SHAVUOT 1st DAY 5777
Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. It must have been an amazing experience, unlike anything the world had seen before or after. On Shavuot we try to recapture—as best we can—that experience. On Mt. Sinai each Jew was filled with the love of Gd—so much so that all unanimously proclaimed (Ex. 24:7): Na-aseh v’nishma (We will do and we will listen) to Your commandments whatever they will be. They hadn’t even heard most of them. It was an expression of complete trust and love for Gd. Clearly the Mt. Sinai experience was a love fest of the highest order.
When we examine the Children of Israel’s proclamation of love for Gd, Na-aseh v’nishma (We will do and we will listen), it seems that the order of the words is strange for one usually does the opposite—one usually listens before deciding to act.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, in his Michtav Eliyahu, offers a deep understanding of love that may explain why doing comes before listening. Rabbi Dessler insists that, “The cornerstone of love is the capacity to give to the loved one.” And, he adds, “It’s not necessarily the case that one 1st loves and from the loving comes the giving. The reverse is equally true and often even more powerful. One gives, and from the giving, love grows. The more one gives, the more one loves.”
Years ago, I participated in an extraordinarily successful program known as “Marriage Encounter.” One of its basic teachings was that love is not only a feeling—“it’s a decision.” Modern society has created the fairy tale that love is uncontrollable, that it’s something that simply happens. And so we say, “She fell in love,” as if love is some kind of hole in the ground one doesn’t see and falls into—in other words, she couldn’t help herself. But the truth is, this is not love. Love does not just happen. Real love is a decision, a choice and a commitment.
After all, feelings change. One morning I may wake up feeling like loving my spouse, child, parent, sibling or friend, and the next morning I may not. But if I’ve decided to love you, from the decision, from the action, the feeling will come. In fact, the real test of love is not simply what I feel toward you, but what I am prepared to do for you.
The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to how Jews express of their love for Gd—following His ways, rituals and customs. Consider prayer: If prayer is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray 3 times a day? Why not pray only when we feel like it? It can be argued, however, that we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obligated to pray—if, indeed, we make a decision to pray—from placing ourselves in a prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface.
This, in fact, is the basic idea of all religious observance. Perform the ritual and from the act, the feeling may come. Hence, Jews at Sinai first proclaimed, “We will do.” Only afterward did they say, “We will listen.”
My parents once came to visit in my early years in Atlanta. Their flight was postponed in Florida because of some bad storms. When they finally were cleared to take off they called me and told me when they were scheduled to land. I, of course, always picked them up at the airport. But with this change I had other rabbinic obligations that were previously scheduled and professing my deep love for my parents, I insisted that I couldn’t change my schedule on such short notice. I asked them if they could take a cab.
“You’ve become such a hotshot Rabbi,” my mother responded, “and don’t have time for your parents?”
“I love you deeply,” I protested, “but it’s difficult to alter plans at the last minute.”
I’ll never forget my mother’s response. “Don’t love us so much. Just pick us up at the airport.”
My mother’s comments echoed the very essence of “we will do and we will listen.” Actions are primary; they’re the indicator, the inspiration for true love. Needless to say, I found a way to make my excuses for my rabbinic obligations and go to the airport—and I never regretted it!
My friends, it’s sometimes hard to get ourselves up to come to shule, to make Yom Tov, to come to classes, to make our homes kosher, to participate in community events. But if we decide to do it—as all of you here today have decided to come to shul on a weekday morning—Na-aseh, when we do it, when we demonstrate our love, we don’t regret it. In fact, it uplifts and, in the end, we’re glad we made the effort. Let us all pledge on this 1st day of Shavuot, Na-aseh v’nishma, “We will do and we will listen.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark H. Kunis