. “Imagine that! I wake up in a jail cell separated from everyone and everything I care about and thank Hashem for being here.”
“But you know what? I wake up and thank Hashem for being here, because this is where He wants me to be. And if this is where He wants me to be then I am happy to be here. I do what I can and make the best of my situation. I laugh and smile.”
Thank you Hashem. Thank you.
In fact, every day when we awake in the morning and say “Modeh Ani,” that is what we are doing. The obligation to recite the short prayer for thanking Hashem for returning our neshomah to us is independent of where we find ourselves. No matter where we happen to be when we wake up, we thank Hashem for the kindness of keeping us alive.
If we not only say it, but also live it, we will live much happier and fulfilled lives. Instead of being despondent about any given situation, we will be hopeful and positive, realizing that our potential depends upon our belief in Hashem and ourselves.
The one who studies Torah, those who are of faith, can laugh and smile and be productive even when in awful and challenging situations, because there is the truth the people on the level of the meraglim see, and then there is the real truth. And they see the truth and know that the purveyor of truth and kindness has a higher purpose in what happens to each person to help them reach their goals in this world.
He is happier than those who fly to a distant destination in pursuit of abundant merriment; their enjoyment is fleeting while his is eternal.
They pursue the good life, he lives it. He can be in Stamford, or Otisville, or Lakewood or Los Angeles, but if he remembers the mission of the special day of Shavuos when the truth was revealed and given to man, then he can live life the way it was meant to be lived.
What differentiates us from gorillas? It is the Torah. We have a neshomah and they don’t. They are chayos and we are adam. We have infinite potential and their capacity is severely limited. They may be cute and strong and photogenic, but man and monkey are unrelated and live on different levels.
That is simple to anyone who studies Torah and been touched by chochmaso Yisborach and the seichel elyon that affects us as we learn. Others aren’t as blessed. They remain blissfully ignorant and we pity them.
Last week, America mourned a gorilla. Everyone had an opinion and weighed in about the poor animal which was shot to death because of the negligence of a four-year-old. People were especially upset when pictures showed that the gorilla seemed to be protecting the child who had fallen into his zoo compound.
A chorus of voices across the country rang out decrying the killing.
We have a Torah, they don’t! How are those who cannot possibly appreciate what life is, be expected to feel the splendor and glory of man. How can they see the dimensions of humans if their eyes have never been opened.
Hashem offered the Torah to the world. It was rejected by all before it was presented to Am Yisroel. When the Jewish people were asked if they wished to subject themselves to the strictures and blessings of Hashem’s written word, they responded as one, “Na’aseh venishma.” With those two immortal words, they rose beyond the level of angels and became Hashem’s eternal people.
The Torah proclaims, “Vayichan shom Yisroel neged hahar.” Chazal emphasize that the Torah uses the singular verb vayichan, because the people stood as one at Har Sinai, ke’ish echod beleiv echod. They gathered not as hundreds of thousands of individuals, but as one mass of people, unified in their acceptance of the Torah. Each person accepted upon themselves responsibility for others. Every Jew was saying that he would do what he could to ensure that the others would keep the faith.
The Ramchal in Daas Tevunos (155:2) writes that at Har Sinai, the Bnei Yisroel received two gifts along with the Torah. They were given the strength that is required to properly observe all the Torah’s mitzvos and they were also granted the ability to bring about change through their actions.
Our actions don’t just affect us. They impact the world.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in the beginning chapters of Nefesh Hachaim, discusses in detail that all of us have that ability. No Jew should minimize his ability and think that his actions have no meaning or influence.
The yeitzer hora seeks to demoralize man into thinking that his actions have no consequence. Our task is to ignore that negativity and cynicism and instead focus on our potential to impact the world in a positive manner.
On Shavuos, we celebrate these gifts and abilities. We remain awake through the night studying Torah to demonstrate the awareness of our task. Shavuos serves not only as a celebration of receiving the Torah and its powers and abilities, but as a reminder that it is incumbent upon us to live life on a daily basis cognizant of our responsibilities.
