Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Beautiful, and So Are You

Tonight was a special night in Yerushalayim. As the neighborhood cleared out for a wedding of a fellow yeshiva student, I was gladly left to wander unihibited. I went to Ben Yedhudah Street for dinner, and having ordered to go, I found a nice, obscure spot to eat. It happened that the spot was within earshot of a small cafe with life music. Tonight, the music was provided by an Israeli guitar player who played soothing versions of already soothing Beatles songs. As I sat there, if just for a moment, I got to a place where I once again realized how nice it was to be in such a city as Yerushalayim.

Recently, I have had questions about my ability to really enjoy my time here in Israel, while also having to be preoccupied with yeshiva. What makes the difference? If something is wonderful, as so many things truly are, that quality should be present whether one is doing a million things or one thing. The difference, it seems, is the difference between two qualities addressed in the upcoming holiday of Shavuos: matan Torah and kabalas haTorah, the giving of Torah and the receiving of Torah.

Judaism teaches that while the revelation of Sinai took place in the desert at one time in history, it continues to come with us. Each day, constantly, Hashem pours out Torah onto the world, whether we realize it or not. On Shavuos, the holiday that marks the initial giving of the Torah, it seems that the magnetism of the moment is extra special, but the current giving of the Torah is not limited to that day. The difference about Shavuos is that it is a special day to concentrate our own minds and energy on the idea of the giving of Torah, what this means to us, and how we can refocus ourselves to be able to receive the Torah that is constantly poured upon us.

This is the real difference: we must recognize that the process of acquiring something is two-fold. First, the object must be made available. In the case of Torah, Hashem makes it available at every moment. Secondly, we must recognize our own responsibility and engage in kabalas haTorah, receiving the Torah.

To get to a place that truly enables one the be mekabel the Torah doesn't seem like an easy task. The sages, in their amazing understanding of the human condition, explained what is needed in order to achieve such a difficult task: one must make himself and his Torah hefker, meaning "without an owner". In his commentary, the scholar Rashi explains this to mean that one must understand that they are essentially not their own, but were placed on this earth for a purpose, and the same is true of the Torah knowledge already acquired. Once we understand this, and begin to share ourselves, our time, and our knowledge with others, Rashi says that this will clear our vessels and allow ourselves to receive all of the new insights into Torah that are flowing into the world at every moment. Even 2,500 years ago, Jewish scholars understood what we can hardly grasp today: only an empty vessel can receive more.

The story is told that there was once a great rabbi who, after learning all of Talmud Bavli (the extensive volumes of commentary composed by leaders of the exile community in Babylon) and committing it to memory, he wished to learn the Talmud Yerushalmi, written by the leaders in Jerusalem and filled with much more mystical insight. After attempting time and time again to learn the Yerushalmi, he found himself unable to remember even a single word. Finally, frustrated and confused, he visited another rabbi. Upon hearing of the problem, he was presented with a solution: in order to learn the great and mystical Talmud Yerushalmi, he had to forget all of the Bavli.

In our everyday life, we can apply this principle beyond Torah learning: the best way to increase something inside ourselves is to share it with others. The questions, struggles, and insights that this can bring are of infinite value. Perhaps this has been my problem here in Israel: I was too busy looking for what I didn't have, that I hardly understood what I do have. In this realization, in the ability to embrace and share our portion with others, everything can be found. The same is true of all things, and Torah in particular, if we accept the truth of it, as R' Ben Bag Bag said in Pirkei Avos, "Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it." On this Shavuos, the season of the giving of Torah, may we all remember to receive our portion by understanding our role in giving it to others.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the picture you have given me in your words you have written. Of course I know the songs the Beatles have played they can always bring one self to a different place. Just like your words have opened my mind and has taken me to a new level of thinking. Wish I could of been there to enjoy the sights and sounds but I was there in mind just not in body. Be Safe and G-D Bless. Love/Miss ya Mom Good Blog