Shavuot Teaches Us Not to Waste Opportunities

 By Rabbi Seth Wax

As we move into the end of the spring semester and toward the summer months at the college campus I work at, students have begun to talk excitedly about their plans for after classes end. One of the joys of interacting with them means that I get to hear about the faraway places that they will travel to, the research they’ll do, and the career paths they’ll explore through an internship, work, and play.

For many students, however, the question of what to do during the summer can be fraught and confusing – what should they do? What is the best way to spend their short summer break? How should they decide which opportunity to take advantage of? How do they channel their energy and leverage their growing intellectual and practical skill sets into an enriching experience?

The truth is, the question of how we take advantage of opportunities is one that remains with all of us throughout our lives. When we discover the chance to do or see something special – to potentially be transformed – how do we respond? When we notice an impulse stirring within us, how do we ensure it leads us to action?

This, in part, is what Shavuot comes to teach us. In his teachings on this holiday, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1810), an early Hasidic rebbe, looks to the experiences of the Israelites at Mount Sinai and directs our attention to what they did in preparation for the giving of the Torah.

After the people approach at the foot of Mount Sinai and set up camp, God instructs Moses to tell the people to prepare themselves by washing their clothes and by setting a border around the mountain, preventing the people from ascending or even touching it (Exodus 19:10-13). The people comply. Why is this act so significant? After all, the Israelites observe lots of God’s commandments in the Torah. What is the meaning of this seemingly minor action?

Levi Yitzchak argues that in the moments leading up to the giving of the Torah, the Israelites recognized the significance of what was about to take place for them. Seeing the clouds and lightening envelop the mountain and hearing the thunder all around, they yearned deeply to find a way to connect with that experience. So what did they do? They fulfilled God’s commandment of setting limits around the mountain, which according to Levi Yitzchak, provided a container for the mind-altering experience that would follow.

It’s not enough, he suggests, that we simply stumble onto an opportunity. We need to create a vessel to enable us to have an experience. We need to channel our spiritual energies when we sense them arising (see Art Green’s Speaking Torah, vol. 2, p. 220). And further, we need to act decisively to ensure that the opportunities that come to us can actually come to fruition.

Sometimes when students have come to me, trying to make a decision about their plans for the summer or life after college, I ask them to reflect on the opportunities they are being given and to attend to the movement of their soul. What excites or energizes them? What do they feel a special tug toward? And if they can notice that, I encourage them to act decisively and concretely. To follow through and take advantage.

After all, it’s what the Israelites did when they sensed a great opportunity before them. 

Rabbi Seth Wax is Jewish Chaplain at Williams College in Williamstown.