3,314 years ago (give or take a few years), something incredible happened to the Jewish people. It was so incredible that we still celebrate it. The celebration begins on Tuesday night and lasts for one or two days depending upon your tradition. We call the celebration “Shavuot” and it commemorates a pivotal moment in our history. Tradition teaches us that in the Jewish year 2,456, on the 6th of Sivan, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and received the Torah from God. It is at this moment that our ancestors received the stories, laws, and rituals that guide us to this very day. Whether we believe that God literally gave the Torah to the Jewish people on 6 Sivan 2456 or not, there is no question that the Torah has been and remains the rock and the foundation of the Jewish people. Whether it was written by God or written by authors who were divinely inspired does not matter. What matters is that for centuries it has defined who we are and made us a holy community.
Some of us feel little to no connection with the Torah. Our knowledge of it is limited to our own bar mitzvah training. The stories remain confusing and completely unrelated to our own lives. Some of us have never read the Torah. For us, it remains a mysterious book that is beyond reach. Some of us know the stories well but have not taken the time to make a connection between the lessons they teach us and the issues we struggle with. And there are those of us who read it, get it, live it and love it.
Every Shabbat, from my vantage point on the bimah, I watch as a mixed multitude of people take part in a Torah service. It is usually pretty easy to pinpoint how people feel about the Torah by observing how they relate to the scroll when it is walked around the sanctuary. Those who are comfortable with the Torah are often the first to approach it and use a siddur or a talit to kiss the scroll. Those who feel that the Torah is beyond their reach keep their distance or timidly touch the scroll. Those who have yet to make a connection between the Torah and their own lives often let the Torah pass them by without touching it – yet they watch it closely. And there are those who have no feelings whatsoever about the Torah – they are the ones who talk to others while the Torah processes around the sanctuary, paying no attention to the rituals going on around them.
While it is interesting to watch people’s reactions to the scroll as it passes them by, what always fascinates me is that the scroll leaves the protective confines of the ark and the relative safety of the bimah (where I could quickly grab it if need be) and travels around the sanctuary – often in the sweaty, shaking hands of a pre-teen. I have no fear as it travels into the congregation. It always makes it back to the bimah to be read and put safely back into the ark. In synagogues across the globe, this ritual of processing the Torah takes place over and over again. The scrolls that are carried around are sacred, precious, holy. Like our own scrolls, many are very old and delicate. But this does not stop us from processing our Torah. We do it because this is what Moses did as soon as he came down from Mt. Sinai on the very first Shavuot. He brought the words of God to the people.
The Torah was not created to be kept away from us. It was created for us. It is there to read, study, question, challenge, learn from….It belongs to us – each of us – equally. It belongs to the person who rushes to kiss it when it is carried around the sanctuary. It belongs to the person who is afraid to kiss it. And it even belongs to the person who lets the Torah pass by without doing anything. The Torah belongs to the people.
For those of us who go out of our way to protect and respect and study Torah, the idea that the Torah still belongs to someone who sees no value in her might seem unfair. This is because we fail to realize that people come to appreciate Torah in different ways and at different times. Shavuot reminds us that the Torah does not belong solely to those who have discovered great meaning in her – but to those who are struggling to find the meaning and those who have yet to begin the struggle. Shavuot is there to remind those of us who love Torah to insure that everyone gets a chance to kiss the Torah. Shavuot is there to remind those of us who crave for an opportunity to learn from the Torah that the stories are waiting for us to read and explore. Shavuot is also there to remind us that the Torah is an unconditional gift of Judaism. It is always there, waiting patiently to share precious lessons. And, as many of us know well, sometimes it takes years before we let these lessons speak to us.