Featured Shavuos Guest – Rabbi Reuven Taragin – Dean Of Overseas Students – Yeshivat Hakotel – How To Be More Than The Average Joe – Personalized Torah Investment

Yearning for Meaning

G-d created every one of the world’s seven billion people with a yearning to feel meaningful and impactful. Although people know that they are merely one of billions, they want to feel that their lives matter, that they mean more than just ‘the average Joe.’  

The Day the Torah was Given

Chag Shavuot offers direction to this existential yearning. Shavuot is the only chag other than Sukkot regarding which the Torah specifies the mitzvah of simcha(happiness).[1] Chazal understood the mitzvah as requiring physical celebration. In fact, Rabbi Elazar asserts that even those who see other yamim tovim (holidays) as spiritually focused agree that Shavuot requires physical celebration.[2] Interestingly, the Talmud links this requirement to the fact that Shavuot is the day the Torah was given.  

This linkage seems strange. Shouldn’t Shavuot’s commemoration of Matan Torah mandate a spiritually focused celebration? Rashi[3] explains that physical celebration is required in order to show that we are pleased with and accepting of Matan Torah. A spiritual commemoration might best reflect the nature of Matan Torah, but it would not express how we relate to the Torah nor our level of satisfaction with this special gift.

If Not for That Day

A bit later in the Talmud, we are told that Rav Yosef had a preferred culinary simcha selection and a unique formulation of its significance. On Shavuot, Rav Yosef ate a ‘triple- meat’ sandwich and explained his custom by exclaiming that “without the impact of this day, there would be many Yosefs (Joes) in the marketplace.”  

Rav Yosef highlighted the importance of Torah learning and knowledge in developing a meaningful and distinguished identity. There are many ways people seek to distinguish themselves. There are the Joe DiMaggios[4] and Joe Namaths of sports and the Joe Bidens and Joe Liebermans of politics. Their respective accomplishments may be undoubtedly impressive and celebrated by society, but Rav Yosef’s statement asserts that on a deeper level, the only way[5] we truly develop and distinguish ourselves is through building our character upon a foundation of Torah learning.

This appreciation lies at the heart of Chag Shavuot. To celebrate Shavuot properly, we need to reflect upon how central Torah learning and values are to Jewish identity. Celebration without this reflection is superficial and only physical in nature.

The Days I Learned and Elevated

Rashi’s explanation of Rav Yosef’s words further personalizes his statement.[6] Rashi explains the ‘day’ Rav Yosef refers to, not as the day the Torah was given, but as the days he had studied Torah. Matan Torah is worth celebrating, but ultimately, it is only our individual investment in Talmud Torah that develops us personally.

Rashi also employs a unique adjective to describe the impact of Torah learning on Rav Yosef – ונתרוממתי – and I was elevated. Rashi seems to be paraphrasing the Mishna in Avot[7] that explains that Torah learning elevates one above all creatures and actions.[8]  

Throughout the year we involve ourselves in many (often important) activities. The multitude of disciplines may distract us from the primary importance of Torah learning. Chag Shavuot is a time to reflect upon the unique significance of Torah learning and how it elevates us. Hopefully, our reflection and celebration will inspire us to devote more time to learning and, in the process, make ourselves matter more than the average Joe.


[1] Devarim 16:11.

[2] Pesachim 68b.

[3] DH DeBainan.

[4] Abie Rotenberg’s song “Joe DiMaggio’s Card” contrasts collecting baseball cards, which are valued by many but ultimately worthless, with collecting Gedolim Cards that celebrate meaningful accomplishment.

[5] Implied by his usage of the word אלמלא, had it not been for.

[6] DH Li.

[7] 6:1.

[8] We also find this verb in אתה בחרתנו, with which we begin the central part of the Yom Tov Amidah – ורוממתנו מעל הלשונות – and raised us above all the languages. See also the words of Rabbi Yochanan (Berachot 17a) – אשרי מי שגדל בתורה – happy is one who has grown in Torah.


Rav Reuven Taragin, a Wexner Fellow and Musmach of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate completed a B.A. in Science and Philosophy at Yeshiva University and an M.A. in Jewish History and Education at Touro College (Israel).  Rav Taragin has also been deeply involved in informal education programming including NCSY shabbatonim and the creation of the YUSSR summer program. Rav Taragin is responsible for the quality and message of the overall program and the welfare of each of its students. Despite his many responsibilities, Rav Taragin manages to develop a deep kesher with each of the talmidim both while they are in yeshiva and afterwards (he maintains personal contact with each one of the yeshiva’s alumni). He is well-known for his shiurim in Gemara, Tanach and Machshava, his inspiring talks, signature tisches, and the personal advice he offers to talmidim. Rav Taragin is the Rosh Beit Midrash at Camp Moshava (I.O.), and Rav of Kehillat Eretz Chemdah in Katamon and has also taught at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Nishmat and Be’er Miriam. Rav Taragin is also the founder and director of the Yeshivat Hakotel Community (Five Towns, Teaneck…) Education Conferences which bring together tens of community educators who work with thousands of parents to help them best educate their children.