Commentary for Shavuot

2 Jun

On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah, and what better way could there be to show our appreciation for this precious gift than by utilizing it? Thus, we stay up all night studying Torah, and then, during morning services, we do a public reading. Whenever we have a holiday that tells the story of a specific moment in time that is related in the Bible, our Torah reading for that day will either tell that exact story or tell the story of the closest available section while delegating the duties of telling the exact story to the section of the Bible in which it is contained. On Purim we read the background of the Purim story from the Torah, followed by the story itself in the Book of Ester. On the first day of Passover we read about that day’s events- the paschal sacrifice, the slaying of the firstborn, and the exodus from Egypt. On the seventh day of Passover, when the Red Sea was split, we read about the splitting of the sea and the ultimate defeat of the Egyptian army at God’s hand, while the Israelites begin their trek to the Promised Land. On Shavuot, then, we naturally read about the giving of the Torah and all the preparations therefore, from the moment the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai up through the end of the climactic revelation and the reading of the Ten Commandments.


Unlike the other holidays, however, the Torah reading for Shavuot does not stop there. Instead it continues for one more aliyah in which Moses starts to expound on some of the laws we just heard. What, exactly, falls into the category of the “sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or the earth below or the water beneath the earth” that we have just been forbidden from making? And if we can’t use these items as a way to focus ourselves on our God as our neighbors do for their gods then how shall we worship our God without violating this commandment? If we are to make an altar then what means and methods of construction are acceptable for it? And what manner of conduct that our neighbors might engage in during their ceremonies should we engage or not engage in?


These questions whose answers Moses provides set the tone for the process of Jewish legal thought, but their placement here and their inclusion in the Shavuot Torah reading teaches us another important value of Jewish learning: there is always more to learn. The story of receiving the Torah does not end with the glitz and glamour of the revelation at Sinai. It continues from the moment afterwards right up until this very day. After Shavuot there are no holidays in sight for almost four months, but as we learn from the Shavuot Torah reading, our celebration of receiving the Torah must still continue.

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