Three weeks after the engagement party, it finally arrived in the mail: a large envelope with exquisite calligraphy and a beautiful ribbon carefully wrapped around the corner. It’s your best friend’s wedding invitation. Nothing could be more exciting or gratifying than to receive this invitation. You open up the envelope and remove the card. You excitedly read the text to find the date – but it’s missing!
Instead, the letter says you are invited to celebrate the couple’s wedding “50 days after the engagement party.”
You scrunch your eyes and read the text again to see if perhaps you missed something. But no, you read it right the first time. The wedding is taking place “50 days after the engagement party.”
I have never seen an actual wedding invitation with this wording, but each and every year, we are all invited to a wedding “50 days after the engagement party.”
The holiday of Shavuot is unique among all Jewish holidays in that it has no calendar date. While the Torah commands us to observe Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishri, Sukkot on the 15th of Tishri, Pesach on the 15th of Nissan, and so on, nowhere does it command us to observe Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan. In fact, there were times when Shavuot was not celebrated on this day.
The Torah commands to count 49 days starting from the second day of Pesach, and to then observe Shavuot the following day, on the 50th. As a result, Shavuot did not always have a fixed date. In ancient times, the onset of a new month was determined by the Sanhedrin (High Court) in Jerusalem based on the sighting of the new moon. Depending on when the new moon was first seen, months were either 29 or 30 days long. Hence, in those days, the date of Shavuot depended on when the Sanhedrin declared Rosh Hodesh Iyar and Rosh Hodesh Sivan. Indeed, the Gemara tells us that Shavuot was sometimes observed on the 5th of Sivan, in some years on the 6th, and on other occasions on the 7th. No other holiday on the Jewish calendar can ever be celebrated on more than one calendar date.
This peculiarity becomes especially striking when we consider what Shavuot celebrates – the event that is likely the most significant day in human history since the world’s creation. This is the day of Matan Torah, when Gd revealed to us the law which He wants us to study and observe. Our sages teach that all of creation came into existence for this day – so that Gd’s Torah would be learned and practiced. After the “engagement” of the Exodus, when Gd released us from Egypt and chose us as His special nation, the “wedding” took place on Shavuot, when we committed ourselves to faithfully observe His Torah. And this 50-day process recurs each year, as we reaffirm our acceptance of Gd’s laws. Yet, strangely enough, this event has no date. It takes place “50 days after the engagement party,” but not on a particular date on the calendar.
Evidently, as it has been explained, Gd wanted to draw our attention to the special significance of the number 50 as it relates to Shavuot. More important than the “wedding date” is the understanding of what this “wedding” is really about – and we reach this understanding by approaching Shavuot as a yearly “jubilee” celebration.
The Day of Return
Just about two weeks before Shavuot, we will read in Parashat Behar about the yovel, or jubilee year. This mitzvah does not practically apply nowadays, but, like the rest of the Torah’s laws, its lessons are timeless and vital.
On Yom Kippur at the beginning of the fiftieth year, following the seventh of the seven-year shemittah cycle, the Jewish people were to sound the shofar to announce the jubilee and thereupon implement a number of very significant measures. Most prominently, all real estate holdings were returned to their original owners, and all servants were set free. As the Torah proceeds to describe, when homes, fields or servants were sold in ancient times, when the laws of yovel applied, the price took into account the prospect of the jubilee year, when the transaction would “expire.” Such sales were, by definition, subject to a time limitation, as on the yovel year purchased properties returned to their first owners and servants were released.
The jubilee year was the year of return. It demonstrates how even when situations change and become markedly different from how things once were, the initial state can be restored. A field can change hands 15 times over the years, but on the jubilee, it goes back to its first owner. A man can find himself in dire financial straits to the point where he needs to sell himself as an indentured servant, but on the yovel he regains the freedom, independence and dignity which he once had. No matter what kind of upheavals we go through, restoration is possible. This is the message of the yovel, the 50th year.
And this is precisely why Shavuot is celebrated on the 50th day – because it is a “day of return.”
The Arizal taught that the soul of each and every Jew is rooted in a letter in the Torah. The letters of the Torah have a spiritual power to them, because they originate from the Heavenly Throne – the same place from where the souls originate – and each soul is linked to a letter. This is why many people have the custom, following Kabbalistic tradition, to look carefully at the script of the Torah when the Torah is raised and shown the congregation in the synagogue. Specifically, they try to find a word that begins with the first letter of their name. (For example, as my name, “Eliyahu,” begins with the letter alef, I try to find a word such as “amar,” which begins with the letter alef.) They seek to connect to their spiritual roots by finding an appropriate letter in the Torah.
One need not be a great scholar of Kabbalah to appreciate the significance of this concept. Namely, we naturally belong in Torah, immersed in its study and committed to its precepts. This is our natural condition. Unfortunately, however, because of the negative spiritual currents to which we are subject, we often drift away. Just as a tidal wave can bring the ocean’s fish far from their origins and natural habitat, the “waves” of society so often overwhelm us and drive us away from our spiritual source. This is especially so nowadays. The Kabbalists warned that in the generation before Mashiah, the world will fall into the “50th level of impurity.” One wonders if they foresaw our current generation, which seems to have fallen even deeper than that, perhaps into the 60th “gate.” Forces of impurity abound, and for all but the especially righteous, they cannot be entirely withstood. To one extent or another, almost all of us will drift from our source, from our “letter” in the Torah, to places where we should not want to find ourselves.
