Life is what you make of it. And if our lives are defined by Torah, then these weeks of Sefira are all about making the most of it.
We all know the famous Gemara (Shabbos 88a): At Har Sinai, Hashem turned the mountain on top of Bnei Yisroel like a barrel and said, “If you accept the Torah, good. But if not, here will be your burial spot.”
This is based on the pasuk “Vayisyatzvu b’tachtis hahar – and they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Yisro 19:17); in which Rav Avdimi Bar Chama translates the word tachtis as meaning “underneath.”
Let’s start with a simple question: Why does the Gemara refer to the upside-down mountain as a barrel? Better yet – we visualize the mountain being suspended over Klal Yisroel, ready to squash them. But if it were really like an upside-down barrel, then they would be trapped inside, not squashed. What was the point of trapping them?
I heard an incredible explanation on this Gemara from Rav Yehuda Wagschal of the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. He cited the Chasam Sofer who refers to another passage in the Gemara (Shabbos 105b) that says if someone is lazy and delays in eulogizing a talmid chacham properly, that person deserves to be buried alive! A terrible fate, but what is the connection to the sin? (Pardon me if this is a little morbid but it is a Gemara and we need to understand it as this insight is imperative for our personal understanding of Shavuos.)
How could one ever bury someone alive? It’s only possible if the persecutor does not consider this person’s life to be a life. He is not granting him the ability to even die because, in his book, the person is not really alive in the first place.
A person who does not eulogize a talmid chacham properly shows that he does not value the Torah and the accomplishments of a talmid chacham. This crime is punishable by being buried alive. The Gemara is teaching us a fundamental concept – the very definition of life is Torah and the value we place on it. One who does not value Torah is not alive and therefore deserves to be buried alive – he doesn’t need to die as he is nothing more than a walking corpse.
Every night in Maariv, we say “ki heim chayeinu – for [the Torah] is our life” – literally!
That’s what Hashem essentially said at Sinai, “If you don’t accept the Torah, I will put this barrel over you, burying you alive, because not accepting Torah means you don’t value it. Hence, you are already as good as dead!”
After WWII, the situation of talmud Torah in England was very dismal. There were many young children left without parents and no one to teach them Torah. Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, zt”l (Chief Dayan of the London Beis Din, 1934-1951) saw the great need to open a yeshiva to preserve Torah in the youth in England. Food was scarce and money was tight but that did not deter Rav Abramsky from opening the yeshiva and raising the funds. Late one Thursday, as he was finishing his day collecting, he turned to his associates and asked, “Is there anyone else we did not approach?”
“No,” they replied.
“Are you sure?” asked R’ Abramsky.
“Well, there is one wealthy secular Jew but don’t waste your time. They said once you say the word ‘yeshiva’ or ‘Torah’ he will dismiss you.”
“What is his phone number?” asked R’ Abramsky, as he picked up the phone to dial.