Shavuot—It’s about you and Torah together

by | May 30, 2014 | Torah Thought

This week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot—the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai some 3,500 years ago.

The Torah reading in synagogue will be the Ten Commandments (Exodus chapter 20), which were pronounced for the first time on this date, making it a perfectly logical reading for this holiday. We will also read Exodus 19, which describes the required preparation before God gives the Torah to the people. It tells of a threeday process of purification for the people. There are two nagging questions raised by the reading of chapter 19: First, why do we read about these days of preparation, known as the shloshet y’mai hagbalah, on the day commemorating receiving the Torah (vs. in the days leading up to the holiday)? Second, how can the Jewish people know how to purify themselves before receiving the Torah, which will be the source of guidelines, mitzvot and values? In answering these two questions, we can discover a central idea about religion in general, about bringing Torah into our lives and about the holiday of Shavuot itself.

I am always disturbed when I hear about people who use religion to justify their terrible behavior. How could it be that religion, which I know to be such a powerful force for good in the world, can also be used as a rationale for evil? There are cases of this in every religion, including Judaism. I often watch in stunned disbelief as someone who was purportedly living a life dedicated to Torah values and Jewish religious practice commits some egregious crime or hateful act. How could the Torah, in the wrong hands, be so corrupted as to justify wickedness?

The key to understanding this troubling, yet basic, question of religion is in that extra reading, Exodus chapter 19. God does not want us to receive the Torah as blank slates ready to be filled with its wisdom. God expects us to purify ourselves first. This preamble to the Ten Commandments with its demands for purification hint at an even more basic connection we each have with God. We are to purify ourselves based on the guidance of our neshama, our soul, that little spark of divinity that rests inside every one of us. God speaks to us through our soul. It’s a process the secular world calls conscience.

The Torah is a powerful tool for successful, meaningful, purposeful living. The preparation required of the people before revelation is a reminder that we need to come to learn Torah with our best selves. The Torah will not make us good, but when we approach it starting with our conscience, it can magnify and enhance our goodness. Unfortunately, when the guidance of our neshama is not where we start, the Torah itself can be corrupted and used as an excuse for wickedness. Maimonides, the great sage of the 12th century, called this being a “scoundrel within the letter of the law.”

So how do we insure that our Torah always be used for good? It is easy to say, “Well, just listen to your conscience,” but we live in a ‘noisy’ world full of distractions. It is not always easy to hear that divine voice deep inside of us. In his Torah commentary on Leviticus 26:3 Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, explains a seeming redundancy in the text saying, “‘Following the laws’ means behaving in accordance with them; ‘keeping the mitzvot’ means studying carefully how to do them. Doing so fulfills God’s intention that you be ‘in God’s image, after God’s likeness.’” In other words, it is not enough to simply do the mitzvot, to simply follow the Torah; we also need to study the mitzvot, to spend time exploring their true meaning and intention. Only then will we be able to fulfill God’s purpose in giving us the Torah in the first place, to bring more holiness into the world, to behave, “In God’s image.”

That explains why we read Exodus 19 on Shavuot. When we celebrate receiving the Torah on Sinai, we are reminded that only through Torah study will we insure that the Torah in our hands is always a gift, not only for us but also for the world. That’s why we traditionally hold a Tikkun Layl Shavuot, an all-night Torah study session, on the first evening of Shavuot. Before we reenact receiving the Torah in synagogue, we reenact the preparation for receiving the Torah the night before. It is further why Torah study is considered more important even than doing the good acts themselves—a principle known as Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulam. Without proper attention to why we are doing the mitzvot, we run the risk of doing more damage than good in the world. As we celebrate Shavuot this year, it is a time to embrace learning as much as doing, knowing that in this way, we can help fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

—Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz, Congregation Beth El