Give a little bit …

One doesn’t usually think of the rock group Supertramp when studying Mishna … but maybe we should.  Towards that end, maybe you’d like to play this song in the background as you read the below post.

The Mishna in question is the very first to appear in the Tractate of Shabbat, while the topic in question is the halacha relating to carrying on Shabbat, or more specifically, the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat.  Here is the Mishna along with the translation provided by the excellent website Sepharia.org:

מתני׳ יציאות השבת שתים שהן ארבע בפנים ושתים שהן ארבע בחוץ

MISHNA: The acts of carrying out from a public domain into a private domain or vice versa, which are prohibited on Shabbat, are primarily two basic actions that comprise four cases from the perspective of a person inside a private domain, and two basic actions that comprise four cases from the perspective of a person outside, in a public domain.

The mishna elaborates: How do these eight cases take place? In order to answer that question, the mishna cites cases involving a poor person and a homeowner.

העני עומד בחוץ ובעל הבית בפנים פשט העני את ידו לפנים ונתן לתוך ידו של בעל הבית או שנטל מתוכה והוציא העני חייב ובעל הבית פטור:

The poor person stands outside, in the public domain, and the homeowner stands inside, in the private domain. The poor person lifted an object in the public domain, extended his hand into the private domain, and placed the object into the hand of the homeowner. In that case, the poor person performed the prohibited labor of carrying from the public domain into the private domain in its entirety. Or, the poor person reached his hand into the private domain, took an item from the hand of the homeowner, and carried it out into the public domain. In that case, the poor person performed the prohibited labor of carrying out from the private domain into the public domain in its entirety. In both of these cases, because the poor person performed the prohibited labor in its entirety, he is liable and the homeowner is exempt.


When I first studied this Mishna I, like most students I imagine, focused on the laws of carrying on Shabbat, the intricate details of what is a public domain and a private domain, and how one must act in order to avoid violating the prohibition of transferring an item from one domain to the other.

And then it hit me!  All this is interesting – and important – of course.  But even more significant, I believe, is the example the Rabbis chose to utilize to make their point: A relatively comfortable individual trying to help out a relatively poor individual.  In short, an act of Tzedaka.

So many other examples of carrying could have been highlighted, but the Rabbis chose this one as the paradigmatic action one is customarily involved in on Shabbat.  That, in itself, is radical; after all, most tzedaka involves money, and handling money of course on Shabbat is prohibited, so the Rabbis must have been alluding to a more permitted activity such as providing food for the holiday.  Certainly that’s a possible scenario that might take place in one’s life, but by no means a necessarily common one.  How often do poor people knock on your door on Shabbat?  Or more intriguing: How often do you knock on the door of a poor person on Shabbat?

That the Rabbis bring this example suggests a few things.  First, of course, we should always be thinking about how we can help others – even when learning about what otherwise appears as a relatively ‘ritual’ mitzvah between me and God alone, like carrying on Shabbat.  One doesn’t often think of Shabbat as a time to perform tzedaka – with its connection to money and all – but here the Rabbis remind us that through a little ingenuity the opportunity to help out nevertheless exists.

Second, perhaps we shouldn’t even have been thinking of this halacha – carrying on Shabbat – as a mitzvah between man and God alone.  Perhaps, as the somewhat out-of-place mention of tzedaka suggests, our concern about not carrying actually relates to relations between people.  And indeed it does: What might our motivation for carrying on Shabbat be?  Maybe to bring food to a Shabbat meal where one has been invited.  Or to help a young child – or an elderly person – move around on Shabbat.  The possibilities are endless.  And, of course, what is the mechanism by which we enable carrying to take place?  An eruv.  One on hand, this device seems highly technical and perhaps even a little ‘loophole-y’ but as one who understand the logic behind this law will attest, the philosophical essence of the eruv is to transform a large area of separate homes into a communal living space shared by all.

