Shavuot: Strong Like Bull, Smart Like Rock

“2015-003 Psalms Chapter 4 - Raise the Light of Your Countenance”  by  Alyse Radenovic

“2015-003 Psalms Chapter 4 - Raise the Light of Your Countenance” by Alyse Radenovic


I often get the comment, "Wait, you're the rabbi!? But you're so...well...young?" To which I usually respond with: "We all have to start somewhere!" Followed by some Fonzie-esque finger guns. And the truth is, what I want to say is more like: "Do you think rabbi's come out of the womb with an altacocker beard shouting 'Oy Gevalt'? Do you think we just started speaking in cryptic questions and quoting Talmud in preschool one day? As if suddenly we just go through onset rabbinic puberty and wake up bald? I'm sorry folks. It doesn't happen like that. None of us are born knowing quantum physics or Maimonidean philosophy - no matter how many Baby Einstein books your parents read to you. In the game of Torah, we all start as fledgling novices - and we stay that way. Never really graduating, just getting older. And crankier.

Do not be wise in your own eyes. The beginning of wisdom is—acquire wisdom!
— Proverbs 3:7, 4:7

The other day I saw a tweet that read: "By age 35 you're supposed to have made your first million. And I did. My first million mistakes." In other words, to learn, grow, and strive means that at some point, you didn't know much. And then, there was a moment that you developed. Even one centimeter. And then another. Point being, we were all once seedlings that grew. And as we enter into the holiday of Shavuot, a time we celebrate God's giving of the Torah - a compendium of instruction and wisdom - I am reminded by Grammy-winning artist Kendrick Lamar to "Be Humble." Because we all "started from the bottom" when it comes to learning. Just as you'll always be children in the eyes of your parents, you'll always be students in the eyes of Torah. There is no crash course. Because we’re all continuously in the process of revelation. No matter how much we may believe we know now. Personally speaking, at 32 years of age, my own ignorance shouldn't be such a surprise at times. But as my grandfather would say, “Strong like bull, smart like rock.” So hey, we all have to start somewhere, right? Mistakes are par for the course.

One of my favorite stories that elucidate this idea comes from Avot de-Rabbi Nathan:

“What were Akiva's beginnings? It is said: Up to the age of forty, he had not yet studied a thing. One time, while standing by the mouth of a well in Lydda, he inquired, "Who hollowed out this stone?" and was told, "Akiva, haven't you read that 'water wears away stone' (Job 14:19)? It was water falling upon it constantly, day after day." At that, Rabbi Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study at least one section of Torah. He went directly to a schoolhouse, and he and his son began reading from a child's tablet.” [1]

The essence of the story is genuine modesty in the eyes of wisdom - of Torah. Of which Rabbi Akiva recognized in himself that he was missing. But we aren't all like Rabbi Akiva. In fact, most of us are further in the "strong like bull, smart like rock" category. Which is why on Shavuot, we recall that while God offered (gave) us Torah, did we ever truly accept it!? Receive it willingly? The rabbis go as far as to say that:

“The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written:“The Jews…ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.” [2]

Meaning, we literally did a do-over of receiving Torah because it was imposed on us like a flu shot. Of which you should also get yearly. That being said, it's more plausible that our minds have remained harder than stone. Our souls impervious to the enormity of Torah - afraid that we might get eternally lost in the wilderness of wisdom. So much so, in my humble opinion, that the infamous "stiff-necked people" need to acquire Torah year-after-year. That every year on Shavuot we have to stand at the bottom of Mt. Sinai as the thunder and lightning blaze amidst the sky. But if that's the case - if we're really hesitant to such an extreme measure - that reluctant - our rabbis ask, "For what reason was the Torah given to the Jewish people?"

“It is because they are impudent, and Torah study will weaken and humble them. A Sage of the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught the following with regard to the verse: “From His right hand went a fiery law for them” (Deuteronomy 33:2); The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Based on their nature and character, these people, the Jews, are fit to be given a fiery law, a hard and scorching faith...The ways and nature of these people, the Jews, are like fire...” [3]

Essentially, it is precisely because our nature is to investigate and probe - push and confront - that we were presented a Torah that paralleled our naturally "heated" state. We are a bizarre people. And feisty. And we also make mistakes. A ton of them. But on Shavuot, we are called to continue our search for wisdom. Because the beginning of wisdom is the search for it. On Shavuot, we ask ourselves: “Is my mind harder than stone?” And when that happens, “revelation ceases to be merely a belief in something that once occurred; instead, it becomes an activity, a state of being.” [4]

Know yourself, and your world; know the meditations of your heart, and of every thinker; find the source of your own life, and of the life beyond you, around you, the glorious splendor of life in which you have your being...Ascend towards the heights, ascend! For you have the strength. You have wings of spirit, wings of mighty eagles.
— Orot HaKodesh 1:4:4:1

[1] The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan 6:1-5
Shabbat 88a, The William Davidson Talmud
[3] Beitzah 25b, The William Davidson Talmud
[4] "A Hasidic Matan Torah" by Yoel S.

Aaron Sataloff