A Smokin’ Shavuot

The art of letter writing is in many ways lost these days, largely replaced
by the rapid-fire nature of email. The latter is usually less demanding of a
writer’s time, attention, and energy, and can, of course, be a wonderfully
time-saving and timely method of communication. Yet perhaps for those
reasons, it lacks the thoughtfulness, the personality, and the staying power
of the written letters of pre-Internet days.

It’s a lost art but not forgotten. One can still benefit from that method
of communication by turning to written letters of the masters. Among Jewish
figures, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson certainly
stands out.

During his long life and years of leadership, people from all over
the world would address their questions and concerns to him at 770 Eastern
Parkway in Brooklyn, the famous headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch

They wrote to the Rebbe in many different languages about all sorts
of issues: personal (even marital), business, spiritual and, of course,
questions relating to Torah matters.

The Rebbe would respond to each individual, often in the language in
which he was addressed.

Sometimes, in preparation for an upcoming holiday, he would write a
“general letter,” headed: “To All Jewish people, wherever they may be.”

I would like to share (in my own words) part of the contents of one such
letter, penned by the Rebbe just three days before the holiday of Shavuot
(this year, May 19 and 20) in 1975.

I hope that it will inspire you, as it inspired me.

After an introductory greeting, the Rebbe states that he is writing during a
time when it is, traditionally, appropriate to encourage an increase in the
study of Torah.

He writes that this can be done in three ways, which can be
discerned from an allusion in a verse immediately preceding the statement of
the Ten Commandments. It is a section which is read in synagogues across
the world on Shavuot.

The verse states:

“The whole of Mount Sinai smoked because G-d had descended upon it
in fire” (Exodus xix:18).

The Hebrew word for smoked is ashan, which is comprised of the three
letters ayin, shin, and nun.

Ashan, the Rebbe notes, can be read as an acrostic for the three
aforementioned ways that one can increase one’s Torah study: geographically;
temporally; and spiritually.

AYIN: This letter is the first letter of the Heb-rew word olam, or
Thus this letter teaches us that we can increase our Torah study
geographically, i.e., we can – and ought to – multiply the number of
locations where we en-gage in Torah study.
This, of course, does not have to be limited to private study, but
can also include studying with others.

SHIN: This letter is the first letter of the word shana, or “year”.
This re-fers to an in-crease in the amount of time that we spend
im-mersed in Torah study during an annual period.

NUN: Nun stands for nefesh, or “soul”.
How does one increase the “soul” of one’s Torah study?
Answers the Rebbe: Our soul is our life force; to increase the soul
of Torah study means to increase the energy with which we go about the
serious business of acquiring knowledge.
It is not sufficient to study out of obligation, or even out of
intellectual curiosity.
The last letter of this word suggests to us that we are to add to
the quality of our Torah study, investing it with more excitement and more
vitality. This, in turn, will lead us to understand more of what we study,
and in a more profound way than before.

Guided by this interpretation, the three-fold increase in our Torah study
can yield immediate and long-term benefits.
We may even anticipate that it will bring us the three-fold Priestly
Bless-ing which we read in the Torah portion of next week, Naso:

“May G-d bless you and protect you; May G-d cause His face to shine
to you and favor you; May G-d raise His face towards you and grant you
peace” (Numbers vi:24-26).

Wishing you Chag Sameach, a happy and “smokey” Shavuot.