A third lesson suggested by the use of this example is to remind us of the importance of tzedaka in general, not only on Shabbat – the day in question in this Mishna – but throughout our lives.  The importance of this mitzvah can be appreciated by a quick survey of Rabbinic literature.  For example, Rav Assi states that “tzedaka is as important as all the other commandments put together.” (Bava Batra 9a)  Rabbi Eleazar explains the verse “To do righteousness (tzedaka) and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (from Proverbs 21:3) to mean that charity is greater than all the sacrifices (Sukkah 49b).  Moreover, tzedakah hastens redemption (Bava Batra 10a), ensures that the doer will have wise, wealthy, and learned sons (Bava Batra 19b), and atones for sins (Bava Batra 9a). Together with Torah and prayer, giving to others is one of the pillars on which the world rests (Pirkei Avot 1:2). Furthermore, giving charity does not impoverish and not giving is tantamount to idolatry (Ketuboth 68a). In short, tzedaka is key to a religious life.  (Interestingly, the word religion itself suggests as such, since its latin root, religia, literally means to connect – like a ligament).

And thus the Rabbi’s use of this example, an essential part of our lifestyle, to help understand Shabbat, an essential day in our week and basis for much of our theology, makes perfect sense.

So give a little bit …




Meet Alvin Wong

An oldie but goodie: In 2011 the New York Times set out to find the happiest man in America.  Based on a series of data connected to health, spiritual well being, satisfaction, and other factors relating to happiness, the newspaper revealed the following conclusions: “He is a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 years old and married with children and lives in Hawaii …”  A few phone calls later and the paper finds that this profile actually exists … in the form of Alvin Wong.

The full article can be found here.


With Purim approaching I thought perhaps a little Torah on happiness might be appropriate:  The Talmud in Hulin (139) informs us that Haman is alluded to within the story of Adam and Eve.  Where? you ask.  According to Rav Matna, it is when God challenges Adam after he disobeys God and eats from the Tree of Knowledge.  In the language of the Torah, “Ha’min ha’etz asher …” or in English, “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?”  The first word of that question is “Ha’min” – which just so happens to be composed of the exact same letters as Haman.

What should we learn from this connection?

Perhaps if we consider Haman’s perpetual state of dissatisfaction we can begin to offer a possiblerollingstones suggestion.  Haman, after all, is the one individual you would think would be quite happy.  As second in command of the nation, he had wealth, power and everything else one could possibly want … except for the respect of one particular Jew, Mordechai.  And that drove him nuts.  And thus, rather than enjoying all that he had, he was only capable of focusing on that which he did not have.  As Haman himself said, “But all this is worth nothing to me” (Ester 5:13).  That, of course, was his downfall.

And that, of course, is also at play in Adam’s downfall.  God offers him every fruit in the Garden of Eden – literally, the Garden of Eden! – and yet he becomes consumed by the one item he is not permitted to consume.  Again, a lack of satisfaction leads to a great sin.

The way we repair the sin of Haman – and Adam for that matter – should therefore be fairly clear.  We must rejoice in what we have.  Be satisfied by our good fortune, not obsessed with our failures.  Focused on our blessings, oblivious to our lackings.

When Adar enters  we are commanded to increase our happiness.  That does not necessarily require us to increase those things that usually help us to be happy – feasting, drinking, celebrating – but it does require a perspective of ‘growing’ our appreciation of what we already have.


A Giant Hug

Here is my column from nearly a decade ago about our love for Jerusalem.

Was Yakov and Accountant?

Parshat VaYetzei

One of the famous scenes in this week’s Torah reading is Yakov’s dream of the Angels ascending and descending a ladder placed on the ground and whose top is somewhere in the heavens.  And one of the most famous interpretations of this dream is provided in the Midrash: The angels represent different nations, such as the Babylonian and the Roman Empires.  Their ‘Angels’ will ascend – they will conquer eretz yisrael and am yisrael and subjugate our people.  But in the end, the Midrash comforts Yakov, they will also descend and self-destruct.  In the end, Am Yisrael will persevere and remain standing. 

