Shavuos, Atzeres and the Lockdown

Rabbi Auerbach

Ohr Somayach Glenhazel

Should you awake, or arouse the love until it pleases! (Song of Songs 8:4)

מַה תָּעִירוּ וּֽמַה תְּעֹרְרוּ אֶת הָאַהֲבָה עַד שֶׁתֶּחְפָּץ. (שיר השירים ח:ד)

Should you awake, or arouse the love until it pleases! (Song of Songs 8:4)

מַה תָּעִירוּ וּֽמַה תְּעֹרְרוּ אֶת הָאַהֲבָה עַד שֶׁתֶּחְפָּץ. (שיר השירים ח:ד)

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov writes in his monumental book called “Kedushas Levi” that he was asked the following question in Lithuania:

Why do our sages refer to the Yomtov of Shavuos as Atzeres?1 The Torah2 refers to the last day of Sukkos as שמיני עצרת. But nowhere in the Torah do we find Shavuos being called Atzeres.

He gave three answers. I will mention two of them here.

The first one is very simple. Every festival contains two ways in which we serve G-d. One is through performing the relevant mitzvah of that particular festival. For instance, on Pesach we eat matzah and on Sukkos we sit in the sukkah and take the lulav and esrog.

Secondly, by sanctifying the day through refraining from doing work, we also serve Hashem.

However, on Shavuos we do not have any special mitzvah. We only refrain from doing work. That is exactly the meaning of the word atzeres – to hold back and desist from doing work.

The third answer he gives is incredible and ingenious, based on a very important idea that is crucial to our spiritual growth.

The possuk3 says in שיר השירים, the “Song of Songs”, composed by King Solomon, מַה תָּעִירוּ וּֽמַה תְּעֹרְרוּ

אֶת הָאַהֲבָה עַד שֶׁתֶּחְפָּץ The Ramban explains the meaning of this verse as follows: If you are filled with

an awakening of awe and love of Hashem, then immediately make sure to make a vessel for your inspiration. The vessel is a mitzvah. You should immediately perform a mitzvah such as giving charity or learning Torah. The awakening that a person suddenly feels is the light that is bestowed upon him from above and is really a dimension of soul.

In order for it to last and not dissipate, it is necessary to clothe it in a body so that it will be strengthened and everlasting.

That is what is meant by “עד שתחפץ” - to wrap it in a חפץ which means a tangible vessel.

Says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, during the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Jewish people certainly were experiencing an awesome awakening and inspiration. But at the time they did not yet have any way to channel it into a vessel, into a mitzvah.

But they were performing at that time the one mitzvah of Hagbalah, which was the instruction to remain in their places and not move towards the mountain.

This was the mitzvah of atzeres, which means to restrain and hold ourselves back from moving from our places, even though we would have wanted to get closer to the holy mountain and the שכינה – Shechina, ‘Divine Presence’.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is teaching us that restraining ourselves and subduing our strong desire to get closer to Hashem can also act as a vessel to clothe and channel the deep awakening of love towards Hashem.

There are situations when approaching the Shechina can be damaging and harmful. We must know our place and serve Hashem in the situation in which we find ourselves in the appropriate manner. We cannot imagine that we are always elevated enough to enter a holy site such as הר הבית, ‘the Temple Mount’, which is presently beyond our impure state.

At present, we too desire to enter into our shuls and houses of learning. But we cannot do so because, G-d forbid, this would threaten our lives and the lives of our fellow Jews.

We too must fulfil the mitzvah of Hagbalah, creating boundaries that we dare not cross.

Just as the atzeres during the giving of the Torah becomes the vessel through which we contain and maintain the awakening from above, so too our lockdown becomes the atzeres by which we absorb the spiritual light of the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, protecting our lives, which will ultimately enable us to serve Hashem with greater devotion together in the near future.

  1. For example see: Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2 (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a); Targum Onkelos, Numbers 28:26

  2. Numbers 29:35

  3. Song of Songs 8:4

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