For the week ending 4 June 2022 / 5 Sivan 5782

Shavuot - Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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We have finally reached the end of the forty-nine days that connect Pesach to Shavuot. The Torah commands us to count each day, and the fiftieth day is designated as the festival of Shavuot. Fascinatingly enough, most festivals are named for the miracles that occurred on them — but not Shavuot. For example, Pesach means that Hashem had compassion for the Jewish People and “passed over” their homes during the final plague. Why, then, is Shavuot — which means “weeks” — called Shavuot? Why is it not named “Matan Torah” after the most consequential event to ever occur in world history, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? More than that, the name Shavuot refers to the seven weeks that preceded the giving of the Torah. It does not seem to be referencing the actual giving of the Torah at all!

Rabbi Moshe from Kobrin, Belarus (1783-1858), explained this seeming dichotomy with a delightful parable. A king hired four artists to decorate the throne room of his palace, assigning a different wall to each artist. The king explained to them that he wanted the room to reflect the opulence of his sovereignty, and also to be as elegant as possible. The four chosen artists should do whatever was necessary to make the king’s dream come true, sparing no money in the process. The goal was to turn the room into a beautiful and graceful space befitting of the king’s stature. Three of the artists invested all their artistic talents into the task. They worked hard for weeks, and each one created a stunning masterpiece. The fourth artist, however, didn’t come to the palace at all. In fact, he was so busy with other his other projects that he ignored the palace entirely. The three artists often wondered about the foolish behavior of their fourth “colleague.” It wasn’t just that he nothing to show the king, there was also the fact that, when the time came, he would surely be severely punished for neglecting his royal duties. On the day before the royal inspection, the fourth artist appeared at the palace. It was time for him to begin his work. The other three artists watched in amazement as the fourth artist covered his wall with a wall-to-wall mirror. On completion, it was clear that his wall was even more beautiful than the other three, because it reflected the collective beauty of the other three walls.

When the king arrived, he admired the workmanship of the three artists, but he was absolutely dazzled by the beauty of the fourth wall. He called for the fourth artist to praise him and to ask him where he got the idea from. The artist explained to the king that he could have decorated the wall just like his three colleagues, but he knew that a mirror would be even more stunning because it would reflect the beauty of the other three walls. And that he put up the mirror so that the king would always be able to enjoy the beauty of his throne room.

Rabbi Moshe from Kobrin explained that Shavuot is like the mirror in his parable. The seven weeks that lead up to Shavuot are given to us expressly to focus on ourselves and to identify those aspects within us that require improvement. And not just to recognize them but to work on them as well. As we reach the climax of our seven-week long journey, Shavuot lets us step back and marvel at the reflection of all the stunning improvements we have made. Each day that we count during the Omer represents another moment of spiritual development. Each week that accumulates is another week spent on introspection and on inner growth. Each week attests to our desire to strive to reach higher and higher in the spiritual realms.

Rabbi Moshe from Kobrin teaches us that one of the aspects of Shavuot that makes it so incredibly precious is the seven-weeks of preparation and self-improvement. Receiving the Torah is not something that can be done without any prior growth. Receiving the Torah requires focus and dedication before the actual moment when we are given the Torah. And this is why Shavuot is called Shavuot and not Matan Torah. To call the festival Matan Torah would leave us with the mistaken impression that we are commemorating only the moment when we stood at Mount Sinai and Hashem gave us His Torah. But nothing could be further from the truth. We are celebrating the giving of the Torah because for seven weeks we invested in our spiritual growth. For seven weeks we have worked on our relationship with Hashem and on our relationships with those around us. We have spent seven weeks in self-introspection and self-growth and now we are ready to receive Hashem’s pure Torah.

Together with Pesach and Succot, Shavuot is one of the three times of the year when we are commanded to come to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Rabbis ask which part of the process was most beloved by Hashem. Was it the process of traveling, when one constantly needed to strengthen oneself with faith and belief? Or was it when they were actually standing in courtyard of the Holy Temple, basking in the unparalleled delight of being in the domain of the Divine Presence? Our Sages cite a verse in Shir Hashirim (7:2), “How beautiful are your feet in your shoes,” and they explain that it is the moments when the Jewish Nation is “travelling” — while we are still “wearing our shoes” — and battling the negative inclinations. This part of the process is most beloved by Hashem. The preparation and the struggle are truly beloved by Him.

Perhaps this idea can explain another seeming anomaly. If one counts, there are a total of twenty-six verses in Sefer Shemot (19:1) that describe the Jewish nation’s arrival at Mount Sinai, and all of the preparations that took place until the Ten Commandments were given. Then there are only thirteen verses dedicated to the Ten Commandments. Parenthetically, Kabbalistic sources point out that twenty-six is the numerical total of the Ineffable four-letter Name of Hashem, and that the number thirteen equals the word echad — one.” These two numbers hint to fact that it is Hashem alone Who is One. The Rabbis posit that the fact that there are twice as many verses describing the preparations for the giving of the Torah as there are for actual of the Torah suggests that preparing for that sublime moment might be an even more elevated plane than the moment itself.

As we approach the glorious and beloved festival of Shavuot, we have a time to look back at the seven weeks that we have just travelled. A time to reflect (pun intended) on what we have achieved. To look back and see the magnificent reflection that is seven shavuot of drawing closer to Hashem.

May we all be blessed with an uplifting and inspiring Shavuot. May it be a Shavuot that reflects our true desire to be able to continue growing closer to our Father in Heaven throughout the entire year — day by day and week by week

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