The Torah Shlema brings another midrash that challenges this above understanding slightly.  Yes, the nations of the world will ascend and subjugate Am Yisrael.  But, says this Midrash, Yakov you don’t need to be a passive spectator in this historical phenomenon.  “Yakov” calls out God, “you can ascend as well.   You need not wait until the end to merely survive the others, simply outlast them; you can actually thrive now.”  Yakov hears this offer but, according to the Midrash, is fearful.  “If I ascend, won’t I suffer the same fate at the others and eventually descend as well.”  Hashem tells Yakov not to worry, that he will be next to God, and just as God is eternal and steadfast, so too will Yakov be.  But Yakov is too afraid to listen; he refuses the offer and remains on the ground.

The midrash then goes on to say that Yakov’s fear was punished, that Hashem was so disappointed in Yakov that He decided to bring future punishments on all of Am Yisrael as a result of his hesitancy.

We could end here and simply conclude with the following message: One must not fear.  One must take chances and be filled with courage.  One cannot accomplish great things without the possibility first of failing at great things, but it is worth the risk.

But I would like to go a step further because I am bothered by something the midrash suggests.  It says that Yakov was punished for his lack of courage. 

Why?  Yakov certainly had every right to be a little jittery at this point in his life.  His brother was trying to kill him.  He was going into exile as a result.  He was all alone in the world, and had no idea what the future held in store.  To be apprehensive seems to be the most natural response possible.  Why punish him for simply responding as one might expect he would respond.

Moreover, let us remember that this was just a dream.  Even if he deserves punishment for not seizing the moment in real life, this was NOT real life.  He merely dreamt it – but he didn’t actually fail to demonstrate courage in real life. 

How are we to explain the midrash’s severe treatment of Yakov?

Perhaps the answer can be found by understanding why the midrash treats another individual in the Torah so positively.  Here I am referring to Leah.

Though the Torah text itself describes her as the ‘hated wife’ of Yakov, and goes on to suggest she herself felt embittered by her marriage – for example, when she names her first son, Reuven, we are told it is because God has now seen (re’ah) her suffering (ani’i) – the midrash describes Lea in an inspiringly positive fashion:

Picking up on the fact that it is she amongst Yakov’s four ‘wives’ who is buried next to him in the Cave of the Patriachs, the midrash suggests that she became in the end the one most beloved by him. 

 When the Torah first introduces us to Lea and Rachel we are told one is the ‘bigger’ and the other the ‘smaller.’  Why that language?  When the Torah describes Lot’s daughters, we are told that one is older and the other younger.  Why the difference.  Because, says the midrash, Lea actually had a ‘bigger’ impact on Am Yisrael than Rachel.  Not simply because she had more children, but also because her children had a more powerful and long lasting effect.  Consider Rachel’s physical and spiritual descendants: Yoseph, Shaul, Shilo and Moshiach ben Yosef.  And Lea’s: Moshe and Aron, David, Yerushalayim and Moshiach ben David.  Yoseph was of course an inspiring figure, but he was also a transitional one, while Moshe became a more permanent fixture in our tradition and the ultimate liberator of our experience in Egypt; Yoseph simply alleviated suffering, Moshe redeemed us.  Shaul was the first king of Israel; but David will be the eternal king.  Shilo is where the mishkan was erected, but again only temporarily.  Yerushalayim, which has some connection to Rachel as well given that it connects to Binyamin’s portion, is surrounded by Yehuda’s portion.  And of course the beit hamikdash is built here, and is more permanent than the mishkan.  And finally the difference between Moshiach ben Yoseph, who ushers in the messianic era, and Moshiach ben David, who fulfills it.  In all these cases, Rachel’s descendants prove powerful, but temporal, while Lea’s descendants are both powerful and enduring.

And even the Torah’s description of Lea’s sorrowful naming of her first born Reuven … even this, the midrash turns into a positive.  Reu – look! – shouts Lea to all those who will listen, and see the difference between (ben) my son and my mother-in-law’s son.  Her son, of course, is Reuven, and her mother-in-law’s son is Eisav, Yakov’s brother.  How did Eisav react when he felt his birthright was stolen?  He threatened to kill Yakov.  But how did my son, Reuven, react when he lost the ‘first born’ status to Yoseph?  He tried to save his life by pulling him up from the pit his other brothers threw him into.

