The Talmud in M’seches Pesachim 68B discusses whether one is allowed to fast on any of our Holidays or one must indulge. Regarding the Yom Tov that is now upon us the Gemara says; “all agree on Atzeres one must indulge. Why? For it is the day on which we received the Torah.” Further, on that same page of Gemara, the Gemara records the practice of Rav Yosef: “On the day of Atzeres, Rav Yosef would say, ‘prepare me an iglah tilsah (the finest cut of meat)’. He would say, ‘If not for this day, there are many Yosefs in the marketplace.” With this short statement, Rav Yosef reveals to us why receiving the Torah is something we must celebrate-because it is the Torah that makes us special; without it we would be just your average Joe.
This Gemara strikes a personal cord for me. Growing up in Buffalo, NY, I was known as “Joey,” as I still am today to my fellow Buffalonians. Even as I began my Yeshiva career in Ner Israel, I was known as Joey (as Rabbi Chaim Tropp, my fellow local Ner Israelite will attest). Only when I got to the more advanced stages of Yeshiva did I begin to become known as Yosef. My years studying in Israel completed the transformation. By the time I came back, I was no longer an ordinary Joe; I was Yosef.
I recently contacted a mentor and teacher of mine from Ner Israel, Rabbi Ezra Slotchiver. Rabbi Slotchiver made a tremendous effort in his youth to absorb as much Torah from the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, Rabbi Ruderman z”l, as he could. In conversation, he shared with me a beautiful interpretation that Rabbi Ruderman suggested for the words of Rav Yosef. According to the simple read of the Gemara, when Rav Yosef says, “There are many Yosefs in the marketplace,” he is referring to the many ordinary people who are not as special as he. Rabbi Ruderman suggested that Rav Yosef is referring to himself! If not for the Torah he would be many different Yosefs. The grounding nature of the Torah is what allowed Rav Yosef to focus his strengths and blaze a path for himself in life. Without the Torah he would have been many different Yosefs, scattered, unfocused, and ungrounded.
I believe that the Rosh Yeshiva’s message of years ago is very relevant today. Today, it is truly a challenge to be one person in one place. We are doing work from home and taking care of family matters at work. We are Facetiming with family in Israel and receiving Whats-app posts from our different chats. At the end of the day we wonder, “Who am I?” We are Hashem’s chosen people who received the Torah. That is what grounds us. That is what defines us.
As we celebrate this Shavuos with festive meals of delicious food, let’s make sure to recognize why today calls for such celebration-because this is the day we receive the Torah and that is what distinguishes us. This is the day that grounds us, and unifies our personality to be that one person that we are meant to be. And this is the day that makes us more special than any other nation, and not your average Joe.
Good Shabbos and Good Yom Tov,
Rabbi Yosef Alt