On Shavuot, reopening the book

On Shavuot, which this year falls on May 23, we celebrate the day that we received the Torah on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago.
May 21, 2015

On Shavuot, which this year falls on May 23, we celebrate the day that we received the Torah on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. Think about that. Every year, we celebrate receiving the exact same book, or, more precisely, re-receiving the exact same Torah. But if I possess the Torah once, why must I receive it again every year? Don’t I already have it? 

One of the most acclaimed novels of this past year was Haruki Murakami’s “The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” It’s an emotionally devastating work that follows the character Tsukuru Tazaki as he attempts to piece together why and how his life fell apart 16 years earlier. As he journeys into his past, visiting old friends and acquaintances, he discovers how much he himself has changed. This makes him see his trauma in a completely different way. It changes the perception of his own narrative. The message is a poignant one. We, as humans, keep changing. Our experiences, development and natural progression create inevitable changes with the passing of each year. We need to re-receive the Torah not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed. As a people, we are certainly so much different from how we were 3,300 years ago. 

We’re not robots. We’re humans. What we see as critical to our lives may change with the times. So Shavuot comes along to help us reorient ourselves — to help us refocus on the timeless rather than just the trendy or the timely. Passover is about the Exodus and freedom. Yom Kippur is about atonement and repair. Shavuot is about our life’s journey and the techniques through which we constantly reopen our book and rediscover our inner essence. 

There is a magnificent and challenging ritual on the first night of Shavuot. The custom is to return to synagogue after dinner and stay up all night studying Torah. There are numerous mystical explanations for this practice, but I’d like to suggest another one based on the earlier point: We stay up all night and study Torah because as the hours pass and fatigue sets in, we have less energy for distractions. We are more vulnerable, more open. We can focus on the essence, which is hearing the word of God all over again. And every year, the message has a different resonance, because we ourselves are different. To emphasize this theme of renewal, this year, on Shavuot night in my community, I will be giving a series of lectures from 11 p.m. to 5:20 a.m. that are really simulated conversations between famous historical rabbis who disagreed on salient matters of Jewish law, ethics and philosophy. The point of the exercise is to re-examine their disagreements in light of the passage of time. In other words, if we reopen their dialogue, would we find that the chasm between their positions has grown or shrunk? I want to encourage the community to be in listening mode, to look at disagreements in context rather than in judgment. We can even do that in our personal lives: How would we react to a friend with whom we disagreed if we heard their position 10 years later in our present context? 

Shavuot comes along to help us reorient ourselves — to help us refocus on the timeless rather than just the trendy or the timely.

On the second day of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth converted to Judaism, which may be reason enough for reading this text on this day. Shavuot is the day we formally became a nation of Torah-observant Jews. In a sense, it is our collective conversion as a people. But there is something much deeper at play. According to the Midrash Ruth — which is a collection of homiletic teachings on the Book of Ruth, composed in approximately 700 C.E. — the real reason we read Ruth on Shavuot is for its manifold examples of pure kindness. Whether it was Ruth’s commitment to stay with her mother-in-law, or Boaz’s inclusiveness, Ruth is a charitable composite of beautiful human traits. What does this have to do with Shavuot? Chesed — kindness — is also most realized when we acknowledge that people change. What they need today is not what they need tomorrow or what they needed yesterday. And our sensitivity demands that we pay attention to each other anew as often as we can. We have changed, our loved ones have changed, and, therefore, how we give to each other must keep changing and evolving. That is true kindness, true love. 

The Talmud in Ta’anit refers to the giving of the Torah as Yom Chatunato — the day of our marriage with God. Because Shavuot is the day we received the Torah, it is our national wedding. What is the intent of this image? Well, consider the wedding day, a holiest of holy days when we are open to our future spouse in the deepest way possible, promising to be there for one another through thick and thin. So it is with God on Shavuot. We are there every year, whether we are more thick or more thin, or more rich or more skeptical. The regiving of the Torah expresses our ability to pay attention all over again. 

Reopening the Torah on Shavuot gives us access to our most precious treasure, which is the wisdom of our tradition. But for today’s new generation, tradition is not enough. They want to know: How will this tradition make me a better person and give me a better life? Shavuot begins to answer that question. Re-receiving the same holy book every year, while we keep changing, implies that the Torah is powerfully equipped to provide us insight no matter what state or stage we are in. 

The Jews living in the cultural “golden age” of Spain (900-1130 C.E.) found genuine cultural expression through the Torah. A compelling example is the poetry of Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who paved a new style with words inspired by the Torah that simultaneously expressed the true artistic milieu of his generation. The Jewish community in Western Europe in the 19th century, facing the immense challenge of enlightenment, basked in the innovative approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who reopened the Torah and understood the concept of Torah im Derech Eretz (Torah and the way of the Land). Jews crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto awaiting an unspeakable fate found an unfulfilling but quiet dialogue with God from the words, “My soul will weep in hiding(Jeremiah 13:7). Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira reopened the book and meditated upon this verse and understood it as God admitting to crying with the people. The Jewish immigrants who arrived on American soil found a world so removed from anything they had ever known. They found a world that was so distant from the journey of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Yet, some of them decided to reopen the Torah once again and they heard the immutable word of God speaking within their mutable selves. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, heard the word of redemption and sent emissaries to spread his vision of hope. Rabbi Aharon Kotler heard the word of dedication and spent his entire life building a community committed to studying the Law. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik heard the word of intellectualism and guided his energies toward teaching thousands of students. The women of the modern era, under the inspiration of Sara Schenirer in Poland, reopened the Torah and saw a place for their own growth and aspirations. 

All of these Jewish giants kept reopening the book and finding new inspiration.

Shavuot teaches us to re-receive the Torah because everything changes. It always does. The world changes. We change. The idealism of our youth sometimes becomes shattered by the coldness of life’s reality. The Torah speaks of Mishnah Torah — a second Torah. The king of the Jewish nation is charged to keep two Torahs. Rashi, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, says that one Torah would be reserved for study at home and the second Torah was taken into battle. Why doesn’t the king have just one Torah that he takes to war and reads at home? Because there is a great need for two. The risk we take when bringing the Torah for protection out on the road is that it can become worn by travel and tattered in war. Our Torah becomes corrupted by the compromises of life, and therefore it becomes necessary from time to time for us to return to that pure Torah back at home, and reflect upon our sacred ideals. 

This Shavuot, I challenge my brothers and sisters to reopen the book. Discover again for the first time those lessons that you may or may not remember from your earlier journeys. Share a story or two with your children and notice how the same passage can mean one thing for you, one thing for your husband and another for your children. Let the splendid drama of the Bible carry you through the night, and reach deep into your vacillating soul and awaken it. 

Chag sameach.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh. 

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