By Yochanan Gordon
One of the unique characteristics of the time between Pesach and Shavuos is the fact that we count up rather than counting down. Sefiras Ha’Omer, which began on the second night of Pesach begins with the first day and commences with the 49th. However, with Lag B’Omer literally upon us as I type these words, in a sense we are in what I refer to as the countdown within the count up to Shavuos. If that seems a little paradoxical to you then such is the mystique of the Ein Sof. In shifting the conversation to Shavuos one of the most fundamental questions with regards to the giving of the Torah is, why was it at all necessary? Our forefathers, Chazal teach us, spent their lives learning Torah and performing mitzvos even prior to it being given; why was the whole event, with all its miracles, necessary? The famous answer given to this in Chabad Chassidus is that prior to the giving of the Torah there was a decree that alienated heaven and earth. In the words of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Ballad of East and West,” “Never the twain shall meet.” Meaning, heaven and earth were independent domains, unable for one to transcend the other. However, G-d’s descent upon Mount Sinai marked the first time that heaven came upon the earth, as the verse states: “And G-d descended upon the Mountain.”
Why is this so important? Our forefathers’ performance of mitzvos prior to the giving of the Torah left no impact or created no sanctity in the objects with which these mitzvos were performed. Today, after the Torah has been given, there are a plethora of laws regarding the status of physical items used in the performance of a mitzvah, that is because with the performance of every mitzvah we are literally marrying heaven and earth. The Gemara in Pesachim quotes Reb Yosef who commented about the day of Shavuos: “If it weren’t for this day, I would be just another Yosef in the marketplace.” Reb Yosef, it seems, is giving commentary on what prior to the giving of the Torah was a certain stale predictability to the day-to-day occurrences in one’s life. What changed with the giving of the Torah, in Reb Yosef’s words, was that every otherwise chance encounter within the hubbub of the marketplace becomes an encounter that was preordained for a very specific purpose at that particular time and with the parties that have come face to face. This is a description of a concept that we all know as hashgachah pratis. The truth is that hashgocha protis isn’t only at play when things miraculously go our way. The notion of Divine providence is always at play even when we are met with circumstances that seem to call G-d’s involvement within our lives into question. It was one such encounter that I had last week as I walked down Central Avenue, on a mild Thursday afternoon, to a local institution to collect payment for some ads that they are running for an upcoming dinner. I entered the impressive, red-brick building, and made my way into the office where the check was printed, cut, and waiting to be collected. The rabbi, who shared an office with the receptionist and the executive director commented that I had grown since the last time he had seen me. I had grown to a much later age in life than most of my peers, but it has been for sure over twenty years since my growth spurt tapped out at an imposing 5’8″. It took a second for me to realize that he was referring to my beard, which was only born during the height of the COVID pandemic and hasn’t yet reached its stage of maturation. The rabbi then asked me where I live and I told him on Summit Avenue in Cedarhurst. Our street was named such due its being the highest point in the Village of Cedarhurst. He then jokingly responded, “So you are looking down upon us.” So, I responded: “A Jew doesn’t look down upon another Jew.” He then countered: “Unless of course one is taller than the other.” And with that our encounter concluded.
On my way back to the office the conversation with the rabbi replayed itself in my head, particularly his last reply that a Jew who is taller inevitably has to look down upon a Jew that is shorter, and that brought to mind the following story.
It was Chanukah in the courtyard of the great Chassidic Master Rebbe Dovid of Lelov. The tradition in the courtyard of the Lelover, as he was affectionately known, was that the Chassidim would all congregate on the sixth night of Chanukah to watch their holy leader light the Chanukah menorah. The courtyard was packed and the appropriate time to light the candles had arrived, but the Rebbe hadn’t emerged from his room to light the candles. Forty-five minutes after the appointed time, the Lelover comes out of his room and signals for Reb Yankel to come over to him. Reb Yankel was a well-known Lelover Chassid who towered above the rest of the Chassidim. The interesting thing about Reb Yankel was that although he stood at a towering height of 6’6” his wife Sarale was just a mere 4’8”. As incongruous as it seems, the people of Lelov had been accustomed to it as Reb Yankel and Sarale were mainstays in their community.
Reb Yankel, who was situated in the back, jostled his way through the crowd until he came within the Rebbe’s presence. The Rebbe asked him: “Everyone knows that you are much taller than your rebbetzin. Tell me, Reb Yankel, what do you do when you need to tell your wife a secret?” Reb Yankel replied: “I bend all the way down and speak softly into her ear.” And with that Reb Dovid Lelover began to recite the berachos and light the menorah. Chazal teach that the Shechinah never descended below ten cubits. However, there is a tradition that the Chanukah menorah be as low to the ground as possible. It is also taught that the flames of the Chanukah light are a manifestation of the light which G-d concealed on the first day of creation. Reb Dovid couldn’t conceptualize how such a lofty luminescence can descend so low into this world. He then thought about Reb Yankel and his rebbetzin and that allayed his concerns and enabled him to carry on with kindling the menorah. In case you are wondering about the relationship between Chanukah and the coming yom tov of Shavuos, the Gemara records a dispute between Rebbe Eliezer and Rebbe Yehoshua with regards to when the world was created, in Tishrei or in Nissan. The conclusion drawn in the sifrei Kabbalah is that the world was created in thought in the month of Nissan while it was actively created in the month of Tishrei. Chanukah, of course, is three months into the year, which begins in Tishrei while Shavuos, which is in the beginning of Sivan, is in the third month of the year that began in Nissan. Additionally, many sefarim make note of the fact that the Hebrew spelling of the word Sivan comprises the letters samech yavan, which clearly delineates a connection between the two holidays, at least phonetically. Furthermore, the Greeks, during the era of the Chanukah story, sought to proscribe altruistic Torah learning, which is the Torah we received at the foot of Mount Sinai for the purposes of a relationship with Hashem to the exclusion of all other gods. In a sense, it seems that the positioning of 19 Kislev just under a week prior to the holiday of Chanukah, which celebrates the promulgation of the hidden aspects of Torah to the masses plays a similar role to Lag B’Omer, which commemorates the life of Rashbi, who in many respects is seen as the patriarch of Toras HaNistar, just two weeks prior to the yom tov of Shavuos when we received Torah as a nation.
As my conversation with the rabbi replayed itself through the contours of my mind during the three-minute walk back to my Central Avenue office, I chided myself for not remembering this story sooner. I was bent on advancing a notion that one Jew never look down upon another, even in an instance where one is taller than the other and this story would have ended that debate with my position on top.
The very fact that G-d chose Har Sinai, the smallest of all the mountains, to give the Torah upon and particularly within a desert, a place which is hefker, is to emphasize the importance of engaging in Torah with a sense of nullity before all people; that nobody can claim ownership over the Torah and should therefore not be a medium that will create a situation where one Jew scorns or looks down upon another.
This sense of haughtiness that often sets in upon people who perceive themselves in positions of authority stem not from achievement in Torah, rather, insecurity through a lack of bittul. The reason G-d chose to give the Torah through Moshe is because Moshe when teaching the Torah to the Yidden didn’t hold back. Just like a candle can share of its light with other candles without a concern that it might diminish its own light, Moshe taught the Torah to the Yidden without the slightest concern that anyone might outperform him.
We need to adopt this virtue of humility. It’s an ideal that will help us in all aspects of our lives, both spiritually and materially to see the providence of G-d in our lives always and to see each other as part of a greater whole leading to the unity we achieved at the foot of the mountain of one man with one heart.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.