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Shavuot (5769)

This week's Torah portion always occurs on or around the holiday of Shavuot when the Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah.

Interestingly, Shavuot is the only of the Three Holidays for which the Torah gives no reason and which contains no Commandments that are relevant today.

Similarly, our Torah portion features, for the most part, topics that aren't practical today: Sota, Nazir and a long repetitious list of what each tribe brought over 3,000 years ago for the Tabernacle opening, seemingly have no real use in our daily lives.

But our Rabbis teach us that the Torah is called the "Teaching of Life" and each detail is important and vital to our existence. What could be the vital significance of these topics of Shavuot, Nazir and Sota and what is the connection between them?

To understand this, here are three stories.

Rabbi Akiva, the great Tanna who lived some 2,000 years ago was the greatest Talmudic scholar ever. In fact it is said that the entirety of the 'Oral Torah' all depend on him.

The Talmud (Ketubot 62-63, Nedarim 50) relates that what pushed Akiva to learn Torah was his wife. She came from a fabulously rich family while he had been a simple totally illiterate shepherd, but she somehow sensed his hidden greatness and insisted on marrying him although she realized it meant ostracism and poverty.

Nevertheless they married, lived in squalor, had several children and when she began encouraging him to take their oldest son and find a place where they could learn Torah, he set off.

The boy was young and full of ambition, but Akiva who was forty years old at the time, was not. He couldn't even read and was certain that, even if his wife was correct and he once had potential, at his age it was too late.

The story is told (Avot d'Rav Natan 6) that on their way they sat briefly near a well where the shepherds were watering their sheep in the shade of a mountain. He was tired and pessimistic. Then he noticed that in the boulder covering the well there was a narrow but deep hole and it aroused his curiosity. He came closer and examined it but couldn't figure out how it got there and what it was for.

One of the shepherds pointed to water dripping from a hill above them onto the rock and said, "That water's been dripping for… who knows how long; that's what made the hole."

Akiva realized that G-d sending him a special-delivery, personal message. 'lf something as soft as water can penetrate something as hard as a rock then for sure something as powerful as the Torah can certainly penetrate into something as soft as my heart and brain."

He took this lesson to heart. According to some opinions he sat and learned for twenty four years until his knowledge surpassed even that of his great teachers; Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkonos and Rabbi Yhosua Ben Chanania.

Gradually his reputation brought him 24,000 pupils from the four corners of the world who became the source of the Oral Torah as the saying; An unnamed Mishna is Rabbi Mair, Tosefta is Rabbi Nechemia, Sifra is Rabbi Yehuda, Sifri is Rabbi Shimon and all come from Rabbi Akiva (Sanhedrin 81a).

But the Romans made decrees against teaching Torah upon punishment of death, which Rabbi Akiva defied publicly. He gathered children and everyone else who wasn't afraid and taught Torah in the open.

When a well meaning relative of his by the name of Pappus ben Yehuda heard about this he tried to dissuade him. "Akiva, aren't you afraid of the government? What good is it if they kill you? Then you won't be able to do anything! Why not be smart, stop teaching Torah and at least save your life?

Rabbi Akiva answered, "You Pappus, you are the one they say is intelligent? If you really are smart you'll agree with me that you are a fool. I'll tell you a story.

"Once there was a hungry fox walking in the forest and noticed a stream full of fish. 'Fish, fish' he yelled to them. Why are you rushing and fleeing? Because of the nets and baited hooks people make for you? Well, I have advice.' The fox continued. 'I am your friend! Your problem is that stream; it's too narrow! No place to flee. If you'll just come out here on dry land you'll be safe! I'll show you how we can live together here in the forest like our forefathers did in previous generations and you'll be safe!'

"Whereupon all the fish answered in unison; 'Fox, fox, are you the one they say is the smartest of the animals? You are a fool! Water is our life! If here in this stream we are in danger, then for sure on the dry land we will be in danger!'

"Same here.' Rabbi Akiva concluded, "The Torah is called our life and the length of our days (Deut. 30:20). If we Jews are in danger learning Torah then when we stop learning we certainly are in trouble!"