And the examples go on and on.  Each time we think we understand Lea to be an object of pity the midrash transforms her into an object of admiration.  Why?

Before we explore the answer of Chazal, let me offer a little scientific background:

In 2004 a person was arrested and sentenced to 4 years of jail for refusing to turn off his phone during a flight from Egypt to England.  Why?  Because he was too enmeshed in his game of Tetrus.  He just couldn’t stop.

For those of you who have played this game, you may just understand his addiction.  You may also understand what happened to a group of Harvard students who participated in a Tetrus experiment for three days during which they played the game constantly.  Afterwards, many of them reported seeing the game in their mind repeatedly, sometimes even trying to match different physical object as if they existed on a Tetrus board.  For example, one student said he would walk the cereal aisles of the local supermarket and try – in him mind – to have different cereal boxes turned on their sides to make a perfect line.

Scientists have written about the Tetrus effect, concluding that something biological actually happens when you play the game for any length of time: Your brain neurons actually become rewired so now you are better prepared to play the game. 

And this happens not only with tetrus but with many activities that one does repeatedly. 

As you can imagine, this sometimes has quite the negative impact.  Consider, for example, the life of an accountant.  All day he spends time looking for errors in tax audits (of course there are many accountants that also spend all day looking for opportunities for their clients; I’m referring her to the former group).  According to one study, this tendency to find mistakes soon transmigrates from his work to his home.  After all, his brain has now actually become rewired to find mistakes wherever he looks.  Now, to the chagrin of his family, he has become “predictively encoded” to see mistakes in their lives.  One accountant even told a friend that he had prepared an excel sheet with all the errors his wife made the past year; he thought she’d be greatly appreciative of the effort.

Why does this happen?  Scientists point out that we receive hundreds of pieces of information every day, and from every 100 bits of information we can actually only integrate about one.  We have ‘spam filer’ on for all the rest.  And how do we set the spam filter?  Basically, by how we tell our brain to consider information, and we do that by repeated actions.  So in the case of the accountant, he repeatedly looked for mistakes, thus telling his brain that mistakes are the things he is interested in seeing.  When positive things came along, aware that one’s brain cannot handle too much information before becoming overloaded, they were simply ignored and placed in spam.  So he never even saw them.  But when a juicy mistake came along, it was immediately placed at the top of his inbasket.

Fortunately, what works in the negative also works in the positive.  If one goes out of their way to find the positive in life, well then his or her brain will be predictively encoded to see more and more positive things wherever that person is.  In one study, for example, a group of people were told to write down three positive things they experienced every day for a week.  A month later those who participated still were finding more positive things in their life than a control group that was never asked to participate in the experiment in the first place.  Same thing occurred 3 months and then 6 months later.  And the impact of ‘finding more positive’ things inspired a greater sense of gratitude, which in turn inspired a greater ability to cope with and succeed in life.

OK, what does all this have to do with Lea?


According to Chazal, the quality that Lea possessed more than any other was gratitude.  Indeed, she names her fourth son Yehuda – basically, ‘thank you.’  The midrash points out that this is a sign that Lea was the first person to ever really thank God. 

What does that mean, to really thank God?  Well, prior to Lea, certainly, there were others who thanked God.  But they had reason to do so.  Lea, on the other hand, did not obviously have a strong reason to thank God.  As we pointed out earlier, she had many challenges confronting her throughout her life, not the least of which was a husband that hated her.  But in spite of that, Lea – who may or may not have felt unloved – felt grateful for her lot in life. 

She, in contrast to our accountant friends, saw the positive.  Her spam filter was set to disregard all the negative and pinpoint – and then celebrate – the positive.  And it is for this reason, I imagine, that all her actions had such a long lasting impact on Am Yisrael.


