The Torah Belongs to Every Jew
Shabbat Parshat Bemidbar
May 11, 2013
This year, I think I finally figured it out. And when I say “it” I mean why Shavuot has been relegated to a second or even third class holiday among the other Jewish holidays of the year.
Shavuot is actually one of the most sacred days on the Jewish calendar, in the same category as Passover and Sukkot. In the Torah, we read: “Three times a year-on Passover, on Shavuot and on Sukkot-all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose.” When the Temple still stood, God’s chosen place was Jerusalem. People would flock from all over to rejoice together, these three times each year. On Shavuot, farmers specifically offered their bikkurim—their first ripened fruits—as gifts to God.
Unfortunately, when the Second Temple fell in 70 CE and our ancestors were forced into exile, these thrice annual pilgrimages came to a halt. On Pesach, our ancestors still gathered to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. On Sukkot our ancestors still built huts and took the lulav and etrog. But once the first fruits in the Promised Land could not be offered to God in God’s home, there was little ritual left.
Over the years Shavuot transformed into Zman Matan Torateinu. What started out as a pilgrimage and a harvest festival morphed into the day we remember God giving us the Torah.
As Maimonides teaches in the Guide of the Perplexed 3:43 [Shavuot] is the day of the giving of the Torah. In order to glorify and exalt that day, the days are counted from the first of the festivals (Passover) up to it, as is done by one who waits for the coming of the human being he loves best and counts the days and the hours. This is the reason for the counting of the Omer from the day when they left Egypt till the day of the giving of the Torah, which was the purpose and the end of their leaving.
Agricultural pilgrimage was dropped and Shavuot became the holiday of God giving His people the Torah. When I explained this to a faith leader of another religion I told him that this holiday is like a graduation. We do all the work and then someone gives us our diploma. Each year we count the Omer, and then God gives us Torah again. It was the kabbalists who introduced the idea of the tikkun layl Shavuot, the all nighter, so we can stay up all night and then read the section in Torah when God gave us the mitzvot. It can be rather emotional. We are tired after a night of no sleep, just like our ancestors were tired from a life of slavery and then new found freedom in a new place. And then we, like them, are given Torah.
The challenge is that so many Jews reject Torah or they see it as something that is not relevant to them. They see the gift of Torah as being an all or nothing gift, or a take it or leave it gift, which in my understanding it is not. And they choose to leave it.
There are other people who live their lives building fences and fences around the Torah and trying to recreate the understanding of each and every mitzvah as stringently as possible. For those people, that is the only way to study Torah and embody Torah. And for the most part, their message is that they “own” Torah since they do so many mitzvot.
I am not one of those people and I don’t think many of you sitting in here are either.
Torah does not stop with the walls of a Beit Midrash, of the study hall. We read in Proverbs “Train the child according to his way” (Mishlei 22:6). From that verse I learn that we can all learn Torah in our own ways, and we can also receive Torah in our own way. That is pluralism.
A few days ago I read the following in my dayomi studies. Why is the Torah compared to a fig tree? The fruit of most trees – the olive tree, the vine, and the palm tree – is collected all at once, while that of the fig tree is collected a bit at a time. So, too, regarding the Torah. Today a person learns a little, and tomorrow she shall learn much, for the Torah cannot be learned in a single year or two. (Babylonian Talmud Eiruvin 53b)
And that is why this holiday lost its stature among others in the non observant world. Too many of us (especially those not in the room) were never informed or had anyone model for them that learning Torah and understanding and growing in mitzvot is a lifelong exercise. We have not all been informed that the Torah is part of our inheritance. And, we were not all informed that God gave us the Torah, to all of us, and that our jobs was to understand it according to the times we
It is just a misconception that if we want a relationship with Torah, then it must be and all or nothing relationship. The Torah belongs to each and every Jewish person. So if, Shavuot celebrates the Revelation at Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, and there are people who don’t think the Torah
speaks to them, or thinks that the Torah has been usurped by a specific part of the population, then it is no wonder it is an under observed holiday
The Torah is so much more than a book of narratives and “do this” and “don’t do this. According to Shir Hashirim Rabbah.
The words of Torah are likened to water, as it is written, O all who thirst, come for water, (Is. 55:1) Just as water goes from one end of the earth to the other, so does Torah go from one end of the earth to the other. Just as water is a life source, so is Torah a source of life. Just
as water is free to all, so is Torah a free commodity. Just as water makes many sounds, so is the Torah heard in many voices. Just as water originates in tiny drops and accumulates into mighty streams and rivers, so the Torah is acquired word by word today, verse by verse tomorrow. Just as water is not kept in silver or gold vessels, but the simplest [clay], so Torah is retained by those who are simple.
Every single one of us can merit stand at Sinai again this Shavuot. It is up to you. You don’t need an invitation.