Hidden Beneath the Flowers

The Rama (או”ח תצ”ד ג) writes in Shulchan Aruch that:

ונוהגין לשטוח עשבים בשבועות בבית הכנסת והבתים זכר לשמחת מתן תורה

We have the custom to spread out grass/flowers on Shavuos in the shul and in houses, to recall the happiness of the receiving of the Torah.

The commentaries explain the origin of this custom: The Medrash tells us that when Matan Torah occurred, Mount Sinai blossomed and grew grass and flowers.

The source for this Medrash is derived from the Pasuk commanding the Jewish people to ensure that their cattle and sheep shouldn't graze on Mount Sinai. If the cattle need to be prevented from grazing, it must mean that there was something to graze.

All of this is to say that our custom of placing flowers in Shul and at home seems to be, at best, a tangential detail.

Adding to the peculiarity, there is a single chapter in Shulchan Aruch dedicated to the laws of Shavuos, and in that chapter the Rama makes only two comments regarding Shavuos customs: We have a custom of eating milk products, and decorating with grass and flowers.

Taking a step back, we could be forgiven for assuming that there are far more significant events that occurred during Matan Torah: The fire, lightening, smoke and awe inspiring revelation of Hashem’s presence. This great festival of the giving of the Torah might best be captured by communal Talmud Torah, or perhaps by unique Tefillos. Of course, over the generations the customs of Tikkun Leil Shavuos have indeed become standard. Yet, in the Shulchan Aruch, it is this obscure Medrash and practice that takes center stage.

The Chidushei HaRim notes, however, that there is a far older connection between Shavuos and grass and flowers.

The Torah tells us that when Moshe Rabbeinu was born, his mother tried desperately to hide him at home. Yet, by the end of his first three months she could no longer guarantee his safety. She prepared a small basket and placed him inside.

That little basket was then hidden in the Nile river:

וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת־הַיֶּלֶד וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל־שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר׃ She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.

For a few tense hours, those reeds hid Moshe from prying Egyptian eyes, until Pharaoh’s daughter would find him them.

Moshe Rabbeinu was born on the seventh of Adar. The day he was placed into river Three months later, was the seventh day of the month of Sivan, and exactly 80 years later, Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Sinai to receive the Torah, as the mountain bloomed with the grass and flowers that had saved his life.

We, the Jewish people, owe our exodus, our salvation and Matan Torah to those reeds.

Decorating our homes and shuls is an expression of our great Hakaras Hatov, our gratitude and humility. This explains the reason for the custom, but it still does not explain the centrality of it.

Perhaps was could suggest that reason we have taken on this practice is hinting at hidden truth, all too relevant to our lives today.

Matan Torah was, by all accounts, terrifying. There was fire, lightening and the sound of the Shofar, as the nation trembled in the camp. Moshe begins to ascend this mountain of fire. In this moment, Klal Yisrael is being bound to our eternal destiny, with all of the pain and pleasure that being Jewish will entail for all time.

And in that moment, Hashem reminds Moshe and us that beyond the fear and the fire, He has never stopped holding his hand. “Do you remember when you were a baby. Do you remember that terrifying day when you cried alone in the river? Do you remember how I held you then until you were saved? I’ve never stopped holding you.”

“See Moshe, I don’t need a river to grow those flowers. See here in the desert, I can do the same thing. Even in this place of desolation, I’m here for you.”

The great secret of Matan Torah is that hidden beneath all of the fire, smoke, noise and lightening of the Torah, is beauty and growth.

That's what Hashem wanted to show us at Mount Sinai, and what we aim to show our children and ourselves. Hidden beneath the awesome challenges and demands of the Torah is an immeasurable sweetness; a kaleidoscope of colors and beauty.

Hashem should help us to receive His Torah this Shavuos; with all of the details and demands, the rules and requirements. But within that, to see His blossoming flowers, His grass growing miraculously in the desert. Indeed, its the first word He said to us: אנכי – I am giving My Soul to You.

We should feel His hand holding ours, keeping each of us safe until we are all finally free.