A few days later Rabbi Akiva was put into jail for learning Torah and, ironically, Pappus was arrested for some political reason and put in the same cell. When Pappus realized what had happened he declared, 'Akiva, happy are you that you were imprisoned for learning Torah, and woe to me that I was imprisoned for foolishness.'

The third story is one that happened just recently to of the 'Shluchim' of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (HaGeula #466).

Rabbi Aria Kaltman is the emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the Columbus Ohio Chabad House.

Chabad Houses run on donations and one fine day his main donor, a wealthy man that paid more than 80% of the expenses, passed away. Suddenly debts began piling up. The Chabad house was good at giving but not nearly as proficient at taking. Rabbi Kaltman decided that rather than be nervous or miserable or do nothing, he would pray. And, behold, his prayers were answered. Partially.

The debts began to move into six digits when one morning as he was opening his mail he noticed a letter and a check. He opened the letter. It was from an elderly woman in California whose granddaughter was learning in University in Columbus and who brought home a Jewish calendar that Rabbi Kaltman had given her before the Jewish New Year. The lady wrote that when she saw the calendar, she was so impressed she sent the check.

He opened the check and almost jumped for joy! It was for ten thousand dollars! True, it didn't cover even a tenth of the debts but it certainly was a BIG help.

In the course of that year Rabbi Kaltman sent a greeting card to that woman before each of the holidays and after each one he received a check for ten thousand dollars. The checks were allowing him to keep the Chabad House going while he searched for new supporters.

Eventually, in one of his journeys to find new funds Rabbi Kaltman went to California and, of course visited the woman who had become his benefactor.

She received him with great joy and he thanked her profusely explaining how her donations helped. But he couldn't help asking what it was in the calendar he gave her granddaughter that made her become so generous.

She explained. "Some sixty years ago when I was just a young girl my sister got sick. She contracted some terrible disease that the doctors couldn't cure. Our family wasn't very religious but with no other choice we began to pray to G-d for help. And help came from a totally unexpected place. We heard there was a Rabbi in Brooklyn that could cure people by blessing them.

"Of course we never heard of such a thing and probably wouldn't have believed it if we weren't so desperate; by us Rabbis and miracles had NO connection. But we went. We made an appointment, went into his room and all I remember is that he had very special eyes; very kind and very wise. Anyway, it was a miracle! My sister felt better the next day and soon she got completely healed!

"That was years ago, but when my granddaughter brought in that calendar last year and I took a look at it I saw that Rabbi and recognized those eyes. It was him! Suddenly I thought to myself. 'That man saved my sister. Did we ever even try to repay him? I don't even know if we said thank you. I mean it was like he didn't even expect it. So that's when I decided I had to start doing something to show my appreciation to that man."

This answers our questions.

Shavuot is the holiday when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. But the Torah is not practical unless we are willing to devote our minds and hearts to learning and fulfilling it. That is the message of Sota, Nazir and the sacrifices of the Tribes.

Sota is a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity. But the Talmud tells us that really no woman would do such a thing unless she became temporarily insane (Sota is similar to Shota; 'insane'). So too, essentially every Jew is 'married to G-d' and the only reason they, G-d forbid, sin is temporary insanity. Like our story of Pappus who realized his foolishness in leaving the Torah.

Nazir is one who abstains from wine in order to raise in holiness. Similarly, if we want to appreciate the Torah we must be less excited about the world, only then can we reach the third step like our story of Rabbi Kaltman who just did his work helping others and let G-d take care of the rest.

Finally we must be constant in our efforts. Like the tribes repeated the same sacrifices until the Tabernacle was inaugurated, so we must work constantly till we feel the holiness of the Torah.

It all depends on us to make Shavuot not just 'Zman Matan Toratenu'; The Time of the GIVING of the Torah' but also the time of Kabalat Torhatenu; RECEIVING the Torah. With Joy and meaning, blessing and unity. Together with…

Moshiach NOW!!

Copyright © 1999-2017 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

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