Celebrating Shavuos Alone
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 31, 2006
Matan Torah is the most important event in human history. Had our ancestors not accepted the Torah, all of Creation would have returned to its original formlessness.
Yet most Jews Shavuos have barely heard of Shavuos, the celebration of Matan Torah. In Eretz Yisrael, the contrast between Shavuos and the other yomim tovim could not be more stark. Most Jews celebrate Pesach and Sukkot in one form or another. Almost all families sit down to a Seder. And even in non-religious neighborhoods, many families build sukkahs. On Yom Kippur, the streets fall largely silent, and a large majority of the population fast. In short, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar are felt.
Shavuos is the glaring exception. It lacks any special customs in which all can join. Eating cheesecake will not bring a secular Jew any closer to the essence of the day. Staying up all night learning Torah and the long Shavuos morning davening offer few attractions to those for whom these activities are not already part of their lives.
Nor can secular Israelis attach some universal message (however distorted) to Shavuos. It is not a celebration of human freedom, like Pesach; nor of the courage required to battle external tyrants, like Chanukah; nor a call to repentance and self-examination, like Yom Kippur.
Shavuos is only about the acceptance of Torah. For those Israeli Jews for whom Torah has long since ceased to be relevant, the holiday offers nothing.
The tragedy of Shavuos in Israel of 5766 is that we – the religious community – will once again be celebrating alone. Yet the receipt of Torah required the entirety of Klal Yisrael – k’ish echad b’lev echad. And today something is lacking in the kabbolos HaTorah of each and every one of us, as long as the study and observance of Torah is the province of only a small percentage of Jews.
PART OF OUR OWN KABBOLOS HATORAH this Shavuos must be a resolve to spread knowledge of Torah among our fellow Jews. Last winter, I spoke in a shul in Detroit, which I was told is packed one night a week with around 200 pairs of religious and non-religious Jews sitting together over one of the classic texts. Over 11,000 American Jews are participating in such partnerships, either in person or over the telephone, through Torah Umesorah’s Partners in Torah program. Sadly, the list of non-religious Jews waiting for a partner is always longer than the number of mentors available.
If such a program can take hold in America, and more recently England, it can take hold in Eretz Yisrael as well. Just within the last couple of weeks, a determined young American avreich named Rabbi Yisrael Ehrman has signed up 200 mentors for a program in Israel patterned on Partners in Torah called Yedidim.
Apart from programs like Yedidim, and Lev L’Achim’s outreach efforts involving nearly 2,000 avreichim on a weekly basis, we have to find a way as a community to convey to secular Israelis that the Torah has something to say about every aspect of life and its relevance is not confined to the beis medrash.
That will not be easy message to get across. The media will not assist us. Yet unless we demonstrate that the Torah is a Torah of life – all of life – we will continue to find it hard to receive a hearing.
Consider a hypothetical 35-year-old secular Jew, with a wife and three children. One day he awakens with a vague feeling that something is amiss with his life, or that the modern state of Israel cannot be the Jewish polity for which his ancestors prayed throughout the millennia of galus.
He is seized by the desire to make his life more Jewish, and feels the need for a connection to Hashem. Yet he has never opened up a Gemara, his wife does not yet share his feelings, and his bank balance is negative. He is not, in short, a candidate to take up the life of a kollel yungeman tomorrow or to send his children to chareidi schools in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem.
If we give him the impression that anything less is not being a serious Jew, he is lost. The moment of spiritual awakening will pass with nothing to show for it.
FINALLY, we have to acknowledge that within the ranks of the Torah community as well there are too many who are not experiencing the sweetness of Torah. In a society in which long-term Torah learning is the norm, young boys who find themselves struggling to keep up with classmates may come to feel trapped in a system in which they sense themselves to be doomed to failure. Too many of those will grow to reject a society that they feel has consigned them to the also-ran category.
Often times, the solution is no more complicated than providing one-on-one tutoring with an avreich who can provide the individual attention and warmth that an overwhelmed rebbe often cannot. A Har Nof neighbor of mine, Rabbi Yaakov Rushnevsky, has developed an entire program of individual tutoring called Chavrutah.
Warmth and constant encouragement are his tools. But he has approached the task with eyes of a veteran educator. Each tutor himself has a supervisor with whom he discusses biweekly each student’s progress and any problems that have developed.
Rabbi Rushnevsky also recognized that success ultimately depends on working hand in hand with rebbes. A whole month’s progress in private tutorials can be wiped out by one harsh remark from a classroom rebbe.
When rebbes are involved in the process they can generate wonderful synergy’s with the private tutors. To that end, Chavrutah recently sponsored a Shabbat Iyun for the entire educational staff of the Har Nof’s largest cheder and their wives. Recognized authorities lectured on the effect of diet on learning disorders and the use of Ritalin.
But the primary message was the miraculous results that a rebbe can achieve by building a talmid’s self-esteem and establishing a personal relationship. In the relaxed Shabbos atmosphere, the overworked rebbeim were able to soak up the message of relating to each talmid as an individual.
Chavrutah offers a prototype that can and should be emulated in communities all around the world.
If we give just a little thought this Shavuos to all those, within and without, who are not joining us for Kabolos HaTorah, perhaps next year we will not find ourselves celebrating alone again.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Shavuot
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