Reflection on Shavuot


Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. In the biblical text, the Jewish people accept the contents of Torah before they even know what it says. Na’aseh v’nishmah (Exodus 24:7). However, the rabbis who wrote the midrash had a different sense of what accepting Torah means. Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama describes God holding the whole of Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people and threatening: “If you accept the Torah, great, if not… your grave will be where you stand.” (Bavli Shabbat 88a)

How do we hold such differing narratives at the same time? Were our people enthusiastic about torah or did they accept it under coercion? Why is our tradition ambivalent about what it means for the Jewish people to be the receivers of Torah?

I’d like to suggest that the ambivalence may be because accepting Torah comes with significant responsibilities and commitments- two key examples are:

To study Torah. We must continue to deepen our understanding of what the Torah calls upon us to do. This is a lifelong process and as we grow our understanding of what the Torah says grows as well. Fortunately there are any number of opportunities to do this. From joining the RA-USCJ Tikkun Leyl Shavuot to Scholarstream and beyond, there are ample opportunities to increase your commitment to Torah study this year.

To stand up for Torah’s values. At this moment in our society, this is difficult to do. White supremacy, misogyny, religious coercion are too present in our society at the moment. Yet, the Torah calls upon us to protect the vulnerable and to stand up for what’s right. We are also in a time when it can be seen as partisan to take positions on the issues of our time. This makes standing up and speaking out even more challenging and all the more important.

As we begin our celebration of Shavuot, let’s affirm our commitment to Torah. Though it can be difficult, let us affirm our commitments to study Torah and to stand up for its values.

This is a likely reason that we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot. Just as Ruth is seen as accepting the obligations of Torah, may we too learn from her example and use Shavuot this year as an opportunity to reaccept Torah anew for ourselves.

May we find enrichment and fulfillment in our continued growth.

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