Shavuot – Torah for everyone

My daughter, Dina, accepted a summer job here in Los Angeles last year. Before being hired, she explained that she was an observant Jew who would have to take off two days in early June to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. The manager, respecting Dina’s religious commitment, said it would be no problem.

A few days before the holiday, Dina sent an e-mail to the receptionist explaining that she would be absent for two days in honor of Shavuot. After receiving the e-mail, the receptionist asked, “So what’s this holiday, Shavuot, all about anyway? I Googled it, but it was complicated, so I decided to ask you.”

As Dina began explaining what Shavuot commemorates, another worker in the office overheard their conversation and asked what they were discussing.

“I’m Jewish and I never heard of such a holiday,” the worker said.

“That isn’t surprising,” the receptionist added. “According to Wikipedia, Shavuot is one of the lesser-known holidays among secular Jews outside of Israel.”

In response to their curiosity, Dina patiently explained that Shavuot commemorates the revelation and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shocked that she had never heard of the holiday, her Jewish colleague said, “Now that’s a big deal! Funny thing I never knew about it before.”

Indeed Shavuot is the “big deal,” for there is nothing in Jewish life that defines us more than the Torah. This fact led the rabbis of the Talmud in the second century C.E. to make the following observation about Torah study. The Talmud, in Tractate Berakhot 63b, records that Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina explained a verse in Jeremiah 50:36 as the source for how we are to study Torah. The verse states, “A sword is upon the boasters and they shall become fools.” Noting the sound of the Hebrew word for “boasters” — bad — Rabbi Hanina suggests that this word is an allusion to the Hebrew word that means “alone.” Rabbi Hanina concludes that those who only study Torah for themselves but don’t share it with others are enemies of Torah. Torah must be learned in a community and not just by individuals.

This talmudic passage, however, bothered the late talmudist Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik could not understand how Rabbi Hanina would deduce such a lesson from this verse when Jeremiah wasn’t talking about Torah, but rather was prophesying about the downfall of Babylon. How could Rabbi Hanina suggest that this verse teaches us how we must study Torah?

Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that the Babylonian non-Jewish scholars were brilliant men who mastered great amounts of knowledge. However, most people are not even aware of these scholars’ total brilliance, mastery of natural law and knowledge because the Babylonians did not share their wisdom. They kept their knowledge to themselves. It was this experience in Babylon that motivated Rabbi Hanina to quote Jeremiah. He wanted Jews to avoid a similar path at all cost.

Torah is not a limited treasure for an elite group and off limits to the masses. Rather, Torah must be shared with all Jews. As Isadore Twersky, the late professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, once wrote, “Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith. … Education, in its broadest sense, will enable young people to confront the secret of Jewish tenacity and existence, the quality of Torah teaching which fascinates and attracts irresistibly. They will then be able, even eager, to find their place in a creative and constructive Jewish community.”

Indeed, we have our work cut out for us as long as there is a Jew who can say, “I’m Jewish and I never heard of Shavuot.”

Rabbi Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.