The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (129b), in an enigmatic passage, states that a certain “spirit” (or “wind”) named “tavuach” roams the earth on Erev Shavuot, and poses grave danger. Had Benei Yisrael not accepted the Torah on this day in the year of Matan Torah, the Gemara comments, this spirit would have “butchered their flesh and blood.” The Gemara thus establishes that the ancient medical practice of bloodletting should not be performed on this day, as it is a dangerous time due to this mysterious spirit. As further protection against this danger, the Gemara adds, one should avoid bloodletting on any Erev Yom Tov, so that he does not mistakenly undergo this procedure on Erev Shavuot, when this practice is dangerous.
How might we explain this concept? What might this dangerous “spirit” that surfaces before Shavuot symbolize?
It has been suggested that the Gemara here alludes to the grave “danger” of missed opportunities. We might intuitively think that a squandered opportunity for achievement is just that – an opportunity that was missed, but not as unfortunate as losing something which we actually had. The Gemara perhaps seeks here to reframe our conception of missed opportunities, casting them as a harmful, devastating loss. When an opportunity presents itself – such as that which presented itself to Benei Yisrael at the time of the Revelation at Sinai – there is the “threat” of the opportunity being squandered. Had Benei Yisrael not seized the opportunity which was presented to them at Mount Sinai, this would have marked a painful and devastating loss, as the Gemara describes. We are thus instructed to see all opportunities as a precious and valuable commodity which we must protect, as opposed to an option which we are free to choose or ignore. Every opportunity for growth and achievement must be approached with a sense of urgency, and with a firm commitment to do everything we can to seize it. Each such opportunity comes with a dangerous “spirit” – the risk of complacency and disinterest, or of accepting mediocrity – from which we must protect ourselves. Rather than succumb to this “spirit,” we must remind ourselves that each day’s opportunities are special and unique, and will not be accessible ever again, and they therefore must be capitalized upon to the very fullest and to the very best of our ability.
Parashat Beha’alotekha tells the story of the selection of the seventy zekeinim (“elders”) who were appointed to assist Moshe in leading Benei Yisrael. Rashi (11:26), based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 17a), describes the process by which this selection was done. Six worthy candidates were selected from each of the twelve tribes, for a total of 72 prospective appointees. To determine which two were excluded from the group of designated zekeinim, Moshe conducted a lottery, writing the word “zakein” (“elder”) on seventy pieces of paper, and mixing them with two blank pieces of paper. Each of the seventy-two prospects took a piece of paper, and the two who chose a blank paper were the two whom God had decided not to name as leaders.
Many commentators raised the question of why Moshe went through the trouble of writing the word “zakein” on seventy pieces of paper, instead of leaving seventy pieces of paper blank and writing “no” (or something to that effect) on two pieces of paper. This method would, seemingly, have been a far simpler way of determining which seventy were chosen and which two were excluded.
One possibility (suggested by Rav Eliezer Lebovics, in his Darkhei Ezri commentary to Masekhet Sanhedrin) is that the seventy elders chosen to serve as zekeinim needed to be formally, actively appointed for the role. The purpose of the lottery was to designate the selected elders, not to exclude the two other elders. The seventy chosen elders did not receive the appointment by default, by not having been excluded; they needed to be actively named as zekeinim. Therefore, it was necessary for each of them to receive a written confirmation, as opposed to just not receiving an exclusion notice.
We might also suggest that Moshe’s method was used as a message for the two excluded elders. This system focused not on that from which these two men were excluded, for which they were deemed unqualified, but on the fact that they were a “blank page,” with an enormous range of possibilities open before them. When a person is appointed to a role, even a prestigious, coveted role which he had wanted, his appointment has the effect of restricting his opportunities henceforth. And thus when a person is denied a position he sought, he can take comfort in the fact that he is still a “blank page,” that there are so many other roles that he can explore. Moshe’s system reframed the situation for those two elders from one of rejection to one of hope and opportunity.
We all have many things that we cannot do, for which we are not qualified, or that are practically beyond our reach. But rather than focus our attention on what we are incapable of, we should instead appreciate all that we are capable of, the wide range of possibilities open before us, the “blank page” that we are able to fill using the precious resources and talents granted to us by the Almighty.