The greatness of our proclamation at Har Sinai was the inherent acknowledgment of the primacy of the na’aseh. We affirmed that we would study the Torah – nishma – in order to be osim, a nation of people whose actions would have a serious impact on all of creation. We would learn “lilmod ulelameid, lishmor velaasos ulekayeim.”
We would recognize our unique roles granted to us at Sinai. Na’aseh venishma. We promised that we would remain cognizant of our abilities and not become dejected, viewing ourselves and our actions as inconsequential.
Chazal thus refer to the yom tov of Shavuos as Atzeres, which, in its literal translation, means break. We take a break from our daily activities to remind ourselves what we are about, and to revive the affirmation of our adherence to our commitment. Half of the Atzeres day, we are occupied with the realm of nishma, studying the Torah. The other half is devoted to the realm of na’aseh, the act of living as a Torah Jew.
We must not permit the yeitzer hara to entice us into believing that we are small and powerless. We are not simply gorillas with less hair and the ability to speak. We must not let the Soton fool us into thinking that our actions don’t count. Every word of Torah we study, and every mitzvah we perform alters the cosmos. Every person we inspire to prevail when they think they are unable to, becomes another positive force who can have great influence, transforming evil into good and tragedy into accomplishment.
Take a break from the negativity and cynicism of the yeitzer hara and recognize that with the proper positive attitude, we can overcome all that stands in our way and build the world of goodness that we committed ourselves to 3,328 years ago, when we joined together and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma.” We can make ourselves better people by recognizing our mandate and power, knowing that we can never sink too low and never be in too bad a place to reach for the apex of human ability.
There are two brachos recited when being called up to the Torah. When we first arrive at the bimah, we recite the brochah of “Asher bochar bonu mikol ha’amim venosan lonu es Toraso,” thanking Hashem for choosing us over all the other nations and giving us his Torah. As the portion is completed, we recite the brochah of “Asher nosan lonu Toras emes vechayei olam nota besochenu,” thanking Hashem for giving us the Torah of truth and providing us with eternal life.
Rav Simcha Wasserman explains the duality of the two blessings by comparing them to a child being selected from amongst his classmates to receive a gift-wrapped present. Even before opening the gift, the child is quite happy. The joy is magnified when the recipient removes the wrapping and finds an exciting game or enjoyable book. He thanks the person who gave him the gift two times, once upon its receipt in the beautiful wrapping and a second time when the wrapping comes off.
On Shavuos, it all comes together.
We love who we are, what we’re a part of, the joy of being a Jew – a reason to live with thanks.
I wake up and say, “Modeh ani lifonecha.” I thank You, Hashem, for making me the way You did. I thank You for placing me where You did. I thank You for what I have and for what I will yet achieve. Thank You.
And then I say, “Boruch Atah Hashem asher bochar bonu mikol ha’amim venosan lonu es Toraso.” Thank You for setting me apart, for elevating my soul through Torah, for allowing me to share in the seichel elyon, for having the ability to live a supreme and blessed life.
On the first night of Shavuos, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, stood in the great bais medrash of his yeshiva to deliver a shmuess. The yungeleit and bochurim were eager to hear the rosh yeshiva’s words of chizuk, his encouragement to learn and receive the Torah b’simcha.
However, instead of launching into a traditional mussar discourse, the rosh yeshiva smiled broadly and reached for the Gemara on his shtender. That zeman, the yeshiva was learning Kiddushin.
He raised the Gemara and said, in a voice laced with love and reverence, “Kiddushin… Kesef kinyan, kicha, nosan hu, hispashtus…” He continued to list various sugyos, his ode to the beauty of the masechta. He added nothing, just the names of the sugyos.
His powerful shmuess done, as the message sunk in, he said softly, in a voice everyone could hear and feel, “We are so lucky… Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu…”
Indeed, we are.
Modeh ani. Thank You.
Thank You for this day of Sivan when the Torah was given. Let us all celebrate.