Shavuot (5770, 1st Day)

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Abe and Sadie, an elderly couple, made a rare appearance in synagogue one Shavuot. After the service the rabbi welcomed them and asked them why they do not attend more often. Well, replied Abe, “at our age it is getting quite difficult, but Rabbi, at least we keep the Ten Commandments.” Tongue-in-cheek the rabbi replies, “Really, all Ten!”. “Well,” said Abe hesistantly, “Sadie keeps 6 of them and I keep the other 4!”

* * *

The Sages tell us that at Mount Sinai, just over 3300 years ago, when the entire Jewish people stood and received the Torah, also present were the souls of all future generations, including those who would convert to Judaism in the future millennia.

Probably the most famous convert in our history is Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot. We do this for a few reasons: One, because her acceptance of the Torah mirrors our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, and another is because she merited to have as a descendent the great King David, who entered and left this world on Shavuot.

I would like to share with you an anecdote about a wonderful gentleman I know who is a ger tzedek – a righteous convert to Judaism.  Gordon (name changed for privacy reasons) was a chaplain with the Royal Navy for many years, but it was only in middle age that he met his first Jew. In my conversations with Gordon, now called Avraham, I asked him what prompted him to convert to our faith after having represented another for so long!

He laughed as he replied to me that one of the things that really struck him about Judaism was the buzz in the shulthe hubbub of activity, people whispering, kids running around, people joking on the Bimah. Yet after his initial shock at what seemed like irreverence in a sanctuary he realised that there was something special about that, he realised that when you are at home you let your hair down: when you are comfortable with G-d,  and with shul, you are more likely to have noise and movement,  and that made  a  great impression upon him. A people who were at home with G-d.

But just feeling at home in shul without participating is a bit like smelling freshly baked food without eating! It might feel good and smell great, but without eating you are not going to get the nutrition you need. And for the Jewish people our nutrition is Tefillah (prayer), Torah study and a Torah lifestyle.

When we are called to the Torah we make a blessing: Baruch …. Noten HaTorah – Blessed are You G-d who GIVES the Torah – in the present tense. We don’t say Natan in the past tense, for G-d is constantly giving the Torah – this is not something that happened 3000 years ago and is now history, we need to be constantly reliving it. We need to have a vibrant Judaism that is exciting and alive, not dusty and boring.

In shul today we have lots more plants and flowers than usual – to remind us of the greenery on Mount Sinai. Plants exhibit a special behaviour known as phototropism, meaning that they grow towards the light. Plant something in a dark room and it will grow towards the window, plant it upside down and it will simply grow upwards within a couple of days, as it seeks the light.

As Jews, we also need and gravitate to light, spiritual light – we are in fact Torahtropic – and when we do not have the light of spirituality, of Torah and mitzvot in our lives we do not flourish as we should. We begin to wilt and fade. We may try to do Jewish things, we eat Jewish food, we read Jewish jokes and we may even encourage our children to become doctors … but although all of those activities are fine, they will not give us the nourishment that our soul really needs, and we often begin to feel unfulfilled.

Our neshama (soul) needs the appropriate diet. You know that when we feed ourselves, our pets and even our plants we make sure they each get the correct foods for their needs. Chicken soup on the tulips or in the goldfish tank might not be that beneficial. Well, our neshama has a special diet too – a G-dly one. It needs to feed regularly on mitzvot, on goodness and kindness, it needs to hear words of prayer morning and evening, it needs to study words of Torah – G-d’s infinite wisdom. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Yevamot 6) tells of the great sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, whose mother brought him to the Study Hall as a baby to get him accustomed to the sounds of passionate Torah study. He eventually became the teacher of  Rabbi Akiva.

This is the way to feed our neshamot – to be surrounded from a young age with the sound of Torah Study, to spend time in the shul and the Beit Midrash, to attend Torah Classes, or to study on the web.

There are hundreds of websites now that offer incredible mountains of educational material at whatever level you are on, in whatever language you speak: There are live video classes, there are even live Torah partners who will phone you at work or home for a weekly discussion or class (jnet.org): there is an enormous sea of knowledge out there, and all we need to do is tap into it.

Because a day that begins and ends with a few words of Torah is a different day – it is a more spiritual day, a more meaningful one.

I will close with a fascinating story about a gentleman who began his life as Jorge Calderon of Argentina and is now Aaron Calderon of Jerusalem.

Jorge was raised in a strictly religious Catholic family. So religious that he ended up in a Benedictine monastery, where he spent most of the day in silence.

But a couple of things changed the course of Jorge’s life.  One was a Hebrew book in the monastery library – a Haggadah, and one was a Hebrew Chumash.

Jorge came across a Haggada by chance one day in the library. He read it cover to cover and found himself shocked at the final sentence. “Next Year in Jerusalem” he read – with an illustration of the Beit HaMikdash. His shock was because he had been taught Judaism was history, a religion of the past. Yet here was a stark reminder that the Jews were alive and well, looking to the future with plans for a homeland and a Temple. It took him by surprise and set him thinking.

The next incident which affected him was not long after. He was with the abbot on his weekly visit and he saw him studying a Chumash in the original Hebrew. This fascinated him and he felt himself wanting to understand the mystery of those magical letters.

And that was the beginning of his journey to Judaism. Like Ruth he made his way to Israel against the odds, and studied diligently until his teachers were satisfied. Now he lives in Jerusalem, Aaron Calderon, as a religious Jew with his wife and children hoping that his family back home will understand him one day.

Let us take a little inspiration from Ruth – ancestress of King David, from Gordon – now Avraham and from Jorge – now Aaron in Jerusalem to realize what a treasure we have been granted, what a wonderful inheritance, and as we reaccept the Ten Commandments today let us commit ourselves to a little more Torah study whenever possible – we deserve it!

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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