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Shavuot: The Holiday of the “Yoke of Heaven”

With the conclusion of Shabbat, we begin the holiday of Shavuot. The required Havdalah procedure that formally concludes Shabbat is incorporated into the Kiddush we say at the start of every Yom Tov. What is it, exactly, that we are celebrating on Shavuot? All of our Yomim Tovim celebrate ideas. What, then, is the central concept that we should take away from our commemoration of “the time of giving our Torah, זמן מתן תורתנו?”

By the third month after leaving Egypt, בני ישראל had reached their first destination, the base of Mount Sinai. The purpose of the exodus from Egypt, to make the Jewish nation a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” was just days away. But how was this transformation to a new way of life to occur?  What change had to happen to those original members of the Jewish religion? What is the fundamental attitude that we and each generation of Jews must embrace and internalize?

The drama of the original experience is captured for all eternity in פרשת יתרו (chapter 20) and again in פרשת ואתחנן (chapter 5). Prior to knowing what was going to transpire or what would be asked of them, בני ישראל gave  Moses their assurance and commitment saying unanimously, “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will listen.” It is probably the only time in Jewish history that all the people agreed.

We are all familiar with twice daily commanded to recite the שמע, Shema. According to our Sages, it is this one mitzvah, out of all the others, that expresses the concept of accepting the עול מלכות שמים, “the yoke of the Kingship of Heaven.” Webster’s Dictionary says a “yoke” is an arched device laid on the neck of a defeated person. Such a person is now under the control of the victor and must be submissive to the victor’s demands.

Thinking about all of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah, the Shema doesn’t come to mind when considering a submissive, burdensome, or difficult mitzvah to do. True it must be said within a certain time frame. In the morning the Shema should be recited within the first three hours after sunrise. At night it may be said all night until dawn. Surely there are more onerous commands than the recital of the Shema. Restrictions on the foods we eat, commands that limit our opportunities in business or agriculture, prohibitions against physically creative work on Shabbat and Yom Tov, taxes imposed on our crops and wealth, are but a few examples of more challenging mitzvot that come to mind long before the mitzvah of saying the Shema. Any of those would seem to qualify for “accepting the yoke of heaven.”

Even more startling, the Talmud says the practice of idol worship, whatever form it takes, is considered בלי עול, “without burden.” How could human sacrifice practiced by the Incas, for example, be considered “non-burdensome” while saying the Shema is considered “burdensome?” Let me suggest an answer I heard from my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yisroel Chait.

In idol worship, each person or society sets up a system to deal with or ward off the fears all people face in life. Fears may stem from external phenomena like earthquakes or hurricanes. They may also arise internally such as the fear of illness or death. To combat these fears people create their own systems for coping. Since these systems arise from the imagination of the human psyche, they are self-satisfying. The most ridiculous performances are easily rationalized and justified. Even the murder of innocent young men, women, and children becomes sanctified and justified by calling it a “sacrificial” ceremony. A system revolving around the projections of our inner feelings onto reality is truly “without burden.” The individual is doing exactly what he or she wants to do.

In contradistinction to idol worship, the system of Torah given to the nation of Israel on Shavuot is not the creation of human imagination. It is not designed to escape the complexities and difficulties of human life. But by adhering to its precepts, a person will first harness unruly parts of his or her nature.

A second benefit is that through the mitzvah of תלמוד תורה, the person will learn to redirect the vast reservoir of their human energy into understanding how reality works. Such a person will then have the best existence possible. Secure in the knowledge of reality, such a person can face any challenge. In fact, once a higher philosophic level is attained, the common strivings of mankind become silly and superficial.

But there is one catch, accepting that there is an עול מלבות שמים, a reality outside of our imagination. The acceptance of an objective reality regarding how to live life was the transformation everyone at Mt. Sinai had to make in heart, mind, and attitude. This transformation by our ancestors at Har Sinai is the same starting point from which every scientist embarks on his quest to understand the physical world. He accepts that there are objective rules governing the phenomena to which he adheres. Then he goes about trying to understand them.

Neither system created by God has anything to do with whether we like it or not. Travel, for example, is becoming more and more burdensome. The flight of a bird seems so easy and enjoyable, but humans can’t. And sure, eating whatever we want, whenever we want has its advantages. Having to wait between eating certain foods is annoying. But we must. Why? What? When? Where? How? Who? All are good questions. What is the person to do? Go and learn.

When בני ישראל responded to Moshe, נעשה ונשמע, “we will do and then we will listen,” they were, in essence, saying we accept that we must submit our actions to the will of God.  At the same time, we will study and learn how they make sense and afford every person the best possible human existence. This is the most fundamental idea in the approach to understanding the system of Judaism. It is formulated succinctly in the opening line of the Shema.

Shavuot marks the seminal event, the grounding of all that we do as Jews. The transformation that our ancestors made long ago is the same transformation that every subsequent generation of Jews, we included, must make. Just as our ancestors affirmed at Har Sinai their acceptance of the עול מלכות שמים, the objective reality of how to live life, by saying נעשה ונשמע, “we will do and then go learn,” so too let us reaffirm this Shavuot our commitment to “the yoke of kingship of heaven” embracing the King’s commands through doing and learning.

In this merit May Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Wishing the entire David Posnack Jewish Day School family, a שבת שלום and a חג שמח,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan