Chassidim from Poland came to the Beis Aharon of Karlin zt'l, which is in Lithuania. When the chassidim told the Rebbe that they were returning home, the Rebbe told them, "Polish Jews love to learn Torah. We also love to learn Torah. Only we say, 'Learning Torah needs prayer' (Megilah 28:). One can't succeed in Torah without prayer. And one won't succeed to pray well, without Torah. Torah and prayer are both necessary. They function in unison."
Rebbe Shmelke of Nikolsburg zt'l told his students that it’s impossible to have a true chiddush in Torah without praying for it. He told them, "If one doesn’t have kavanah by ahavah rabba [when we pray for Torah], and also not by the brachah אתה חונן [when we pray for wisdom] it is impossible for him to say a genuine chiddush in Torah that day." One of the students said that he didn’t have kavanah by either of these brachos, and he said a real chiddush in Torah. Rebbe Shmelke asked him to repeat the chiddush. The Rebbe showed him that it wasn't a true chiddush.
When one prays for success in Torah (and likewise, when one prays for his children's and descendants' success in Torah) his prayers will be answered. The Sefer Chasidim (131) writes, "If someone prays for something that’s a praise for Hashem — such as success in Torah, or something else related to spirituality — and he pours his heart out in prayer, Hakadosh Baruch Hu will harken to his prayers, even if he doesn’t have merits."
Reb Yisrael Salanter zt'l taught that although the Gemara (Bava Metzia 59.) states that since the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the gates of heaven are closed, nevertheless, when one prays for spirituality, his prayers will penetrate the heavens and go up to Hashem. Consequently, it’s highly recommended to put lots of effort into prayers for spirituality, such as for success in Torah, good children, etc. and especially on Shavuos, which is a special time for such prayers.
Everyone is dressed in their Shabbos clothes at a wedding. How can we know who is the mechuten? When we see someone crying and praying before the chuppah for the couple's success, we can be certain that he is the mechuten (father in law). The same is with Shavuos. Who is a mechuten with the Torah? Those who are crying and begging Hashem for success in Torah, they are the mechutanim of the Torah. An indication to the importance of prayer on Shavuos is that when Hashem gave the Torah, He appeared to the nation like an old, compassionate man. The attribute of compassion suggests that for success in Torah, one must rouse Hashem's compassion with prayers.
Rebbe Mendel of Riminov zt'l said that from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until mattan Torah, the Jewish nation in the desert was saying the blessing of ahavah rabba, and they were begging Hashem, "enlighten our eyes in Your Torah…" This is how they prepared themselves for mattan Torah.
One year, on Shavuos after Shacharis, , the Ropshitzer Rav zt'l brought a large Gemara to one of his chassidim, and said, "I saw that you said ahavah rabba this morning, and you begged Hashem for Torah. Well, I was in heaven, and I heard that your prayers were answered. Now start learning." He was hinting to this person that it isn't enough to pray for Torah, one must also toil in Torah, to acquire it. The Chofetz Chaim zt'l compared this to a pauper who asked a wealthy person for money. "Come to my office, and I will give you a lot of money." But the pauper didn’t go to the office. The next day, the pauper finds the wealthy man again, and asks for money. "Why didn’t you come to my office yesterday?" The pauper answered that he didn’t get around to it. "Come to my office today." The pauper didn’t come. This happened a few times. This is what happens when one begs Hashem for Torah, and doesn’t follow up by learning Torah afterwards. Perhaps Hashem answered his tefillos, but he never comes to receive what Hashem wants to give him.
Tzlach (Brachos 64) writes, "In my opinion, saying birchas haTorah is a wonderful segulah for [understanding and] remembering Torah," because when one says birchas haTorah, Hashem gives him the Torah as a gift, and when that happens, one will understand and remember the Torah. The Tzlach teaches that this is stated in the following Gemara (Avodah Zarah 19): The Gemara raises a contradiction regarding who the "owner" of Torah is: Hashem or the Torah scholar. For it is written, "His desire is solely in Hashem's Torah, and in his Torah he studies day and night" (Tehillim 1). The Gemara asks, is it Hashem's Torah, or is it the scholar's Torah. The Gemara replies, "Initially, it is Hashem's Torah, and afterwards it becomes the person's Torah." What causes the Torah to change hands? The Gemara doesn’t state explicitly, however, in (Brachos 35) the Gemara has a similar discussion (regarding who is the owner of the world – Hashem or man) and the Gemara concludes that a blessing causes the exchange of ownership. For one verse states äàåìîå õøàä 'äì, "The earth and everything that's in it belongs to Hashem," and another verse states, "…earth was given to man." The Gemara asks, so who is the "owner" of the earth, Hashem or mankind? The Gemara replies that the world belongs to Hashem, but after one makes a blessing, the world changes hands and becomes his. Before saying a blessing, the food belongs to Hashem, after saying a blessing the food becomes his to eat and enjoy. The Tzlach explains that the same thing happens with Torah. Before one says birchas haTorah, the Torah belongs to Hashem, after one says birchas haTorah, the Torah becomes yours. Hashem gives you His Torah as a gift. And when Hashem gives you the Torah as a gift, you will certainly understand it and remember it. Therefore, birchas haTorah is mesugal for remembering the Torah. He writes, "This might be the reason Rebbeinu Hakadosh (Reb Yehudah HaNasi) called the first masechta of Shas, Brachos. Rebbe [Yehudah HaNasi] organized the Mishnayos so people shouldn’t forget them, but he was afraid that nevertheless, people might forget Torah. Therefore he called the first masechta, Brachos, to remind people to say birchas haTorah… and then the Torah will be given to them like a gift and it won't be forgotten. Otherwise, it would be more fitting to call this first masechta, Kriyas Shema, because Shema is a mitzvah from the Torah and is the first discussion of the masechta…"
The Baal Shem Tov zt'l said that the reason Moshiach hasn't yet come is because people aren't saying the blessing of ahavah rabba at length. The blessing of ahavah rabba is truly an outstanding prayer. We don’t have any other prayer, established by the anshei kneses hagedolah, like ahavah rabba. It begins with words of appeasement, begging Hashem to listen to our prayers. As we say, "for Your great name's sake, and in the merit of our forefathers…" Then we arouse Hashem's compassion and we say, "Our Father, merciful father, the compassionate one, have compassion on us…" And then we request for comprehension in Torah and to keep the Torah. We don’t find such powerful words in any other prayer.
In birchas haTorah we say, "He gave us His Torah." According to the Tzlach, it is appropriate to say these words in birchas haTorah, because due to birchas haTorah, Hashem gives us His Torah. Incidentally, Rashi teaches that toil in Torah is the factor that causes the Torah to change hands, from being Hashem’s Torah to being man’s Torah.
In New York there was a set of twins who were very different from each other. One was a baal kishron, motivated to learn, full of energy, while the other one was lazy and uninspired and had a weak mind. But one day, that lazy child started to learn energetically and joyously, and he was understanding! At home, he would study some more. Everyone was shocked by the sudden change. The principal asked the father, "What did you do, that brought out the change in your son?" At first the father didn’t want to answer, but when the principal implored him to answer, the father said, "I made a kabalah to say birchas haTorah with kavanah. Every morning, I pray that the Torah become sweet for my son. That our children should know Hashem and learn Torah lishmah. And that brought about the change."
Many phrases that discuss mattan Torah emphasize the unity aspect. For example, we say, "They came into the covenant together." "They said in unison naaseh venishma…" This is because unity is an integral and essential part of receiving the Torah.
Another benefit of unity is that the nations of the world can't harm the Jewish nation when they are united. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 940) states, "you are standing [and existing]. When? When you are united. As it is the way of the world, if there is a bundle of reeds, can someone break them? But one single reed, even a child can break it." Yet another benefit of unity is that it enables people to have a burning desire to serve Hashem.
Every year on Shavuos morning, right before kriyas haTorah, Rebbe Meir of Premishlan zy’a would tell the following story, which happened approximately three hundred years ago: In Vienna there once lived a wealthy and very influential tzaddik called Reb Shimshon Wertheimer zt’l. Once, the king of Austria asked Reb Shimshon, "Why are the Jewish people persecuted more than any other nation?" Reb Shimshon replied, "That's their punishment for their hatred and jealousy." The king wasn't satisfied with that answer, and said, "I'll give you three days to reveal to me the real reason the Jews suffer so much. If you don’t give me a satisfying answer in three days’ time, I will banish every Yid from Vienna." That night, Reb Shimshon Wertheimer made a question in his dream. It was then the beginning of the winter, and the king went with his officers to the forest to hunt wild game. When the officers wanted to return back, they looked around for the king, but didn’t find him. They assumed the king had already gone home with some of the other officers who left earlier, so they also left the forest. The king was deeply involved in his hobby, and didn’t realize that he was alone in the forest until it turned nighttime. In the darkness of the night, he couldn’t find his way out of the forest. He groped around the forest, hoping to find his way out. He came upon a river and across the river, he saw the lights of a town. The king took off his royal coat, left his horse behind, and swam across. Most of the people who lived in that town were peasants, and when the king knocked at their door, they refused to let him in, because they thought he was a demon. The king decided to look for a home with a mezuzah. "The Jewish people are a compassionate nation. They will certainly help me." He found such a home, and was given dry clothing and a satiating meal. The king was still cold, so the Yid lent him his fur coat too. The wife suspected that the king was a thief. The king heard her tell her husband, “Send this man out of the house, before he steals everything we own – including the fur coat.” The husband told her that he didn’t suspect his guest, but just in case, he would remain awake all night, and make certain that the guest doesn’t steal anything. In the morning, the king asked his host how far Vienna is, and how much it costs to hire a wagon to get there. The host said that he could drive him there for four forties (a currency). The king said, "I agree to that price if you will let me wear your fur coat until my destination, as I’m still under the weather." The Yid agreed. The wife whispered to her husband, "He won’t pay you. He’ll kill you in the middle of the way and take your coat. Why are you taking him?" But he wasn't concerned. As they approached Vienna, he asked the king where he wanted to go. The king replied that he wants to go to the king's palace. (He didn’t yet reveal that he was the king, because he was certain that they wouldn't believe him.) The Jew said, "We could get in trouble for going to the king’s compound without an invitation." "Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it," the king replied. When they arrived in front of the king's palace, the king jumped out of the wagon and ran into the palace. The Jew sat in the wagon in shock. It was as his wife foresaw. He didn’t pay him for the trip, and he ran off with his fur coat. His greatest problem was that he was on the palace grounds without an invitation, and liable to get into trouble soon. Just then, an armed officer arrived, and said that the king wants to see him in the palace. The Jew shuddered as he walked in the king’s palace, wondering what libel would be thrown on him. The king asked, "Do you recognize me?" "No." Now that the king was dressed in royal clothing, sitting on the throne, he didn’t look at all like the person whom he saved. "Well I know you very well. I even know what your home looks like," and he describing the house he slept in the previous night. "Who can compare to the king's wisdom?" the Jew replied. "It isn't wisdom; I was there last night. I’m the person you saved. I didn’t tell you, because I knew you wouldn’t believe me, but I am the king of Austria, and I want to reward you for helping me last night. Whatever you ask for, I will grant you." The Jew was silent. The king explained, "If you want a forest, I will make it yours. If you want an entire city, it's yours. Anything at all, just ask for it, and I will give it to you." The Jew was quiet. The king was becoming impatient, "If you aren't going to tell me what you want, I will just give you the four forties you asked for, and that’s all." The Jew replied, "I’m a traveling merchant, but recently, someone began competing with me. I want the king to decree that this man can't go to the cities where I work." The king said, "Your request is granted, but I never saw a greater fool than you! You had the opportunity to ask for so much more, but because of your jealousy, all you care about is that your competition shouldn’t make money." The king called for Reb Shimshon Wertheimer and asked him to pay the four forties to this Jew, and he told Reb Shimshon, "You were so right. The Jewish people are punished because of their jealousy and because of their hatred." Rebbe Meir of Premishlan zt'l would say this story every year before reading the Torah on Shavuos. The man in this story obviously didn’t have the attribute of unity, a prerequisite for receiving the Torah. He also didn’t believe in "I am Hashem your G-d," because if he would believe that Hashem gives parnassah and no one can take it away from him if it isn't decreed from Above, he wouldn’t be jealous of his competitor, and certainly didn’t adhere to "you should not covet."
Hashem gave us two tablets, and the primary difference between them is that the first tablets have mitzvos between man and G-d while the second tablets discusses mitzvos between man and his fellow Jew. Many more words are written on the first tablet than on the second one. The Mabi't teaches that for both tablets to appear symmetric, the fewer words on the second tablet had to be written in large letters. Large letters are used when you want to catch people's attention. Therefore, the second tablet was shouting, “Be very careful with the commandments between fellow Jews. Don’t consider them small in your eyes, because they too are the foundation of the Torah."
The Vilna Gaon zt'l taught: When one wants to know what a sefer is about, one reads the first page and the last page, and then one knows the goal and objective for the sefer. The Torah begins and ends with chessed. As the Gemara (Sotah 14.) states, "The Torah begins with gemilus chassadim and ends with gemilus chassadim. It begins with 'Hashem made clothing for Adam and Chavah, and He clothed them…' (Bereishis 3:21) and the Torah concludes with "Hashem buried Moshe…" (Devarim 34:6). Therefore, since the beginning and the end of the Torah is gemilus chassadim, this shows us that the essence of Torah is gemilus chassadim.
Each morning we say, "These are the matters that one eats the fruits [of the reward] in this world, while the main reward is stored for Olam Haba…" and the Mishnah lists several examples of chessed. Why is chessed rewarded in this world? The Rosh (Pei'ah 1:1) explains, "Hakadosh Baruch Hu desires more the mitzvos when one is helping his fellow man, than the mitzvos that are solely for Hashem."
The Pele Yoetz (Yomim Tovim) states, "Part [of the mitzvah to be happy on yom tov] is to bring joy to the poor, by giving them charity before yom tov, according to your abilities. It is known how strict the holy Zohar is on this matter. The Zohar says that Hakadosh Baruch Hu visits the poor on yom tov, and if Hashem sees that they don’t have enough food, Hashem cries for them. Furthermore, the Zohar says, 'If a person is happy all by himself, and he doesn’t give to the poor, his punishment is great… About him it is written, "I will spread dung onto your faces, the dung of your holidays" (Malachi 2:3). Therefore don’t forget to give tzedakah to the poor, every yom tov, according to the amount Hashem gave you. Don’t be satisfied that you give a little bit, because [if you have a lot of money, you must give more, as Chazal say," Load a donkey according to its strength" (Kesubos 67.). After you gave to the poor, you too can be happy and you can rejoice, nothing bad with happen to you, and there will be peace in your home…"
The obligation to give tzedakah to the poor for Yom Tov is written specifically about Shavuos. The Torah teaches, "Make Shavuos for Hashem your G-d from what you can give… and rejoice before Hashem your G-d – you, your son and your daughter… the convert, the orphan and the widow…" (Devarim 16:10-11). This verse is teaching that you should invite poor guests to your table to eat your korbanos shelamim with you, (as Rashi here writes) and also, you should give tzedakah, so the poor will have enough for yom tov. Rabbeinu b'Chaya explains that this obligation isn't only for Shavuos. "It applies for all holidays. One should give tzedakah and invite guests [for the holidays] according to one's generosity and abilities. The Torah writes it by Shavuos because Pesach is for seven days, and Succos is for seven days, but Shavuos is only one day. One might think that it isn't so important to give tzedakah for Shavuos as for the other holidays. Therefore the verse tells us that we shouldn’t be lenient… The obligation to give charity for Shavuos is binding as for all other holidays…"
The second day of Shavuos is the yahrtzeit of the ger tzedek, Reb Avraham ben Avraham, the son of Count Potoski, who was killed al kidush Hashem. Count Potoski, was extremely wealthy and prominent throughout Poland and Europe, and when his son converted to Judaism it brought great embarrassment for the church, and therefore they arrested the ger tzedek and then murdered him al kiddush Hashem, hy"d. Becoming a Jew meant forgoing the vast wealth of his father's home. Someone once asked the ger tzedek why he did this. The ger tzedek replied, "I have more pleasure from the smell of the candles on Friday nights when they go out, than from all the wealth that I enjoyed beforehand."
Reb Chaim Palagi zt'l writes that on erev Shavuos, one should give charity of the amount 104 to a poor talmid chacham, and this rectifies severe sins and is a segulah for the barren to bear children. Reb Alexander Zuskind zy’a, author of Yesod Veshoresh HaAvodah, went to the square where the stakes were prepared to burn the ger tzedek; he wanted to answer amen to the blessing the ger tzedek would say right before being moser nefesh al kiddush Hashem. This was mesirus nefesh on his part, because if someone would have caught him, they were liable to punish him as well, chalilah. But the Yesod VeShoresh HaAvodah wanted to be there and answer amen to this unique and holy brachah, said at a time of mesirus nefesh. The Vilna Gaon said about this incident that if there would have been ten people answering amen to that blessing, then the world would have reached its perfected state [tikun hashaleim]. Reb Shlomo Zalman Aurbach said that he heard ish mipi ish [from a direct source] from the Vilna Gaon zt’l that when the ger tzedek recited the blessing, a fire came out from beneath the Ma’aras HaMachpeilah and burned up all kelipos. If there was a minyan answering amen, the world would be perfectly rectified [tikun hashalem]. May his merit protect us.
Once the Vilna Gaon visited him (Rabbi Avraham ben Avraham) in prison and saw that he was depressed. The Vilna Gaon asked him about this, and told him that those who die al kiddush Hashem go directly to Gan Eden. The ger tzedek replied, "I don’t have any Jewish roots. My father is a gentile and I don’t have any children. So I don’t have any genuine Jewish connection." The Vilna Gaon told him: It is written, “[Hashem says] I am first and I am last" (Yeshayah 44:6). Rashi explains, "[Hashem says] I am first, because I don’t have a father and I am last, because I don’t have children." What is this verse telling us? Doesn’t everyone know that Hashem doesn’t have a father and that He doesn’t have children? The verse is speaking to the ger tzedek. Hashem says to them, "I am your father, and I am your son."