A D’var Torah for Shavuot – 5783

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Dvar Torah for Shavuot
By Rabbi Ira J. Dounn (’17)

Forty is the number of transformation in the Torah. And there are even too many examples to list! It rained for 40 days and 40 nights to transform the antediluvian world to our post-flood world. The 12 spies scouted the Land for 40 days and then the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years – to transform the people once bound by a slavery mindset to a people who could operate with a freedom mindset. Moses and G-d had a 40-day and 40-night havruta on top of Mount Sinai – to transform the Jewish people from pre-Torah to having received the Torah. Indeed, from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Yom Kippur is a 40-day period, marking our annual journeys with our own process of heshbon hanefesh and teshuvah.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his book Waters of Eden, delved into the meaning of mikvah and the significances of the number 40. The mikvah is the paradigmatic Jewish ritual of transformation. We are, by definition, different people before immersion than afterwards. This is powerfully witnessed in the conversion ritual, when one enters a non-Jew and one emerges a Jew. And there are so many other ritual moments of transformation in the mikvah.

So it’s not a surprise that a kosher mikvah must have how many se’ah of water? Yes, of course it’s 40.

I particularly liked the wordplay around the Hebrew word “אֶמֶת” (“truth”) – in this word, we see two other words: “אֵם” (“mother”) and “מֵת” (“dead”). And from the first letter in the aleph-bet “א” to the last letter “ת”. Between the beginning of life (mother) and the end of life (dead), what do we have? We have the “מ” – the letter of transformation. The “truth” of our lives is that we are always transforming, from the very beginning to the very end. And yes, the gematria of “מ” is 40.

What does all of this have to do with the holiday of Shavuot?

As current and future rabbis and cantors, I think we might all be able to agree (though please write to me if not!) that Torah study can be (should be!) transformational. Many of us have had profound learning experiences in our lives that have transformed the way we think about something. Profound education can be profoundly life-changing in the most positive and inspiring of ways. I’d like to think that Moshe’s 40-day havruta with G-d on top of Mount Sinai was the sort of transformational educational experience and that we’ve been aspiring to such educational moments ever since.

To be fair, transformation can be terrifying. It means, by definition, that we’re changing from one thing to another. And the transformations can be so different from one another! For example, one day you are someone who doesn’t know Hebrew, and then another day (after some time!) you are someone who does know Hebrew. One day you aren’t a Jew, and then another day (after a long process, a beit din, and an immersion) you are a Jew. Such transformation requires us to reorient our worlds and our mindsets.

Why do we read the Book to Ruth on Shavuot? If Ruth can transform so remarkably, then so can we.

There are also many reasons why Jewish communities traditionally eat dairy on Shavuot. It seemed compelling to me that we eat dairy because we needed time to learn the new laws of ritual slaughter that we had just received in the Torah.

But what if it’s much deeper than that? What if the basis of this entire holiday is about transformation? What is the Torah if not a way to transform ourselves into better people, and to transform our world into a better version of the Creation?

It should not be lost on us that sefirat haomer, the counting of the omer from the 2nd day of Pesah to Shavuot, is a period in which many focus on self-improvement. This is a process of personal transformation. And so is the study of Torah itself, which the holiday of Shavuot celebrates.

So if you’re wondering what the cheesecake represents – yes, it’s a transformation. It’s a reminder that change and transformation are possible. That we can learn new ways of doing things. That we as people and as societies can continue to get better.

And yes, the gematria of “חָלָב” (milk/dairy) is 40.

Hag Sameah and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Ira J. Dounn is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Center for Jewish Life – Princeton Hillel, and the teacher of AJR’s Experiential Education course this semester. He was ordained from AJR in 2017, and lives with his wife and children in Highland Park, NJ. He can be reached at [email protected].