The day when the Jewish people came closest to God

The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was not a one-off, each Shavuot we relive it


Ultra Orthodox children wear Torrah crowns at their kindergarten at Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem 31 May 2006 during celebration of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot, one of Judaism's three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover and Sukkot), will take place this year between sunset on 01 June, and sunset on 02 June. Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Indeed, Shavuot literally means "weeks" and is celebrated exactly seven weeks after the first day of Passover, which marks the exodus itself. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

The story of Shavuot, anniversary of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, includes the most dazzling praise for the Jewish people.

When God asked our ancestors if they wanted the Torah, they replied, “We will do and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). The Talmud recounts that in response to the Jewish people, 600,000 angels came and placed two crowns on the heads of the Jewish people, one for “We will do” and one for “We will listen” (Shabbat 88a). Furthermore, God Himself said, “Who revealed to my children this secret that the ministering angels use?”

Why did the Jewish people’s words merit these amazing tributes?

The Slonimer Rebbe (Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovksy, 1911-2000) explains in his Netivot Shalom that it was not just about the words. The Jewish people achieved something remarkable during the seven weeks from the Exodus until this moment. They lost their egos and yielded to God in pure love, coming as close as humanly possible to being one with Him.

This was apparent through their utterance: “We will do and we will hear”. We would have expected the reverse: first the Jews should have listened to what the Torah required of them and only then should they have reflected on whether they actually wanted to go ahead.

But the Jews by this time had attained such a closeness with God that they didn’t need to know what the Torah said, or whether it would fit in with their lifestyle, or whether they agreed with its ethics. The fact that it was from God was enough and if it meant that their lives were turned upside down, well then so be it.

So they said, “We will do and we will hear”. Their first priority was to do what God said. As a deeper act of love, they would also listen, reflecting on what the Torah said, wringing every drop of meaning and enlightenment from it to inform their perspective on the world, themselves and God.

For this brave, trusting step into the unknown, the Jews received their double crowns and God Himself marvelled at the greatness that His children attained, since until that point such unquestioning love and loyalty for God had been the preserve of the angels.

The Midrash takes this remarkable spiritual phenomenon a stage further, recounting: “When God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox bellowed, the Ophan angels did not fly, the fiery angels did not proclaim God’s glory, the sea did not stir, people did not speak. The whole word was silent and still, and a voice burst forth, ‘I am the Lord your God’” (Shemot Rabbah 29:9).

The Netivot Shalom explains that this midrash is actually an expression of the Jewish people’s divestment of their very selves in their effort to become closer to God. So intense was the power of this impulse that it actually burst its bounds, scouring the earth and the heavens of all awareness of anything but God, drawing everything towards the stillness of disappearance into Him.

The Shavuot experience of the giving of the Torah was not a one-off. Our celebration of this momentous occasion each year means that we are actually reliving it each year. Every Sivan 6 is our cue to experience this love in our own lives, an opportunity to give ourselves wholly to God.

And how are we to do this from the distant reaches of the 21st century, 3,333 years after the giving of the Torah? What chance do we have of achieving this when our lived experience is so different from that of the Jews of the Exodus?

In answer, the Slonimer Rebbe goes a stage further still. He references the mitzvah of counting the Omer, the seven weeks which we count off, day by day, from the second day of Pesach through to the eve of Shavuot. The Hebrew word for this count (Deuteronomy 16:9) is tispor, which is linked to the Hebrew word sapir, “sapphire”.

Part of the Mount Sinai revelation was a glimpse of God Himself. The Torah recounts: “They saw God. Under His feet was like a sapphire brickwork, pure as the very heavens”. When we engage in sefirah, in counting from Pesach to Shavuot, we mentally retrace our ancestors’ epic journey from Pesach to Shavuot, preparing ourselves to receive the Torah anew, contemplating God’s love for us and cultivating and expressing our love for Him through the Torah’s guidance and insights.

When we do this, we bring the limpid sapphire purity of the heavens into every day of our journey, because we are seeking to catch a glimpse of God, to draw closer to Him in and through this count. Each moment is transformed from a mere dot in a stream of time into a shining jewel, reflecting the purity of heaven into the performance of our duties, our leisure time at home and our most secret thoughts and feelings.

There is much work to be done. God awaits our arrival at the foot of the mountain. Until the last moment, we can offer Him our hearts, receive His Torah and shine the light of heaven into the darkest corners of our world.

David Lister is rabbi of Edgware United Synagogue

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