Keep Showing Up: An Unexpected Lesson From Shavuot
I’ve always wondered about something. Every year as a Jewish nation, we are supposed to relive the holidays as though the events which we are celebrating are happening right now. For example, on Passover, we are supposed to feel that we are actually being freed from Egypt. On Shavuot, we are meant to re-accept G-d’s Torah upon ourselves, as if we are Har Sinai right now.
However, this is a pretty difficult thing for anyone to do. For instance, most women have a hard time feeling freed from slavery when they are slaving away in the kitchen prepping for Passover. As for Shavuot, no matter how wild your imagination is, it is difficult to feel as though you are standing at Mount Sinai in 2018, experiencing firsthand the giving of the Torah.
This Shavuot, our family will be in Israel celebrating my nephew’s bar mitzvah. Despite my excitement, for better or worse, my mind has been occupied with lists of packing items and itinerary ideas for my family of six. Additionally, I have been on call for my sister helping her when I can. Honestly, I feel that I have been preparing more for the flight than matan Torah itself.
What does re-accepting the Torah each year really mean? How can the average person who is caught up in everyday tasks apply this concept to his or her own life?
There is a quintessential phrase that the Jewish nation proclaimed at Har Sinai: “Naaseh v’nishmah,” often translated as, “We will do, and we will listen.”
We understand this to mean that the Jewish people were over-enthusiastic about receiving the Torah. Unlike other nations, we were so excited about the gift of Torah that it didn’t even matter to us what was written inside. We immediately proclaimed, “Yes! We will follow! Don’t worry G-d, count us in! You can tell us what’s inside later!” In today’s terms, that might be the equivalent of doing a favor for someone without asking questions or rushing to help someone even if you’re not sure what needs to be done.
Rav Zalmen Mindell explains that the concept of Naaseh v’nishmah is actually much deeper. Naaseh and nishmah are two very different ideas. Naaseh comes from the Hebrew word aseh, meaning “to do.” It connotes, I may not really feel like it, but I’m doing it anyway.
Nishmah comes from the Hebrew word shema. Shema translates into “listen” or “hear.” Yet it’s not referring to the physical ability to hear sound, but rather to understand or resonate with something. For example, if we are having a conversation, and I say to you, “I hear you,” I am referring to the fact that the comment resonated with me and I connected to it.
Thus, “Naaseh v’nishmah” means: I’m doing it despite not feeling connected right now because I know that one day I will be “nishmah” again and feel connected then.
In no way, however, does this mean blind acceptance. When Jews received the Torah, they were “Naaseh and nishmah.” They were committed to this reality called Torah (growth). They understood that it wouldn’t always be total clarity; we knew Torah would not always be easy. We knew there would be times we did not understand God’s ways, but we would stick with it regardless.
I recently saw an Instagram quote that said, “Keep showing up.” If you’ve overslept, or you don’t feel like it, you show up to the office anyway. That’s also Naaseh v’nishmah.
This is the secret to getting through life’s rough patches. When things get tough, we must stick with our commitments regardless. We get through hard times by doing, being aseh, and knowing it will one day be good again. Growth, Torah, is about saying, “I’M GOING TO DO IT, I’ve committed!”
All of this makes me think of half-pipe skateboarding. (I know what you’re thinking: Sarah, how did you get from Sinai to half pipe? Hang with me here.) One time I went bike riding with my family in Venice Beach, and we stopped to look at the skateboarders riding the half pipe. All the spectators were cheering with fervor each time the skater did their trick at the top of the pipe.
When the skater is standing at the top of the ramp about to skate down, is he upset that he has to skate down? No! He embraces the “down” because it is precisely the down that enables him to move back up and perform the trick. He can NEVER do the trick unless he goes back down.
We should embrace the down, knowing that the down gives us the adrenaline and speed to go back up!
This is what it means to relive the accepting of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It’s too hard for us to envision Sinai and feel we are experiencing matan Torah. However, every one of us can relate to the feelings of ups and downs in life. We all have moments of feeling emotionally and physically strong, and we all have moments of feeling emotionally weak and wanting to give up.
Regarding Judaism, sometimes we feel very connected to Hashem, His Torah, and mitzvot, and sometimes we are just going through the motions. On Shavuot we are given a gift called Torah, called growth, and we recommit ourselves to what we know will help us get up again. We accept this reality and commit to it even when we don’t feel like it because one day we will reconnect.
This can be applied to our personal commitments, and to ideas like our health, finances, and relationship goals. Shavuot is a time to recommit and follow through with that commitment.
My nephew was born on Shavuot, and as I mentioned, we will be celebrating his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem exactly thirteen years later. He will be accepting Torah upon himself for the first time.
I’ll never forget the first Shabbos after my sister and brother-in-law brought him home from the hospital. They ushered Shabbos in with a calm that was almost too good to be true. Everything was peaceful and quiet as my brother-in-law was about to start kiddush. As soon as he opened his mouth to recite the holy words, my nephew starting crying, which turned into hysterical wailing that not stop for six months straight! Yup, he was about as colicky as they come.
Did my sister and brother-in-law say, “Oh forget this parenting thing! Let’s drop him to the fire station – this is too hard?”
No! They rolled up their sleeves and raised him one day at a time. They showed up despite the ups and downs. My sister committed to parenting her child, no matter how difficult, knowing there would one day be an “up” again – like his bar mitzvah day.
Up until now, every time he committed a sin, the onus was on his parents. But after turning thirteen, one accepts the Torah upon himself. The obligation is now upon that person. This means when we become a mature adult, we recognize there will be ups and downs. There will be times where we feel connected to prayer and mitzvot, and times where we are tired, disconnected and simply don’t feel like it.
Shavuot, whether one is celebrating a bar mitzvah or not, is a time to recommit to something larger than ourselves. It’s about reconnecting to something greater and something infinite. This is what it means to truly accept the Torah upon ourselves the way the Jewish nation did on Mount Sinai.
May we all have the strength and courage to accept the Torah upon ourselves this Shavuot and each day moving forward.