Now let us return to Yakov and his dream.  Yakov, too, had a very difficult life, but unlike Lea he perhaps got stuck in the mud of this negativity.  Perhaps he didn’t see the positive in his life, or at least in the same way that Lea was able to totally transform her experiences.  Yes, his brother wanted to kill him … but didn’t.  Yes, it appeared that his father favored his brother … but his mother favored him.  Yes, he was alone … but he had a close relationship with God at the same time that many of us would envy.  So yes, Yakov had his problems, but he also had his great successes.  Perhaps the midrash we first quoted takes Yakov to task for allowing his subconscious – his dream world – to dwell too much on the former and not enough on the latter.  Perhaps he was struggling with his spam filter, not yet sure which settings were appropriate.  In the end, he will meet Lea and she will help set the filter for him. 

The Torah tells us that Yitzchak re-dug many of the same wells that his father Avraham had dug in his lifetime, an act necessitated by the fact that these earlier wells were filled in by the local inhabitants in the interim.  The Torah seems to emphasize the importance of these acts by having Yitzchak actually name the wells he re-digs.  Many commentators ask why the Torah needs to tell us this seemingly mundane fact.  Some even point out that doing so embarrasses Avraham; after all, it suggests his activities ultimately were for naught.

Traditional answers abound.  The emphasis on Yitzhak’s re-digging highlights his absolute commitment to perpetuating Avraham’s mission; the duplication of Avraham’s behavior is not a negative but the opposite – a positive sign of continuity in faith and behavior.

Another explanation suggests that ‘digging’ is a metaphor for spiritual activity – as in ‘digging’ deep into one’s soul to find out who he or she really is.  Yitzchak did not rely on Avraham’s spiritual journey to suffice for his own; he, too, needed to engage in such a process.

I’d like to offer an additional possibility based on the answer to another question about this week’s parsha.

Prior to the (in)famous incident of Eisav selling his birthright to Ya’akov, the Torah tells us that Eisav has just returned from the field and is starving from hunger.  As a result, he asks Ya’akov for the food he has just prepared, to which Ya’akov agrees so long as Eisav will sell his birthright.  Eisav’s response is fascinating.  Of course he will sell it; he’s about to die from hunger, so what good would the birthright do for him if he doesn’t make the deal – he’ll be dead anyway.

What makes this response so interesting is the fact that Eisav, if he really was about to die, ‘asked’ for the food.  Why didn’t he just take it.  He certainly was not embarrassed about stealing (and worse), so why the hesitation now, especially given the fact that he might even be justified from a halachik perspective.  After all, if someone is truly dying, pikuach nefesh (saving life) would permit him to steal food in order to live.  He certainly was strong enough to take it as well; why didn’t he?

A related question: If in fact Eisav was about to die, did Ya’akov even have the right to withhold the food since doing so might have caused his brother to die?

There is a wonderful answer provided by the Hizkuni that answers all of these questions.  But before we explore it, allow me to offer a little background.


Shawn Achor, the author of the book “The Happiness Advantage” and a professional speaker to boot once asked his audience to sing the song ‘Row Row Your Boat’ in a continuous fashion until he told them to stop (he quickly added: “And I mean to yourself, quietly” – apparently afraid of the sound produced by a roomful of tone deaf business executives singing together).  At the end of the experiment he asked everyone how long they ‘felt’ they had been singing.  The answers varied – from under a minute to as long as five minutes (when he did it in Singapore, the gap was even larger, from 20 seconds to more than eight minutes).  He then revealed that the real time was 70 seconds.

Why did everyone have such a different sense of how long it took?  Because, our author pointed out, everyone was in a different mindset despite being in the same physical space.  People who thought his presentation was going to be boring and couldn’t believe they had to sit through it often thought the experiment took much longer.  Those who were excited about it often thought it took shorter.  Same experiment; same amount of time; but due to ‘being elsewhere’ in their minds, a different sense of time followed.

Here are a couple of additional experiments that make this same point, namely that it is possible to change one’s present by ‘travelling in time’ to a different location and mindset.

