Selected Sermon/Article
2008-06-10 Shevous/ Yizkor 5768/ 2008 by Rabbi Zeev Smason
A New Approach to Matan Torah
This spring, Chani decided to make a big push to improve the outside appearance of our home. And when Chani makes a 'big push' is made to improve the outside of the house, you know what that means, don't you? It means that I, Rabbi Smason, am in charge of mowing the lawn.

I enjoy cutting the grass. I really do. I enjoy being outdoors, and doing outdoor, physical activities. The problem with the mower I used the first few times I cut the grass this year was, though -- it was like pushing a 70 pound rock -- uphill. "Well," I said to myself, as I came back quite sweaty and almost exhausted -- "at least I got a good work out! " And you know how those rabbis are...just turning the pages of books all day. We can always use a bit more exercise. Or maybe even a lot of exercise.

I found out last week, however, that I was getting more exercise than I needed with the mower I had used. Why? Because the handle on the left side of the handle of the lawn mower (which I had ignored) activated the 'power mode'. Push the handle forward and ...voila! The mower goes virtually by itself!

If I would have known then, what I know now -- I would have gotten a lot less exercise.

Understanding how things really work makes life so much easier. We often think we know how things work, and what something is really about. But if we just open our eyes and ....push the handle....things might become so much easier and clearer.

Like most of you, I always thought that the essence of Shevous was about the giving of the Torah. After all, don't we refer to the Yom Tov in our davening as 'Yom Matan Torahsaynu' -- the day of the giving of the Torah?

This year, however, I have a different and clearer understand of what Shevous is really about. Thanks to a fascinating book by Rabbi Moshe Eisemann of Yeshivat Ner Israel titled 'I Brought You Unto Me; A Fresh Look at Ma'amad Har Sinai', I've had a new relationship to the Chag. I'd like to share with you, if I may, the essence of the approach Rabbi Eisemann suggests

Let's get the ball rolling with a story that appears in the Torah 40 days after the Aseres HaDibros were given: the story of the Chet HaAgel -- the Golden Calf.

You know the story. Bnai Yisrael miscalculated when Moshe was to return following the giving of the Torah. Panicking, Bnai Yisrael made an Agel HaZahav (a golden calf). Hashem became extremely angry with Bnai Yisrael, and if not for the intervention of Moshe Rabbanu, all of Bnai Yisrael (except for Moshe) would have been destroyed.

What exactly was it that so angered Hashem? Angered Him to the point that He was prepared, so to speak, to use the nuclear option? Was it that we worshiped an idol? Was it that we hadn't abandoned our slave mentality which we brought with us from Egypt? The key verse to understanding the Chet HaAgel -- and, to understanding what Shevous is really about -- is the verse that says:

Vayomer Hashem el Moshe, 'rahiti es ha'am ha'zeh, v'hinay am kasheh oref hoo'

Hashem said to Moshe, I have observed this nation, and it is a stiff-necked one.

Now..what does that mean? How does the fact that they made the eigel show that they are stiff-necked? And even if we were to say that we were a stubborn, obstinate, stiff-necked people that a reason to destroy them?

Let me ask you to hold that thought for a moment, while I ask you a different question. A question that will, I promise, lead us to the understanding of Shevous that we're seeking.

What does Hashem most want that we should know concerning His relationship with us. What mistaken idea does He most want all of us to avoid? If it's hard to relate to the idea of what Hashem wants us to know about how He feels about us -- maybe we can access the power of Yizkor. Let's think about our father -- those who are fortunate to have a father who is alive, and the rest of us who fondly remember our father. What is or was the key thing our father wants or wanted us to know about his relationship with us?

Perhaps there is no passage in all of Jewish literature that describes the real relationship that Hashem wants to have with us as vividly as does Ibn Gabriol in his work, 'Keser Malchus' The author writes:

Therefore were You to kill me -- I would yet place my hope in You Were You eager to find out my sins I would flee from You -- to You I would seek shelter from your anger -- in Your Shadow I would hold tight upon the hems of your garment of mercy -- Until You had showered me with mercy. I would not let You go -- until You had showered Your blessings upon me.

Those words -- to flee from You -- to You -- are words to remember and carry with us --- or words to carry us -- through life. They make the thought that perhaps some form of intermediary is needed between us and Hashem -- like the Aigel HaZahav -- to seem ridiculous.

The essence of Shavous, then, isn't really about the giving of the Torah. Shavous is about a wedding; with Hashem as the groom, and we, Bnai Yisrael, as a bride. Hashem took us to be His special nation (mamleches cohanim v'goy kadosh -- a nation of priests and a holy nation), and we took Him to be our God. The process -- with the tablets that the Aseres HaDibros were written upon -- was through the 'wedding ring'. And in the process, a very special relationship that began with the Avos was sealed.

To state it differently, the day of Matan Torah is the day that Hashem found his bshert. We who struggle to find out what Shevous is about are like first-time guests at a Jewish wedding. We know that all the strange bits and pieces must have some valid role to play, but we're missing the tools to put it all together. We need to see the bigger picture.

Let's take marriage, for example. There are certainly 'bits and pieces' of every marriage. Who goes to work, and who does the cooking? Who plants the flowers, and who mows the lawn? Who drives the carpools, and who supervises the homework? These are legitimate questions, and the details they involve must be worked out.

However, if someone were to define a marriage as no more than a contract -- a contract within which only the housekeeping chores are divided up equally -- what type of marriage would that be?

George Bernard Shaw described marriage as that time: when two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions. There are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part

I'm not sure what kind of marriage Shaw had. I do know, however, that his father was a drunkard who was so despised by his family, that when the father died, his wife and children didn't even attend the funeral. And as for Shaw's mother, she left the family to teach singing and music, with Shaw and his siblings being raised by servants.

A Jewish marriage, on the other hand, involves intimacy between husband and wife, the mutual feeling of love and respect. The determination to become partners in building a 'life together'. A Jewish marriage is when two become One.

It is this sense, then, that we're called upon to understand Shavous. It's a day where we celebrate the creation of a relationship of love, caring, of cleaving, and of intimacy. The giving of the Torah? That was the means to the end. The means to....a relationship.

Shevous is a time to contemplate the relationship we have with the Almighty, and the type of relationship He wants to have with us. Yizkor is a time to contemplate the relationship we had with our dear loved ones, who we fondly remember today. In the merit of the tzedaka we pledge in their memories, may Hashem grant us a closer relationship with Him, and a meaningful Shevous.