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.
“My name is Yechezkel Abramsky. I’m calling about a special initiative to save Jewish children. This is a matter of life and death and I would like to meet with you.”
“Okay, come on over,” replied the man.
He immediately went over and the man invited him in.
“Yes, please tell me what is this urgent situation you are dealing with?” said the wealthy man.
“The war has left us desolate and there are many young children who are not receiving any Jewish education in England. I started a yeshiva for these young boys…” explained R’ Abramsky.
“A yeshiva!?? You told me you are dealing with a situation of life and death!” exclaimed the wealthy man. “Please leave immediately!” he ordered and Rav Abramsky left.
Late the next Friday night, the phone rings in this wealthy man’s home. He answers.
“Hello? What is the emergency that I am being telephoned at this hour?”
“This is Yechezkel Abramsky I am calling about a matter of…”
“–But it’s Shabbos now! You can’t use the telephone on Shabbos!” exclaimed the man. “True. But for saving lives you must violate Shabbos and I told you that this is a matter of life and death. I am saving young Jewish children’s lives and I need your help with my yeshiva!” replied R’ Abramsky.
He got the check. But that’s not the point of the story. R’ Abramsky understood that Torah is literally our life and without it we are dead.
It is no wonder that the two people whom we associate with Matan Torah are Rus and Yisro, both gerei tzedek. Megillas Rus is read on Shavuos and Yisro is the name of the parsha that deals with Matan Torah. These two sections of Tanach are symbols of people who valued Torah so much that they gave up everything they had – their entire lives – in order to embrace it and become a part of Klal Yisroel.
This concept of valuing Torah and recognizing that it is life and without it we are the living dead, explains the Sfas Emes, is the reason men stay up all night on Shavuos to learn Torah. Yes, we might be more productive if we went to sleep at midnight, awoke at 7:00 a.m., davened and then learned the rest of the day – minus time for a Yom Tov meal. But we really want to express our love and need for Torah, and so we stay up all night.
We refer to the Yom Tov of Shavuos in our davening as “Z’man Matan Toraseinu, the time Hashem is giving us our Torah.” Yet the Gemara (Shabbos 88a) refers to Shavuos as the day of kabalas haTorah, when we received the Torah. Why the switch? Matan Toraseinu is referring to Hashem – the giver. Kabalas HaTorah is referring to us – the receivers.
On Shavuos, Hashem is literally delivering the Torah and all that accompanies it: our and our children’s ability to learn it, which chavrusas we will learn with, rabbeim we and children will get, the ability to focus on and retain our Torah learning, etc. All of this is decided on Shavuos.
There is nothing inhibiting Hashem from giving – as His goodness is the very purpose of Creation. And the greatest good He has to offer is His Torah. But it is we, the receivers, who determine how much of it we will actually receive. Hashem is the fundraiser’s dream – He hands out a blank check and we fill in the amount. The amount of the check is solely determined by how much we want, value and love the Torah. It’s dependent on the degree of our acceptance.
Life is what you make of it. And if our lives are defined by Torah, then Shavuos is the greatest gift. It is the day on which we become alive. May we each personally accept the Torah this Shavuos with tremendous thirst and yearning to know and follow the will of Hashem. And may we be blessed with all the special blessings of the Torah.Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim
About the Author: Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is Associate Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Passaic Torah Institute, Passaic, NJ.
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