The first one was conducted in 1979 with a group of men all of whom were 75 years old.  This group was taken on a weeklong retreat where they all had to ‘pretend’ to be 55.  The TV shows screened all were from 1959 (20 years earlier), as well were the magazines placed throughout the retreat center.  The men were asked to talk about their jobs when they were 55, and some even dressed how they would have dressed back then.  They talked about Eisenhower as the president.

At the end of the week the men were subjected to a battery of tests – such as vision, memory, posture and the like – all tests they had also taken prior to the retreat.  Somewhat amazingly, all the men improved dramatically … as if they had actually become younger.  Their vision improved by 10%, while their memory and posture also showed significant signs of improvement.  Strangers were shown before and after pictures of the group of men and asked to estimate their age for each individual.  On average, the strangers assumed the men after the retreat were three years younger than the men prior to the retreat.

But nothing changed physically.  They simply changed their mindset – travelled in time to 1959 and behaved as if that was their reality.  And in many ways, it did in fact become their reality.

The second experiment I want to share suggests that one can change his or her present also by travelling to the future.  In this case, experimenters told a group of highly allergic people they were rubbing poison ivy on one of their arms.  As it turned out, the bush they rubbed on their arms was a harmless shrub.  But it didn’t matter.  The subjects anticipated what they thought would happen – and it indeed did happen.  All of them began showing signs of infection, such as hives and boils.

On the other arm, then, the experimenters actually rubbed poison ivy, but this time told them that it was harmless.  Only 2 out of the 13 actually demonstrated signs of infection in this case, despite all of them actually being highly allergic.  Again, what they thought was going to happen actually influenced their present.

From these studies – and countless others – scientists conclude that it is possible to change one’s present by changing one’s mindset, that going in one’s mind to either the past or future can actually transform one’s present.  Moreover, very often when one ‘imagines’ an event in a different spatial or time zone, the brain neurons fired during that imagination are actually the exact same ones – and to the same degree – as if the person were presently experiencing what he was only imagining.


Let’s take what we’ve learned from these experiments and return to the Hizkuni.  Remember, he asked why did Eisav not simply take the food if he was going to die anyway.  His answer: Eisav wasn’t actually going to die, but was merely speaking metaphorically.  After all, he – along with Ya’akov – would have been familiar with God’s statement to Avraham, their grandfather, that they would one day inherit the land.  This statement, of course, is the content of the birthright.  Whoever possesses it possesses the land.  However, that is not the full statement made to Avraham.  God also promised him that this inheritance would not be immediate, that prior to it taking effect Avraham’s descendants would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years.

With this in mind we can now understand what Eisav actually said.  “I’m going to die, so what good is the birthright to me” really means: “I’m going to die before the birthright ever becomes relevant to my life; it’s more than 400 years off in the future, and by then I’ll be dead.  So what good is it for me if I’ll never enjoy the benefit.”  With that perspective, we now understand why he was happy to sell it, why he didn’t simply take the food, and why Ya’akov didn’t feel a need to give it to him right away; after all, he wasn’t actually dying.

From this insight we learn two important lessons.  One, of course, relates to delayed gratification.  Just because you don’t see the benefit immediately, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and not coming down the road.

Second, and how we can fortify ourselves to delay our gratification, relates to the experiments we discussed earlier.  I believe Ya’akov was a time traveler.  Yes, he knew like Eisav that he probably would never see in his lifetime the benefits of the birthright.  But that didn’t matter, because in his mind’s eye he could see how the birthright would benefit his children – his nation.  He no doubt enjoyed the same neurons firing as if he actually benefited directly himself.  He moved himself to a different time and that transformed his present and his present valuation of the birthright.


