f all the inspiring aggadeta shiurim I have heard from Rav Ariev Ozer, rosh yeshivas ITRI, my favorites are those given ne’ilas haChag of Shavuos. As someone who managed to get through a full year of law school without remaining awake for the entirety of a single class, I’m obviously a poor bet for the five- to six-hour shiurim on Chol Hamoed Pesach and Succos.
So the first attraction of the approximately three-hour shiur on Shavuos is the chance that I might actually hear the entire shiur. But even more important, the Shavuos shiur invariably touches on the miracle of the Oral Torah — i.e., that the words of flesh and blood have the status of Torah. That was also a recurring theme of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l. And just as was true of Rav Moshe, when Rav Ozer speaks, the listener senses he is witnessing the embodiment of complete identification with the Torah.
The Gemara (Makkos 22b) teaches: “How foolish are those who stand before a sefer Torah and do not stand before a great talmid chacham, for in the Torah it is written forty [lashes], and the chachamim took away one.” The Maharal explains that the great talmid chacham is so united to Torah that his body itself becomes a part of Torah. Or as Rav Yehudah says (Berachos 8b), “Be careful with a great scholar who forgot his Torah, for both the Luchos and the pieces of the Luchos [shattered by Moshe] were placed in the Aron Hakodesh.” In other words, the body of a great talmid chacham who has forgotten his Torah has the status of pieces of the shattered Luchos. The Torah he once knew has left its permanent imprint. The Torah shebe’al peh is engraved, writes the Vilna Gaon, on the hearts of the chachmei Yisrael.
The very possibility of that complete identification is what we celebrate on Shavuos. The Magen Avraham asks how Shavuos, the 50th day from the beginning of the Omer count, can be referred to as Zeman Matan Toraseinu. Klal Yisrael did not hear HaKadosh Baruch Hu speak until the next day.
To that question the Beis HaLevi offers a striking answer. Moshe Rabbeinu pushed off the receipt of Torah for a day based on his understanding of Hashem’s command to tell the people to “sanctify yourselves today and tomorrow.” Hashem confirmed Moshe Rabbeinu’s drashah by delaying the actual giving of the Torah by a day. When did Hashem make clear that He would “act,” as it were, in conformance with Moshe’s drashah? On the 50th day — davka by not addressing the people on that day. That itself represents the giving of the Oral Torah to the chachmei Yisrael, and constitutes, according to the Beis HaLevi, Zeman Matan Toraseinu.
Contemplation of the miracle of Torah shebe’al peh overwhelms us with the magnitude of Hashem’s gift of His Torah, the blueprint for all Creation, to the interpretation of the chachmei Yisrael, and the privilege of being members of the nation that was uniquely privileged to have received the Torah.
THE SAGES REVEALED to us further a deep connection between Rosh Hashanah and Shavuos. Ezra decreed in fulfillment of the verse tichleh shanah v’kilelosehah — complete the year with its curses — the curses of Ki Savo should be read before Rosh Hashanah and those of Bechukosai before Shavuos. Though the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah mentions two other times of judgment in the year — Pesach and Succos — the reading of the curses only applies to Rosh Hashanah and Shavuos, thereby linking the two.
Yet the two days of judgment are very different. Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment on the natural world. All Hashem’s creations pass before Him in judgment. And they do so in fear and trembling. For that reason we do not recite Hallel on Rosh Hashanah.
Shavuos, however, is a judgment above nature. Unlike the other moadim, which are determined by the movements of natural bodies — the sun and the moon — Shavuos is determined by its own unique framework of time, seven weeks of seven days, culminating in Shavuos on the 50th day.
That unit of time based on seven times seven parallels the seven shemittah cycles of seven years culminating with the 50th year of Yovel, when each man returns to his proper place, achuzaso. That return hints to Olam Haba, when each soul returns to its place.
Shavuos is a day of judgment on the fruits of the tree, and the unique offering of the day is the Shtei Halechem, two loaves of bread made of wheat. The latter is puzzling; wheat is clearly not a fruit of the tree. .
Rashi locates the connection of the Shtei Halechem to the judgment of the fruits of the trees in the opinion that the original fruit eaten by Chavah was wheat. And thus the two loaves brought on Shavuos hint to the primordial state in Gan Eden. The judgment on Shavuos contains within the power to bring us back to the original state of Gan Eden, when Hashem’s absolute unity was manifest, prior to it being obscured by nature.
The Shelah Hakodesh writes in the name of Tola’as Yaakov that Shavuos marks nothing less than a second creation of the world. But the second time in rachamim, with Hashem’s presence fully revealed.
The ten maamaros of the first creation begins with the letter beis, duality — “Bereishis.” But with Matan Torah, the original ten maamaros are transformed into ten dibros, proclaiming Hashem’s absolute unity with an ever-strengthening Divine voice. Those ten dibros begin with the first letter, alef — “Anochi.”
The Torah was given to the Jewish People alone, and we alone have, through the Torah, the power to return the world to its ideal state. Thus, the Zohar says the judgment of the fruits of the tree on Shavuos is, in fact, a judgment on all the neshamos of Klal Yisrael, who received the Torah, and whose source is in the Tree of Life.
We can prevail in that judgment only through learning Torah. There are no special mitzvos associated with Shavuos because there is no other way to celebrate the giving of Torah other than through Torah learning in joy. For only by doing so in joy can we achieve deveikus, cleaving, to the Torah, and become not just Hashem’s trembling servants, but His beloved banim — the ones through whom His creation is built and brought to its final fulfillment.
Attention to Nuance
There is a genre of Biblical commentary based on meticulous attention to the nuances of language that I find particularly exciting. Rabbi David Fohrman is one of its outstanding practitioners today. With one question — Where have I heard that word or phrase elsewhere in the Biblical canon? — he constantly opens up new vistas.
And based on the 50 pages of Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth that I read over Shabbos, I would say that Rabbi Moshe Miller is another. From his first questions on the innocuous opening words of Megillas Rus, “And it was in the days when the judges judged,” which fails to locate the story within the 400-year period of the Judges, one is immediately aware of being in the presence of someone with a keen ear for language.
On numerous occasions Rabbi Miller made me want to click my heels in excitement. For example, he shows why the Rambam employs Machlon and Kilyon as examples of leaving Eretz Yisrael under extreme duress — permitted but not middas chassidus — and not in the more obvious category of leaving in a time of famine, which the Rambam also brings (Hilchos Melachim 5:9). From the wording of the verse recording their leaving Beis Lechem, the Rambam understood that it was not the famine but rather their subservience to their father Elimelech, despite themselves being great men, that forced their departure.
In truth, the acute sensitivity to textual nuance of modern commentators is predicated on that of Tannaitic authors of the Midrash. Rabbi Miller weaves Midrashim, often many, into every page of the text.
I hope to complete Rising Moon before Shavuos, and write about it at greater length next year. In the meantime, I felt duty bound to share my discovery with sophisticated readers.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 763. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org