Thursday, May 25, 2023

Shavuos - An Encounter with Holiness*

R' Mayer Twersky (YU Torah online)
We are about to celebrate the anniversary of an event that changed the world. An event that took place thousands of years ago that is as relevant now as it was then.. I am of course talking about the holiday of Shavuos. Which is the day that God gave us the Torah.

I have to admit that - in my  attempt to rectify what I believe have been some bad decisions in the Charedi world where Torah study is the primary focus, I have been remiss in not emphasizing the importance of Torah study itself. What better time to do that than on Erev Shavuos. It is after all customary for many of us to stay up all night on Shavuos and study Torah.

Aside from the obvious reason for Torah study - which is to know how to follow God's laws, there is an intrinsic value to Torah study that goes beyond getting that all important knowledge. There is a concept known as Torah L’Shma – studying Torah for its own sake. Torah L’Shma is the motivation instilled in every Yeshiva student.  It is why such subjects as the laws of sacrifices to God that are no longer relevant today are studied. There is, however, another aspect of Torah study that might be even be more important. 

God told Moshe to tell His people to sanctify themselves today and tomorrow - and on the 3rd day He will descend on Sinai before the eyes of all the people. (Shemos 19:10-11). The sages tell us that this meant we had to abstain from sexual relations for 48 hours and then immerse ourselves in a Mikvah. That’s because an encounter with God is the highest from of Kedusha man is capable of.

Since the acceptance of the Torah was such a unique, world changing event, the degree of preparation was to be unique as well. God’s descending on Sinai on that day was indeed a manifestation of His ultimate Kedusha - holiness via the Torah itself. The Gemara in Brachos  (22a) tells us, ‘just as we stood before Sinai with awe, fear, trepidation, and trembling, so too must we study Torah with awe, fear, trepidation, and trembling.’ 

Obviously in our day it is neither required nor recommended that we abstain from relations for 48 hours and immerse in a Mikvah before we study Torah. It would be ‘too onerous’. Nonetheless, preparation is warranted before our encounter with the Kedusha of Torah study. 

How do we do that in our day? 

In his masterwork, Nefesh HaChaim (which deals with complex understandings of the nature of God, and the importance of prayer and Torah) Rav Chaim Volozhiner recommends that one reflect upon the endeavor for a few moments before we begin. These few moments will ensure the appropriate awe. Without doing that, we cannot fully absorb the Kedusha of what we are about to do. 

Good Yom Tov. 

*Adapted from Rav Mayer Twersky (Insights and Attitudes)