Sam Arnold
Sam Arnold

Blossoming mitzvot: Shavuot 5781

Two weeks ago, a teacher and mentor of mine published an amazing new story for Shavuot titled “A Gift for Shira.” Excited to share with my students during drop-ins, I eagerly downloaded the book and with the students (all K-2nd Graders) excitedly read through the entire story. At the end of the story though, a student asked the question: “What are Mitzvot?” Now, seeing that this was a story for Shavuot that depicted the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, it made perfect sense that this was being questioned. But, before an answer could be given, it was mentioned that “when you have your Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you will commit yourself to all of the Mitzvot and be able to keep doing good” Not only did that make the student frustrated, they ended up bursting out in tears. Not the way that this was supposed to go!

Luckily, the following week when I was at drop-ins, we read the story again. But this time, I did not allow any questions after reading the story. Instead, I immediately shared my screen to show a picture and asked the students what they saw. Not knowing what it was, they told me a mountain with what looked like a book on top and people standing around that mountain. Hearing that answer, I jumped into what the picture was: the Israelite’s standing at Mount Sinai and on top of Har Sinai, the Ten commandments. But, this picture also stood out because it had one thing on it that a lot of other photos of Har Sinai did not: Flowers.

In Parshat Bhar-Bechukotai, we learn the laws of the Shmita year. The Torah tells us: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord” (Vayikra 25:2), and what we learn is that it is “humanity’s responsibility to return all of creation to a proper relationship with God. When we refrain from planting, pruning, plowing, harvesting, or any other form of working the land, the land is allowed to rest and move towards achieving the union of Shabbat” (Sendor, 2008). At the same time, the Torah tells us another Mitzvah, which is that anyone (no matter who they are/where they come from) can have access to the crops, plants, etc. that grow within the fields. What is beautiful is that this connects to Shavuot because one of the Minhags (Customs) is to decorate the Synagogue and one’s home with greenery (flowers, plants, etc.). There are many reasons behind it, but for my students, I told them the Midrash, which is to remind us that Mount Sinai right before the Torah was given, became beautifully covered with flowers.

To no one’s surprise, after I shared this, a familiar question got asked again: “What are Mitzvot?” I turned back to the student and said, “Before I tell you, what do you think Mitzvot are?” Oddly enough, it took a second for the student to answer but then directly stated “those flowers.” Adding on to that answer, they shared that “flowers could be a Mitzvah because one in the Shmita year can come and take flowers from where they are growing.” This student, in my eyes, was spot on because they were explaining a Mitzvah that can take flight during this Shmitah year. But, what the student said afterward, was even more meaningful: “flowers grow when we do a Mitzvah.”

We know that it will take more than a Mitzvah to be performed for a flower to grow. But, in essence, what this student shared was beautiful because those words are what the Shmita year and Shavuot illuminate. On Shavuot, we need the greenery to remind us that both Learning and Living Torah can be beautiful, and at the same time, the Shmita year gives us the chance to restore the land’s relationship with the Kadosh Baruch Hu. At the same time, however, these two moments in time allow for us to continue growing not only as Jews but as human beings. Just as plants grow day in and day out, so do we. We have the chance to think about what we want our relationship to be with ourselves, others, and the entire world around us and we are stronger because of it.

Therefore, as we march closer to Har Sinai (and B”H the Shmita Year starting on Rosh Hashanah), may we seek to be like the greenery always growing, being guided by Jewish values, teachings, etc. to perform Mitzvot and acts of Chesed (kindness), and continue to live by the words Tikkun H’Adamah, repairing the land, so that our greenery and flowers can continue to grow to remind us of our obligations towards ourselves, others, our World, and Hashem for future generations to come!

Chag Shavuot Sameach: A Joyous and Meaningful Holiday of Shavuot from my Family to Yours!

About the Author
Sam Arnold is a Junior at Western Michigan University majoring in Early Childhood/Elementary Education and minoring in Comparative Religions, with the goal to receive a master's in Jewish Education and pursue the Rabbinate. He is the 1st and 2nd Grade Teacher, along with the K-3 Team leader within the joint Religious School of Congregation of Moses and Temple B'nai Israel in Kalamazoo MI, and serves as President for Western Michigan's Hillel. Sam is a part of the first-ever NEWCAJE College Cohort, a Shalom Hartman Winter I-Engage Participant, and has studied underneath Cantor Leonard Gutman of Congregation Shaarey Zedek learning and gaining respect for the art of Davening. Finally, Sam looks to inspire others to live their lives filled with passion and meaning, just as he is on a daily basis!
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