Midrashim are cryptic, and often misunderstood. They are metaphors, literary devices that encode how Chazal understood stories in the Torah.
There is a Midrash that teaches that before Creation, God went to all the nations that would one day be and offered them the Torah. Each time the offer was made, all the nations inquired what they would be bound to do. All the nations, except the Jews, who accepted without knowing what it entailed.
What is this Midrash about?
The Midrash does not say the Jews would not care what was in it. If they had been asked, perhaps the response would have been about gossip, and the Torah would be declined! The Midrash does not mean that the Jews do not care about the pitfalls. R’ Chaim Brown explains that the Midrash is about something else entirely – relationship. R’ Binyamin Finkel gives a simple analogy.
If a broker you do not know calls, and gives a half hour window to make a large investment that he assures you would give large returns, there would be a lot of questions to ask. It is perfectly reasonable to want to know what you’re getting yourself into – the Midrash is not speaking of a deficiency in the nations for their questions. The questions are fair. “What would this agreement require from me?”
Instead, consider that your parents, or in-laws, were the ones on the phone, offering a half hour window in which to join a venture of theirs. Undoubtedly there are risks, but with the love and trust of the relationship, there needn’t be any questions.
This is what the Midrash is about. Whatever duties the Torah requires are worth taking on, because it is our Father offering the package.
On Shavuos, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth. The subtext of the story is how crucial it is to pursue a personal stake in Torah and to want to be a part of the Jewish people. The story concludes with the genealogy of Ruth’s descendants, culminating in David – and therefore Moshiach too, the ultimate dream of Jewish hope.
But the story is not a happy one. Boaz died the morning after he took her in, leaving her a pregnant widow. She never saw the happy ending; neither did Boaz or Naomi see the vindication of their actions. David’s rise was generations after they had passed.
The story is explicit that God’s justice is not simple or immediate, but calculated over centuries and generations.
The Chasam Sofer notes that the story of Cain and Abel is included in the Torah, right at the beginning, to teach precisely this lesson. God favoured Abel, and Cain murdered him out of jealousy. Yet Cain lived for a full life with countless descendants. Where is the justice? It is not just to say that justice was when they died in the Flood, so long afterward.
The story shows that justice is complicated. It is curious to note that the end of the book, the genealogy of Jewish hope springs from some bizarre circumstances.
Boaz, a member of the house of Yehuda was descended from Peretz, born of the mysterious story of Yehuda and Tamar. The Gemara says that he lost his free will when he approached the crossroads and spotted her.
Boaz fainted at the sight of Ruth in his bed chambers. Everyone castigated him, supporting Ploni Almoni’s arguments. The day after adjudicating Ruth’s case, he died, which could certainly be labeled as divine retribution by his critics.
Ruth was descended from Moav, born of incest between Lot and his daughters. The other child born of this was Amon, whose descendant married King Shlomo.
The story of David and Batsheva is one of the great mysteries in our tradition. She was married, and David orchestrated her husband’s death. The Gemara declares that whoever says David sinned is mistaken; but whoever says he didn’t is as well!
Moshiach rises through bizarre circumstances. Incest, prostitution, adultery, and promiscuity.
The world needs a Moshiach. Judaism believes in a World to Come, but it alone is not enough. Otherwise, we could each just take care of ourselves as hermits, and leave the world to be damned, and passively watch it burn and unravel. Judaism staunchly disavows this. Judaism affirms that this world is ours, and it needs repair. We must do what we can to make it a better place – and Moshiach will finish the job. He emerges out of the ashes of a world which has started to rebuild.
Receiving the Torah is the moment we were chosen to be charged with this responsibility.
Perhaps we read Ruth to remind ourselves that we may fade long before we see success. But success is not why we started. We persevere and endure, fortified with the knowledge that’s what right isn’t always what’s easy.
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
Shavuos is very different to the other Chagim.
Each Chag celebrates something, but Shavuos does not explicitly recall a particular event; the Torah simply says that when the count from Pesach is complete, there is a Chag. There tends to be a specific thematic mitzva for each Chag, yet Shavuos has no such mitzva.
The Chagim require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and each Jew who makes the journey must bring a sacrifice which can only be brought on the Chag. Yet Shavuos has a six-day window afterward in which people can still bring this offering. And unlike the other Chagim, the Jewish people had to prepare themsleves for three days before Sinai.
Shavuos is clearly different, but why?
The Chagim celebrate greatness and grandeur on God’s part. That He saved us; the He sheltered us; that He is particular in judgment; that He is benevolent in forgiveness. Shavuos is the exception, because it’s about us.
Moshe emphasised that people can never deserve God’s love, it is always a gift:
כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: בְּךָ בָּחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק ה בָּכֶם–וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם: כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת ה אֶתְכֶם – You are a holy people to God. He has selected you to be his chosen people from all nations on the face of the earth. You have not been chosen because you are mighty; you’re not. Purely because He loves you so… (7:6-8)
It is not possible to earn something in a framework in which everything is from God. Yet God loved them all the same. Just like winning the lottery, we celebrate our good fortune. This is עצרת – “stopping” – to take stock of the monumental moment.
