Countdown to Festivals: Shavuot
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Tuesday 27th May 2014

The opening verses of the Torah portion for the first day of Shavuot, especially when read with their commentaries, very much set the scene for the seminal moment of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people): “In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai” (Shemot 19:1).

Rashi, quoting a Midrash, comments that ‘the verse shouldn’t have said on this day but on that day, so why did it say on this (day)? To convey that the words of the Torah should be continually new, as if they’ve been given on this very day!’

A few verses later (19:5) the verse says, “And now, if you listen closely to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most treasured of all peoples”. Rashi, again basing himself on a Midrash, writes, ‘If you will now accept (the Torah) upon yourselves, it will become sweet for you in the future, for all beginnings are difficult’.

However, a careful reading of this Midrash (found in Mechilta Yitro 2) reveals that Rashi independently added the phrase ‘it will become sweet for you in the future’; these words do not actually appear in the original source!

In his commentary on Rashi, R’ Eliyahu Mizrachi (d.1526), focuses on this discrepancy and explains that Rashi saw a link between the phrase ‘and now’ and the phrase ‘if you listen closely’. The initial (‘and now’) faithful acceptance of Torah and mitzvot, can be hard. G-d’s will can appear to us as difficult, unclear or even seemingly illogical and bitter. Yet after this initial struggle, one will eventually come to ‘listen closely’ – to have a sense of appreciation, understanding and intuitive feeling for the sweetness of Torah and mitzvot.

Both of these approaches can help us to answer an apparent contradiction between the first and second comments of Rashi, as quoted earlier. If  ‘beginnings are difficult’ why would we want to focus on words of Torah ‘as if they’ve been given this very day’? Surely it would be better to focus on them when they’re not so new and have acquired a ‘sweet taste’!

The answer is that the challenge of ‘and now’ (Heb. v’attah) is to acquire a consistent passion for Torah study and living, which overcomes that almost unavoidable indolence, complacency and routine which can set in once the Torah has become more familiar and sweet to us. We need the twin imperatives of ‘commitment’ and ‘sweetness’ for Torah to remain the essence of our life and length of our days.

R’ Moshe Feinstein (the pre-eminent halachic authority d.1986) used to comment that more children have been turned away from Judaism by the Yiddish phrase ‘iz shver tzu zein a yid’ (‘it’s hard to be a Jew’) than anything else. This Shavuot, let us resolve to appreciate the sweetness of Torah, to share its inspiration with a smile which is rooted in an unswerving and solid commitment to the sweetness of Torah which can be ours each and every day if only we can muster that little bit of steely determination of ‘v’attah ’!

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