by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Shavuos is the commemoration, the celebration, of the receipt of the Torah
at Mt. Sinai.
Other holidays have unique Mitzvos associate with them -- from Matzah on
Passover, to the Sukkah, Lulav and Esrog on Sukkos. Rosh HaShanah has a
mitzvah to hear the Shofar, and Yom Kippur, to fast. The various external
symbols help to focus our attention, and enhance our excitement and
happiness. Each year, when we sit in a sukkah, or in front of a seder
plate, we feel a special joy. But on Shavuos, we have no 'externals' --
Shavuos is called "Chag Ha'Atzeres" -- usually translated "festival of the
gathering." The Taamei Minhagim explains that on all other holidays, there
are two types of service: to refrain from work, and to do the special
commandments of the day. But there is no mitzvah unique to Shavuos. Of
course, it is customary to spend extra time learning Torah on Shavuos,
especially on the first night, but that mitzvah is hardly unique to the
holiday -- "v'higisa bo yomam v'layla", you shall study it day and night,
applies every day! The Taamei Minhagim points out that one meaning of the
word "atzeres" is a cessation, a stopping -- and thus the name is
appropriate. This is a holiday not for adding new observances, but for
stopping, reflecting upon what we have.
Our joy at the holiday of Shavuos comes not from any new sign, any special
practice, but simply from stepping back for a moment, and contemplating the
Torah which we study all year long.
I remember picking up a modern book -- I think it was called "Life 101,"
which is indeed a book by Peter McWilliams (so I discovered at an on-line
bookstore). The introduction begins approximately as follows: "we are all
travelling on a big blue spaceship, and none of us has the instruction
manual." Of course, that was all I needed to see -- the author has it all
First of all, it isn't the blue spaceship which concerns us, but the bodies
we pilot as individuals -- we are less concerned with steering the planet
than in finding our own courses through life. And concerning the manual,
the Torah is called "Torat Chayim," instructions for life. We want to grow
spiritually, we want to come closer to G-d, and G-d provided us with His
ultimate handbook! That is what we hold in our hands -- "the meaning of
life!" The Torah doesn't just tell us how to find some ethereal "spiritual
peace;" it imbues daily life with meaning and purpose.
On my way to the office yesterday, while making a left turn, I noticed the
man in the first car waiting at the red light. He had a book up on the
steering wheel -- he was learning! Of course I could be mistaken, but, in
the abstract, this is the image of a person who truly appreciates what we
have. If we understood what Torah is, we would spend every spare moment
grabbing another thought, another Mishnah, another line of text --
something more to inspire and fill our lives.
Let us use this holiday to step back, to feel the wonder of Torah, to
experience a joy still deeper and more profound than that which we feel at
each year's Pesach Seder...