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Shavuot 5781: How we Progress

May 10, 2021

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

The Spring—at least for Jews in the Northern Hemisphere—is anchored in and framed by two central Holidays, Passover, this year March 27, and Shavuot, this year May 16.

Pesach is the holiday of our national birth. We were freed after 400 year of avdut, slavery in Egypt. Shavuot is the holiday when we received the Torah and entered into a special, mature covenant with G-d and with one another. The two holidays are separated by seven weeks.

Generally, Pesach is the holiday identified with miracles, like the supernatural intervention of the ten plagues, and the splitting of the Red Sea.

The greater miracle, I believe, occurred on Shavuot at Mount Sinai, when a horde of ex-slaves, who had until only weeks before lived a virtually subhuman existence, shared together the most spiritually exalted experience, and heroically promised “na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will understand!”

How did this miraculous transformation occur?

The answer is indicated by what the Torah shares about the seven weeks bridging the two holidays: “You shall count (us’fartem) for yourselves from the morrow of the rest day (Pesach)…seven complete weeks”. (Leviticus 23:15)

The root verb (S<F<R) means not just “to count” but also “to tell” or “to consider”. Hence, sefer is a book, bet sefer is a school.

We count up, reflecting each day, in 49 discrete steps as we try to get to Sinai. In mystical tradition there is a unique exercise of spiritual reflection for each day.

We know that taking on the wisdom of Torah, moving ahead with faith during the desert wandering, creating a relationship with this invisible G-d, and developing self-governance after 400 years of submission completely freaked the Israelites out. So, they repeatedly asked to return to Egypt, and deluded themselves with fantasies about the supposed bounty that they enjoyed there.

This is understandable. When a person or collective faces a complex challenge, they also become very vulnerable to the wily insinuations of the yetzer hara, or evil inclination, the instinct inside us which undermines goodness and spirituality. The yetzer hara convinces us not by denying our challenges, but by magnifying them. It is the voice inside which says, “Come on! Do you really think you can do that? You don’t have the necessary experience, skills, knowledge…And with your history? And what about all those people who will oppose you?”

The 49 steps, counting up daily, are meant to help us confront these voices.

First, they offer a counter argument: “I don’t need to be so focussed on and anxious about my grand goals. I have today to worry about. And for today I have the capacity to do what Torah instructs me to do and avoid what Torah forbids. I do want to reach the goal, the peak, but I understand that the instrument, the resource to get there is meeting the challenges of today.

By stopping, counting, and reflecting, we also break down apparently overwhelming undertakings into ingestible morsels.

Finally, through smaller steps and daily reflection, we give ourselves permission to do what is critical in spiritual advancement, in all life, and that is to take detours. Every day we see whether we need to consider different paths or ideas, possibilities not imagined or perhaps rejected before.

The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Eruvin 53b, tells the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania who arrives at an intersection. There, he finds a boy sitting down and asks, “Which is the way to the town?” The boy points to one path and says “This way is short but long. The other way is long but short.” Rabbi Yehshua sets out on the first path which was short but long. He quickly gets to the town, but there his way is blocked by gardens and orchards and he cannot enter. He returns to the boy and says, “Didn’t you tell me that this path was short?” ”I did,” the boy replies, “but I also warned you that it is long.”

When it comes to the most meaningful journeys in life, it is often advisable to take the long route that will get you to your destination instead of the short one that won’t even though it looks like it will.

The route from Egypt to the Promised Land was short and could be traversed in a matter of weeks. But G-d made sure that it became a long one of forty years.

The long way is short and the short way is long.

Taking the short, habitual, familiar way is always the most tempting route. But the way of growth is often the long way, the way of reflection and redirection.

Whether we are nurturing ourselves, our families, our careers, our Synagogue, our people, or our planet, it is better to know at the outset that there will be many mistakes and setbacks. So, we need faith and the precious counsel and support of teachers, colleagues, family and friends. The boy at the crossroads is our guide, reminding us of the possibility and perils of different paths, and—like the daily counting before Shavuot—quietly reminding us of the need for courage and the possibility of change.

Chag Samei’ach,
May you and your families enjoy a Shavuot of joy and enlightenment,

Rabbi Sam

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