Rabbi Gottlieb, who in addition to serving as a Torah lecturer at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem is a Doctor of Philosophy, noted that while Shavuot is the anniversary of the day that Klal Yisrael received the Torah, the preceding day was notable because that was when the Jewish nation declared “We will do and we will listen (Na’aseh V’Nishma)” regarding the Torah’s commandments. “If a student who is just beginning to learn Torah would ask how it is possible to accept a binding document without first investigating its contents,” Rabbi Gottlieb said, “we would answer him that – in the same way that one tends to automatically accept the pronouncements of a doctor or professor due to their inherent wisdom – so too we accepted the Torah immediately when offered us by Hashem.”
Rabbi Gottlieb posited that, while we are initially obligated to accept the Torah, we are then expected to “listen” by striving to understand it as fully as possible, and he asserted that taking definite actions – performing mitzvot – enables us to gain the understanding we seek. The rabbi recounted how he once met a young woman who felt overly confined by all the halachic restrictions of Shabbat when she first studied them, but months later – after she had personally experienced the spiritual bliss of the holy day – she viewed Shabbat as a vehicle of freedom from the mundane atmosphere of the workweek. Rabbi Gottlieb stressed that it is important for us to transform ourselves into “doers” of Hashem’s will, citing as a perfect example the prophetess Ruth, who sacrificed the privileges of being a Moabite princess to become a Jew who carries out G-d’s desires.
Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, a popular speaker on in-depth Torah topics who also previously practiced medicine, focused his lecture on the belief that the Torah – as written by Hashem – is the blueprint of the world. “In the same way that the genetic code is the mechanism that produces living things,” Rabbi Tatz said, “the Torah is the actual reason that every aspect of creation exists.” In this regard, Rabbi Tatz pointed out that the Hebrew word davar means both “word” and “thing,” alluding to the fact that every item in the world is actually rooted in the “word” of the Torah. He also noted that there is no word in the Torah itself for “nature,” as everything is from Hashem and not “natural,” and there is no Torah-stated word for “doubt,” since everything connected with Hashem is definite in its essence.
Continuing to hold the audience spellbound with his brilliant insights, Rabbi Tatz explained that the Oral Law, as explicated by the sages, sets out the details of everything in the world as an extension of the written Torah’s overall foundation. As an example of this concept, the rabbi related a Talmudic story about a certain sage, Rabbi Nechunyah, who had dug a number of wells for the public’s welfare, following which his daughter fell into one of those wells. When another sage, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, was approached by community members seeking advice about her precarious situation, he replied that everything would be fine, because the child of a man who performs righteous acts for other people could not possibly die as a result of one of those acts. “Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa’s pronouncement created the reality that the girl would live,” Rabbi Tatz declared. “In fact, after Rabbi Chanina passed away, Rabbi Nechunya’s son died of thirst, because without the sage being alive to make a new pronouncement, Hashem allowed the course of nature to revert to its ‘regular’ rules.”
Regaling the crowd with pointed insights mixed with his trademark humor, the well-known lecturer Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky quoted a Gemara in Mesechta Shabbos that states “Hashem held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people like a barrel” and forced them to accept the Torah, threatening to drop the mountain on them if they did not. Rabbi Orlofsky asked why it was necessary for Hashem to do this if the nation had previously declared “We will do and we will hear.” He answered that the Jews had only accepted the written Torah at that point, and they needed to be pushed by Hashem to accept the Oral Torah as well, so that they could carry out the commandments in complete accordance with His will. Rabbi Orlofsky noted further that the Gemara compares the mountain to a barrel because a barrel preserves the food contained within it. “We can only preserve authentic Judaism if we follow the directives of the Torah without any deviation from its specifics,” the speaker emphasized, concluding that the study of Torah – which Shavuot puts a focus on – is a crucial means of staying connected to Judaism.
The final speaker was Rabbi Nota Schiller, one of the two Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Somayach. Noting that Shavuot is the one Jewish holiday that is most readily ignored by non-observant Jews, Rabbi Schiller stated that this is the case for two reasons, the first being that – unlike other Yomim Tovim – Shavuot has no specifically mandated mitzvah (such as eating matzah or taking an etrog) connected with it, and thus it is difficult for many Jews to identify with such a holiday. The rabbi suggested that the second reason for Shavuot’s “lack of popularity” is due to the fact that it highlights the Giving of the Torah, which created a new sense of obligation upon Klal Yisrael to follow the commandments. “One gets greater reward for committing an act because Hashem commanded him to do so,” Rabbi Schiller expounded, “than for committing it out of his own volition. This is because our ego makes us feel resistant to obligations placed on us from the outside, and it is a great accomplishment to overcome that resistance.” Thus, the Rosh Yeshiva explained, non-affiliated Jews chafe at the feeling of having to be obligated by the Torah.
Quoting Rabbi Yaakov Emden as having declared that the survival of the Jewish people during the current Exile is a greater miracle than the Exodus from Egypt, Rabbi Schiller asserted that such survival has only been possible through our fidelity to the Torah. “Hashem’s instructions for the ‘game of life’ are absolutely accurate,” he intoned, “and the details of the Oral Law give us the practical resources to deal with an ever-changing world.” Rabbi Schiller concluded by stating that the popular custom of remaining awake throughout the first night of Shavuot to learn Torah “with a passion” should spur us to make our Torah study tangible by engaging in mitzvot and living a Torah-centered life.