Rabbi Doniel Stern of the Manchester and Leeds community Kollel discusses how Shavuot offers an opportunity for reflection and improvement.
It was about three years ago, we were given a huge canister of Costco pretzels by a close family friend. It took us time and diligence to work our way through the pretzels, but after about a fortnight we could see a significant drop in the pretzel level. It was then that my wife came up with a magnificent idea – to melt and coat the pretzels in chocolate. The result was an explosion of taste in the mouth, the fusion of the sweet chocolate and the rough sea salt. Despite the immense pleasure, the true party that my taste buds were experiencing, there was a nagging thought that repeatedly popped into my head – what a shame that we wasted all those pretzels over the last two weeks. Why settle for mediocre when you can get marvellous?
Recently, I was asked to visit an elderly man in an assisted living residence five minutes from where we lived. One event in the weeks I knew him stands out in my memory – it took all of thirty seconds, but it left me speechless.
I waited until it was exactly ten in the morning and knocked softly on his door. After being told to come in, I slowly entered his room, immediately noticing an Artscroll chumash on his table, opened at Parshat Tazria. He told me that he knew from his symptoms that he was approaching the transition to a better place and was therefore desperate to utilise his time to the fullest. I had been told that he had only recently developed an insatiable thirst for Torah knowledge together with a real drive to implement as much of that wisdom as possible.
I smiled at him, keeping my focus locked on his face, and approached his side. I knew that I was living through a golden opportunity, to be close with a very well-respected member of the community, an individual who had helped hundreds throughout his medical career.
About a meter away, I noticed that his face was wet, his eyes were red and tears were cascading down his cheeks. My smile faded, and I asked: “My friend, are you ok?” He raised his face and uttered three sentences: “Doniel,” he said: “looking back at my life, I have one question. Why have I only woken up to this now? Oh, how I wish that I would have started so long ago – my life could have been infused with so much more depth, meaning and purpose – but it is just too late.”
My beloved friend slipped away two weeks later, and standing at his modest funeral, I had not a shadow of a doubt that the opportunity he grasped at the end of his life assured him an even more beautiful place in the next world.
As we approach Shavuot, I am reminded of something that I heard from Rabbi Gershon Miller during my years in Gateshead Yeshiva. He noted that: “Most people do what most people do, because that is what most people do.” Observing the rat race that so many are involved in; great school, prestigious university, the cars, the holidays etc – the world’s majority is generally chasing the ever-evasive dream because everyone does. The Ramchal, (Reb Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 18th century Italian Rabbi and Kabbalist) writes that the evil inclination is aware that were we to stop and think for even one minute, to focus on our mission, our purpose and goal in life, the repercussions of such a moment of reflection would be far too powerful to stop. Our evil inclination therefore tries to ensure that we are constantly busy, not having a second for contemplation. It is a risk that he cannot afford to take.
Dov, our third child, presents us with beautiful challenges that we don’t remember having with his two older siblings. Being fearless of Sephy and I, his mischievous love of pushing every boundary often leaves us laughing aloud to each other, simply having no idea what to do with him. There is one thing however that has proven itself time and time again. Our sweet four-year- old can really act like a child, but when he comes back, looks up with his deep eyes and whispers: “I want to try again”, there isn’t a thing in the world that will stop us scooping him up into our arms and holding him close, allowing the love to surge through.
Why would our Father in heaven be any different?
Shavuot is the time when we stop and relive the giving of the Torah. The awesome power the Torah presents to us is the ability to inject spirituality into our mundane lives, thereby infusing our everyday actions, relationships, and all of our ups and downs with meaning, purpose and direction. However, above all, the life mandated by the Torah presents us with the opportunity to develop and maintain an awesomely close relationship with the undisputed champion of the world – G-d himself. That is why we are here.
What we can achieve at this time of year is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. Practically speaking, all one should do is take one aspect, idea, action put forward by the Torah, with the intention of slowly building this relationship with our loving father, and with the knowledge that it will better one’s quality of life. Real life that is, not the cheap imitation sweeping through society. The surging love will follow.
There are those who never wake up to this reality. There are those who wake up just before it is too late, and they may very well achieve.
However, when we grab the opportunity
each Shavuot, stopping, thinking, re-examining, implementing something tiny that will take us in the correct direction, we will ensure that we will live the life we choose. Not the life that happens. We will ensure that we settle for nothing less than the entire Costco canister of the most perfectly blended salty chocolate pretzels.