Sunday, June 1, 2014


Anyone who has been to a Passover seder is familiar with Dayeinu. What does this have to do with the holiday of Shavuot? Here is a post I wrote for EmunaDate about Shavuot, reprinted below. 

After 38 consecutive days of successfully remembering to count the Omer, I dropped the ball. I didn't just drop the ball, I punctured a hole in it - two nights in a row I forgot to count. I had prided myself for disconnecting from my cellphone - two whole days away from it! What I neglected to take into account is that it also meant two days away from my alarm reminding me to count. Dejected, I decided to put the whole omer counting thing behind me, and just wait for its climax, Shavuot. After a day or two, something started to gnaw at me - was it really appropriate to just give up? If we spend seven weeks counting up to the holiday, was there still something I could gain from continuing to count, even if it didn't 'count' anymore?

Shavuot means 'weeks', which would seem to imply that on this day we are celebrating the previous seven week count-up - Sefiat HaOmer. During this period the Jews in the Midbar were trying to break free from their slave mentality of the Egyptian Exile. For 49 days they worked on themselves in order to be able to receive the Torah, the wisdom within it, and really become Am Yisrael. As you'll recall from everyone's favorite Pesach Seder song, Dayeinu, it ends with "If He had brought us to Mount Sinai without giving us the Torah, it would have been enough." Every year I'm left skeptical and slightly cynical - after all the work the Jews put in to being able to receive the Torah, it would have been cool if it never happened? In addition, Rav Dessler says that receiving the Torah was not merely a one-time event. Rather, every generation receives the Torah anew. In fact, every person every hour is capable of experiencing their own Mattan Torah. I wasn't sure how to reconcile these two ideas.

Every time we put in the tiniest amount of effort to break free of these habits, we are improving ourselves just as the Jews in the desert were. Whether it's refraining from speaking gossip, passing on that extra cookie, or refraining from lighting a cigarette, we are reminding ourselves that we are in control. It is through these actions that we assert our freedom and our ability to do what is right, even if it's hard.

I finally felt like I understand what it all means. It wasn't the receiving of the Torah that was the main event, it was the effort put into being fit for receiving it. It's about the effort we put into ourselves, not just during the Sefirat HaOmer, but every day of the year. The little changes in our behavior slowly add up, until before we know it we quit smoking, lost 10 lbs, or broke free of whatever vice we were enslaved to. Now, as a non-smoker, we are different people, and as a different person we are able to appreciate the Torah in a different way - to see insights we skipped over before and to otherwise appreciate the same words with a new set of eyes.

I started to think about what it means to work on yourself in order to be fit to receive the Torah. Shavuot isn't given a specific date as other holidays are. It is simply referred to as '50 days after Pesach', further implying that these intermediary days are significant. What is it that the Jews were working on during this period? We've already said that it was to be comfortable with the idea that they were a free people, but anything that has occurred in the Torah is applicable to us today, so I started to think about what that means in modern terms. There are a million ways this could be interpreted, but I like to think it means a remembrance that we aren't slaves to our bad habits and addictions - the things we think control our lives. 

With this in mind, I resumed my count. It's not about the fact that I dropped the ball, it's about having the strength and determination to pick it back up, to keep running until I cross the finish line, even when I know that I'm out of the running (or mixing metaphors). Shavuot is about celebrating the clarity that comes when you know that you're free. With this realization, I finally got that line from Dayeinu - with this freedom it would have been enough. We didn't have to receive the Torah because we accomplished what we needed to, But that fact that we did, well I think that calls for a celebration.

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