Shavuot is the “jubilee” year when we are granted the opportunity to return. On the 50th day, as on the 50th year, everything returns to its source. No matter how far we have drifted, or how many times we have “changed hands” from one form of “impurity” to another, we are able to return to our spiritual origins. Shavuot is a truly unique day, a time for all of us to return, regardless of how far we’ve drifted.
This is one of the reasons given for the custom to read the story of Ruth on Shavuot. Ruth belonged to Moav, an enemy nation along Israel’s eastern border that was sinful and corrupt. She married into a Jewish family that had moved to Moav from Bet-Lehem, and she later joined her mother-in-law in returning to Bet-Lehem, where she married a righteous Jew named Boaz. She had a son, Oved, whose grandson was none other than King David. Rut possessed a special, sacred soul that was destined to produce King David and the Mashiah. Somehow, for reasons we do not know, that sacred soul ended up in Moav. And yet, Providence saw to it that this spark would return to its pure source, and Ruth became a Jew and the mother of the eternal Jewish dynasty. Her story embodies the “jubilee” experience, the guarantee that each and every soul is capable of returning to its sacred spiritual source – a guarantee which is extended to us specifically on Shavuot, the 50th day.
Shavuot is a “yovel” in another sense, as well. Namely, it is a time for all “servants” to go free.
Today we do not have slaves or indentured servants. But slavery, in its broader sense, is alive and well in today’s day and age. As a rabbi, I sadly encounter it quite frequently. I have dealt with numerous families struggling with the slavery of addiction. Let’s make no mistake about it: the addict is a slave to the drug, the cigarette, the drink, the slot machine, the computer, the food, or whatever else he is addicted to. Nobody binds him in chains, but he is enslaved and trapped by a drive which he cannot overcome. And even among those of us who do not suffer from addiction, many are – knowingly or otherwise – “enslaved” to material assets. So many people willfully subject themselves to financial pressures because they “need” to have a certain kind of house, a certain kind of car, or a certain kind of phone or gadget, or go on a certain kind of luxury vacation. Is this not slavery – an external pressure forcing a person to do something he does not want to do? Are these people not trapped by our material society?
More generally, aren’t we all enslaved by our vices or bad habits? How many of us are really the people we want to be? How many of us can honestly say that we have fulfilled our promises to ourselves, that we have not been held back by our flaws?
Freedom does not mean the ability to do anything; it is the ability to accomplish what one truly wants and needs to accomplish. How many of us truly enjoy this freedom?
Torah makes us free. It gives us the knowledge, insight and spiritual force we need to break our vices and achieve our goals. The Mishnah in Pirkeh Avot famously and timelessly teaches, “There is no free man like who engages in Torah.” The Torah breaks the chains of servitude, freeing us to become the kind of people we truly want to become. Pesach is the “festival of freedom” only insofar as it resulted in Shavuot, as it paved the way for us to stand at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah. Without Matan Torah, we would not have been truly free. We would have remained as unable to achieve spiritual greatness as we were in Egypt.
And thus Shavuot is our “yovel,” the time for us to become free. By accepting the Torah, we facilitate our freedom from our bad habits and tendencies, ending the “slavery” to which we are unfortunately subjected throughout the year.
Milk and Consistency
Many people might understandably ask, does this really work? Aren’t there many devoted students of Torah who continue to struggle and occasionally fail? Is every serious yeshiva student completely free of all vices and character flaws?
The answer to this question can be found in the one of the most cherished Shavuot traditions – the custom to eat dairy products. Many different theories have been proposed to explain the connection between dairy foods and Shavuot. The Ben Ish Hai (Rabbenu Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) explained, quite simply, that the numerical value of the word halav (milk) is 40, and thus represents the 40 days in which Gd taught Moshe the Torah at Sinai. But the Ben Ish Hai also adds a deeper insight. The word halav is spelled by the letters het, lamed, bet. The letter het is spelled by the letters het, yod, tav; the letter lamed is spelled lamed, mem, dalet; and the letter bet is spelled bet, yod, tav. If we take all these letters, and then remove the original three letters (het, lamed, bet), we are left with the word “temidit” – “constant.” Hiding beneath the 40 days of “halav” lies “temidit” – consistency. This is the secret for accessing the spiritual power of Torah.
One rabbi drew a comparison to a pot of water sitting on the stove. If we remove the pot every few minutes, the water will never boil, even after many hours. Every interruption causes the water to cool, thus making it impossible to boil.
The same is true about Torah. Exposure to Torah is like water’s exposure to fire; it brings us to “boil” with spirituality. But every time we take a break, we “cool” and regress. Torah study can have the desired impact only if it is “temidit,” a consistent part of our routine each and every day.
We’re still about a month away, but it’s not too early to remind ourselves of how this lesson must affect our summer vacation plans. I do not oppose summer vacation. To the contrary, I recognize the vital importance of a period of relaxation, a change of pace, and an opportunity to refresh and recharge. I, too, go on vacation, without any regrets. But a relaxed schedule is not at all the same as relaxed standards. Parents and children are entitled to, and require, a vacation from the stresses and rigors of the year, but the pot must still remain on the fire. Summer vacation must include the standard tefillot, daily Torah study, and, of course, the regular concern to avoid inappropriate activities. As a teacher, I have often had the experience of meeting students on the first day of school in September and quickly realizing how far they have regressed since June. We will never grow if we allow ourselves to be removed completely off the “fire,” even very briefly.
As we enjoy our dairy foods this Shavuot, let us learn this crucial lesson of “temidit,” and remember that just as our bodies need food and water each day, so do our souls require considerable daily rations of Torah, and that vacation from school or work must never be a vacation from our religious obligations.