And now we can also return to the initial question about the Torah’s emphasis on the wells  Yitzchak dug.  According to the Ramban, each well represented one of the batei mikdash (Holy Temples).  Mayim Chaim, living waters, do not simply describe what can be found in a well; they also symbolize what the Temples offered to the Jewish people.  The Ramban then goes on to point out that each name given to the wells was significant.  The first one means contention, and indeed this appropriately describes what happened in the time of the First Temple.  There was contention between Am Yisrael and the nations, and the Temple was destroyed.  The second name means enmity, and here too this word describes the situation in the time of the destruction of the second Temple (in fact, this exact word is used in by Haman and others to describe their feelings towards the Jewish people, and then again in the Prophets to describe how the nations of the world felt about the Temple before its destruction).  The third name, however, is quite different – Rechovot, which means broad area, wide open, a horizon.  The Ramban writes that this describes how the 3rd Temple experience will be.  Everyone will have enough space, both physically and spiritually.  “From a narrow space I call out for God’s help, and God answers me from a broad wide open space.”  So, says the Ramban, this is what Yitzchak was thinking at the time of digging the third well.  Yes he may have been amongst strangers in a land not fully his own yet, but in his mind he was envisioning a time when Am Yisrael was safe and secure and able to fulfill its mission to influence the entire world.

And as we know, if that’s where your mind is at, so too are you.


A great number of the customs associated with the Holiday of Shavuot, the day on which the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, seem to hide the true nature of the Holiday.  For example:

1) One of the most popular ‘new’ customs associated with Shavuot is the Tikun Leil, an all-night learning experience where people dedicate themselves to studying Torah in the wee hours of the night (or is it morning already at 3 AM?).  If the study of Torah is really central to the Holiday – and to Judaism in general – why ‘hide’ it in the middle of the night?  Shouldn’t it be celebrated in the most public way possible, at the most popular time possible?

[A brief aside:  I write that this custom is relatively ‘new’ due to the fact that it appears to have begun only in the 1500’s when Rabbi Yosef Karo had a dream in Istanbul informing him that he should stay up all night learning Torah.  It’s interesting to note that it was just about this same time that coffee, which began in Yemen by Sufi mystics interested in staying up all night, and then migrated to Egypt, had just begun to be imported to Istanbul as well.  Perhaps the reason this custom of staying up all night developed and flourished is thanks to this fact.]

2) Perhaps the reason an all-night learning experience developed rather than a day time one was due to a strange Talmudic command that actually forbade learning Torah all day on Shavuot.  That’s right, forbade it.  With other other holidays such a prohibition does not exist.  Usually one would learn a little and feast a little, but of course if wanted to learn exclusively he is permitted to do so.  With Shavuot, though, the text (Pesachim 68b) is clear:  You may not forgo your feast in order to learn Torah exclusively all day.  But if Shavuot is about Torah, why not?

3) One of the main ways we demonstrate our ‘joy’ in a Holiday is by partaking in a feast filled with meat and wine.  The Rambam, presumably quoting the Talmud, actually describes these food items as the definition of joy.  Yet on Shavuot, while there are many who do eat meat, there is a well known custom to partake in dairy products more so than on any other holiday.  Is this another attempt at diminishing the joy of Torah or hiding its significance?

4) The Torah doesn’t even mention the fact that Shavuot is the day on which the Torah is given.  Nor does it tell us the date of this Holiday?  Does it have something to hide?

5) And the most obvious question of all – on Shavuot, unlike other holidays, we have no specific mitzvoth to perform.  No lulav and etrog like on Sukkot.  No Matzah and marror like on Pesach.  No Shofar like on Rosh Hashana.  Why?

To answer all these questions I’d like to suggest that there are actually two ways of understanding Shavuot in particular (and Torah in general), and that one of these ways does indeed require a certain amount of ‘mystery’ in order to successfully convey its essence.

To understand these two aspects of Shavuot, let’s first explore two aspects of what precedes it – the counting of the Omer.

On one hand, it is quite easy to identify the two aspects of this custom.  In one place in the Torah we are commanded to count ‘the days’ between the ‘Shabbat’ of Passover and Shavuot (all 49 of them), while in another place we are commanded to count ‘the weeks’ between the first Omer offering (during Pesach) until the Mincha Chadasha (new offering) of the Two Loaves of Bread Offering (during Shavuot).

On the other hand … what does this mean?