The Torah calls Shavuos שבועותיכם – “your Shavuos”. The Torah does not call any other Chag “yours” – not סוכותיכם, nor פתחיכם. Shavuos is the Chag of the Jewish people. It is for us and about us. . There is no mitzva, because the Chag is marked by just being ourselves. There is no mitzva, as it would confine the expression of love to a particular thing. The relationship cannot be adequately expressed through a ritual act. We simply celebrate and enjoy ourselves.
However, there is a caveat. To internalise what the Chag entails, it cannot simply be an experience. It demands an integral preparation that the others don’t; the three days of preparation. The six-day window afterward is the Char carried over to an ordinary, everyday life.
Shavuos was not the day the Torah was given. That was on Yom Kippur, when Moshe came down the second time and told them they’d been forgiven. The Midrash says that Shavuos is when Moshe ascended, and was confronted by angels, who could not abide for the Torah to be given to man, or in their parlance, “one borne of a woman”, an epithet alluding to his mundane, material existence. But God told them all that the Torah was always meant for mankind.
The speciality of Shavuos celebrates physicality because that is precisely what elevates the human being. We are holy because we are human, and our choices and achievements can mean something.
The Kotzker said it best.
God has plenty of holy angels. What He is after is holy people.
The princes of each tribe are identified in the census of the nation. But the lists are not identical, when they probably ought to be:
לְגָד אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן דְּעוּאֵל – For Gad, Elyasaf, son of De’uel. (1:14)
וּמַטֵּה גָּד וְנָשִׂיא לִבְנֵי גָד אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן רְעוּאֵל – The prince of the children of Gad was Elyasaf, son of Re’uel. (2:14)
His fathers name has changed. Why?
It is important to note that the names of the Nesi’im are not listed for historicity – all are written for deep rooted reasons – what follows is just one.
The Chida explains that the tribe of Gad merited Moshe Rabeinu being buried in their portion, as they kept silent in the face of Reuven’s instructions. Reuven and Gad were encamped next to each other, and Reuven was “Rosh HaDegel” – leader of their formation, in charge of all camp movements. Reuven was a firstborn of Leah, as was Dan of Bilhah, and both tribes were “Rosh HaDegel”, whereas Gad, a firstborn Zilpah was overlooked. The tribe of Gad did not protest to Moshe that they weren’t given this privilege, and as such merited for Moshe buried in their portion.
This trait is characterised in the saying of R’ Shimon Ben Gamliel in Pirkei Avos לא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה – I’ve not found anything better for the body than silence. Self sacrifice in the interest of the greater good was prevalent in Moshe’s personality too. Moshe is occasionally referred to as ריע א-ל – friend of G-d – the name of the ancestor of the Nasi of Gad – רְעוּאֵל.
There is a story told about the Sdei Chemed, who was already known for his diligence and sharpness as a young man. There were two young men who attempted to get into the yeshiva he studied in, but were rejected. Feeling bitter, one of them hatched a plot to get back at the institution, by disgracing its star student, the Sdei Chemed. The Beis Midrash was prepared every morning by a local village lady. Knowing that the Sdei Chemed was there by sunrise every morning, the plotter offered her money to falsely accuse the Sdei Chemed of molesting her one morning. She flatly refused, insisting that she would lose her job and income. The plotter assured he’d hire her if she lost her job, to which she agreed. Word got out that the Sdei Chemed had “molested” this woman, and the whole town was in outrage and uproar.
Knowing the Sdei Chemed’s character, the Rosh Yeshiva was adamant and refused to believe her, and she lost her job, and would hear no more of the matter. Not days after the incident, the plotter who had paid off the woman passed away. She saw the young man had gotten his come-uppance, and he had died without getting her anew job. Tearful and contrite, she approached the Sdei Chemed on his way home and begged forgiveness, and told him the truth of what had happened, and asked that he go to the Rosh Yeshivah and try to get her old job back. The Sdei Chemed accepted her apology on the spot; “I have no problem helping you get your old job back, I’ll sort that out. But I forbid you from disgracing the memory of the deceased by mentioning his involvement!”
Chazal say המעביר על מדותיו, מעבירים לו כל פשעיו. Overlooking personal inconvenience to preserve what’s right is a phenomenally difficult thing to achieve, but its worth it.
The Torah never refers explicitly to Shavuos or Rosh Hashana by their primary themes of the Torah and the day of judgement. Why does the Torah overlook this?
The Kli Yakar explains that the themes transcend a particular moment.
Torah each day is a new experience, bringing fresh understanding and enhanced insights with it. The Torah is on offer every day, and we choose through our actions whether to accept or decline. Calling Shavuos “Torah Day” is a disservice to our responsibilities.
Likewise, is described as the day to blow the Shofar, because our actions are under scrutiny every day. We are accountable always. Calling Rosh HaShana “Judgment Day” is a disservice to our accountability.