Bamidbar 5778

פרשת במדבר

Enjoying the Yom Tov Shavuos

Someone once asked the great Chassidic leader, the Chiddushei HaRim [1], the following (somewhat wryly I might add), “We know that both the Shabbos before Sukkos and the Shabbos before Pesach have special names. In most years, the Shabbos before Yom Kippur (which happens to be immediately preceding Sukkos) is called Shabbos Shuvah (the Shabbos of Repentance) and the Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos HaGadol (the Great Shabbos). Why then does the Shabbos before Shavuos not have any significance or title?”

The Chiddushei HaRim responded in kind. “The Shabbos before Shavuos ought to be called ‘Shabbos Derech Eretz’,” he said, “because it is written [2]: Derech eretz kadmah la’Torah – proper social conduct preceded the Torah itself.” “Therefore, ” said the Chiddushei HaRim, “the name of the Shabbos before Shavuos (the day on which we received the Torah) should be called Shabbos Derech Eretz – the Shabbos of Ethical Behavior.” (It seems that the Rebbe considered the question to be less than proper, and his response was a mild rebuke of the questioner for his lack of decorum).

We are taught about the value of Derech Eretz (proper social conduct) in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers). The Mishna says [3]: אם אין דרך ארץ אין תורה, ואם אין תורה אין דרך ארץ – without Derech Eretz, if one does not possess proper social behavior, one cannot truly master Torah, and without Torah one cannot master proper social behavior. The statement of the Mishnah is somewhat peculiar for it seems to employ circular and recursive logic. If one cannot learn proper conduct unless he first studies Torah, how he can he accomplish this since he first must learn proper conduct before he can study Torah? Rabbeinu Yonah [4] explains that this reference to the initial requisite of Derech Eretz means the basic and essential practice of decency that anyone must be in possession of in order to learn Torah. This is the meaning that most people recognize today. The Mishnah which continues, “without Torah there can be no Derech Eretz “refers to a more refined state, a code of conduct beyond that which is practiced by laymen who do not study Torah. This standard is one that is rooted and sourced in Torah alone, about which we say “without Torah there is no Derech Eretz.”

But one might interpret this Mishnah somewhat differently. The Gemarah [5] quotes a dispute between Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Yehoshua. Rebbi Eliezer says that you should devote all of your time during the Jewish Festivals to Hashem (with prayer or study of Torah) or spend all of the time for yourself (by feasting and relaxing). Rabbi Yehoshua says that half of the time should be devoted to Hashem and the other half should be set aside for you to enjoy the festival. The Gemara goes on to declare that both Rabbis are in agreement that on the festival of Shavuos one must set aside a portion of the day for feasting and enjoyment because it was the day on which the Torah was given. This is puzzling. Why is the fact that the Torah was given on Shavuos a compelling reason for physical festivity? Quite the contrary. Shouldn’t it be a day of contemplation devoted completely to Torah study?

Chazal tell us [6] that our forefather Yaakov and his brother Esav divided the worlds between them. Yaakov chose the World to Come (spirituality) as his portion, while Esav gained the physical world and all the pleasures contained therein. This begs the question. Our lives as the descendants of Yaakov should be completely spiritual without any participation in the mundane enjoyment of this world, for wouldn’t that be infringing on the domain of Esav? How then can we be permitted to gain any pleasure whatsoever from the physical world?

At the beginning of Bereishes the pasuk says [7] “Yom HaShishi” – the distinct sixth day. When speaking of the other days of Creation, the Torah does not use the definite article “the.” It merely says second day, third day, etc. Why? The Gemarah [8] tells us that this stylistic anomaly, the addition of the word “the” teaches us that on that sixth day, the first sixth day ever, Hashem put a condition into the Creation that the universe would remain impermanent, in a status of flux, dependant on the Jewish Peoples’ eventual acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. This acceptance was to take place on another “sixth day,” the sixth day of Sivan, Shavuos, the day of the giving of the Torah.

What an amazing fact to ponder! The very fabric of existence hung in the balance for two and a half thousand years, from the creation of mankind, until Bnei Yisroel’s acceptance of the Torah. In other words, the continuation of the entire Creation was predicated on our agreeing to accept the Torah. If we had refused, the entire world would have returned to primordial chaos. Since the entire physical world was validated by our acceptance of the Torah, the Children of Yaakov deserve and merit to enjoy the corporeal part of this world.

This might be the explanation of the Mishnah. “Derech Eretz,” (good conduct) is a condition precedent to Torah study. However, without the study of Torah there can be no “Derech Eretz.“ In this instance, “Derech Eretz “ is taken to mean “the ways of the world,” that is, the continuing existence of the world.

This may now explain why all agree that eating is required on Shavuos. Since eating is a physical pleasure, this act signifies the fact that the world, the physical, only exists because of our acceptance of the Torah.

Good Shabbos and a Good Yom Tov.

Rabbi Dovid Sochet

[1] Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (1799–1866), he was the first Rebbe of Gur.
[2] Vayikra Rabbah Ch. 9-3
[3] 3:17
[4] Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona died 1263,
[5] Pesachim 68B
[6] Yalkut Shimoni, Remez:111
[7] 6:5-6
[8] Tractate Shabbos 88A