Let’s start with the counting of weeks.  Notice that the Torah is not concerned with the holidays of Passover and Shavuot but rather the ‘offerings’ associated with them.   The goal of counting weeks, then, is to remind us of sacrifice, and more specifically, the Temple’s role in enabling this process.  In so doing, Rav Tzadok teaches, we are also reminded of our national sovereignty.  The pomp and circumstance associated with the Temple was not for my personal benefit, but to celebrate the nation and the nation’s ability to have an impact on the world.  That is why the offering of Shavuot was the Two Loaves of Bread.  Normally we are not thrilled about bringing bread into the Temple; we prefer the ‘humility’ encapsulated by matzah.  But sometimes, writes Rav Tzadok, we need bread as well.  We need the ‘puffing up’ provided by the hametz.  Why?  Because Torah is not meant simply to influence my own personal life, to enrich my personal spiritual experience.  It is meant to have an impact on the world.  Bread symbolizes growth of something small and flat – matzah – to something expansive (yeast literally expands).  By counting weeks, then, we are reminded that Torah must be relevant for the whole world, and must have a public impact.

What then does counting days teach us?

The exact opposite.  It’s about personal growth, about redeeming every small moment – not just the important, global and very public national moments.  Yes, we are to have an impact on the whole world, but don’t forget what the Torah told Avraham: It is through the families of the world that blessing will be bestowed.  That’s why the counting of days doesn’t mention the sacrifices but rather the day after the Shabbat – which is Pesach. Both Shabbat and Pesach emphasize the private life of a Jew.  To the Temple everyone must go; but Shabbat comes to us wherever we are.  Pesach is celebrated in the home, also late at night, also just with the family.  Ultimately a nation is only as strong as the individuals and the families within it.  Thus to strengthen the nation there is no better way than to strengthen oneself.

So these are the two approaches of the counting of the Omer.  What does it teach us about Shavuot?

Rashi points out that the first set of Tablets were given with thunder and lightening and great fanfare … and they were eventually destroyed.  The second set of Tablets were given in modesty and humility on Yom Kipur.

In other words, the Torah was given – and today is learned – both in public and private.  Both are important, but the former can only last if the latter also exists.

Unfortunately, in today’s world that is not only the case.  Many people focus on the public display of Torah, on what others can see – how I dress, what level of kashrut I observe, etc.  But that’s the type of Torah that doesn’t last, nor does it inspire others.  It’s the quiet observance, the day to day Torah study and performance of hidden mitzvoth, seen perhaps by one’s family or more likely by no one at all except the One and All.  That’s the Torah that sticks, and that’s the Torah that makes the national moments so much more meaningful when we eventually arrive at them.

With this insight at hand, let us now return to some of our initial questions about why Torah seems to be hidden on Shavuot of all days.

Obviously it answers why we learn in the middle of the night, far from the public light, as well as why no specific mitzvoth are associated with the day; after all, it’s not about mitzvoth you can see but those that you can’t see.  Perhaps it also explains why we must not forgo our family feasts on this day in order to learn Torah exclusively.  The family, after all, is the pillar on which this ‘hidden’ Torah is built; our table quite literally is the alter on which we learn this special Torah.  We are forbidden to replace the quiet Torah learning of family dynamics with the public Torah learning of the first tablets.

This insight also helps explain the custom of bypassing meat in favor of dairy.  As you may recall I suggested earlier that the Rambam based his position that meat and wine was the definition of joy on the Talmud.  When one reads the Talmud in the original, though, he will find something quite interesting.  It does not say what many of us are accustomed to saying it says, that “there is no simcha without meat and wine.”  Rather, it says that we once had the Temple (and the national experience), and the meat from that experience (the sacrifices brought to the Temple) symbolized that joy.  But now that we no longer have that national experience, we are only left with the joy of wine, the joy that needs to be stimulated from some outside source.

So we see that ‘meat’ symbolized the joy of the national experience of the Temple.  Obviously this is a very important experience, and something that the rebirth of Israel speaks to on a daily basis.  But on Shavuot we are reminded that this nation cannot stand alone; it requires an army of individuals dedicated to celebrating Torah on a daily basis without fanfare, redeeming moments of seeming insignificance from oblivion.