Commentary for Shavuot

14 Jun

Shavuot is often referred to as a celebration of the giving of the Torah.   In our prayers we refer to it as zman matan Torahteinu– “the time of the giving of our Torah,” because it takes place on the anniversary of that momentous occasion. We celebrate the occasion by refraining from creative work and instead have festive meals with family and friends. We read about the giving of the Torah from the very Torah that was given to us, and insert special poems into the Torah reading and haftarah that praise God for giving us the Torah.


We also commemorate this great moment by trying to bring ourselves back to it. We eat only dairy foods, as our ancestors did while preparing for the giving of the Torah. We decorate the synagogue with flowers and greenery, hearkening back to the way that Mt. Sinai bloomed while the Torah was given, despite being in the middle of a desert. We read the Ten Commandments in the majestic “upper cantillation,” in which each of the commandments is given in one verse, regardless of length, with the exception of the first two, which are read as part of the same verse, just as they were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.


While it is great to celebrate giving, it is important not to forget about the other side of the coin. Just as talking to someone does no good if they do not listen, so too does giving become irrelevant if the gift is not received and accepted.


On Shavuot, in addition to the Torah, haftarah, Hallel, and the special poems, we also read the Book of Ruth. While the Book of Ruth is known for its wonderful messages about family, loyalty, and caring for the needy, it is, at its core, the story of someone who chose to become a Jew. This is the same choice our ancestors made at Mount Sinai. While there have been many midrashim written over the years to praise the pious manner in which the Israelites accepted the Torah, the most important factor is not their piety in making that choice, but the fact that they made that choice at all.


Our ancestors did not have to accept the Torah. They could have, as one famous midrash depicts the other nations of the world doing, asked what was in it, decided that they didn’t like it, and told God “thank you, but no.” Instead, they made the conscious choice to receive God’s gift of Torah. We face that choice as well; not just on Shavuot, but on every day of the year. On Shavuot we celebrate God giving us the gift of Torah. Our task is to celebrate our accepting it every single day.

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