Shavuot celebrates matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. On this day the Ten Commandments were uttered before the entire congregation of the children of Israel. But the holiday not only commemorates the giving, but the receiving of the Torah as well. What does it mean to receive the Torah?
The Torah tells us that the Jewish people readily accepted it declaring “na’eseh v’nishma” (‘we will do and then we’ll hear’). Every Shavuot we receive the Torah all over again.
The Torah is G-d’s blueprint for the world and for humanity. Its 613 commandments are tools that we utilize to connect with the Creator of the universe. Every single mitzvah – no matter how insignificant it may seem to us – is an unbreakable connection with eternity.
Some people object to the idea of accepting the Torah, saying: “All that matters is that you are a good person. I am already a good person so what use do I have for all these laws and rituals prescribed by the Torah?”
While the question is understandable it reveals a lack of understanding. It is true that being a good person is primary. Someone who observes Shabbat, but cheats in their business dealings is seriously lacking in their service of G-d. However, the Jew who treats others with kindness, but doesn’t observe Shabbat is also missing out on the purpose of life.
All of the laws of the Torah can be broken down into two parts – those that we understand intuitively and those we do not. The ethical laws are usually more easily understood. Then there are laws like keeping kosher and not mixing wool and linen in the same garment. These have no rational basis discernable through finite human reason and intellect. “We will do and then we’ll hear” means that we try our best to fulfill G-d’s commandments – even the ones we don’t understand. We have good enough reason to trust that G-d knows what is best for us.
The Torah teaches us not only to be good, but to be holy as well. What does it mean to be holy? Holiness means being separate. By giving us the Torah, G-d made us a holy people. There are plenty of good Jews who are not observant, but without the observance of the laws many dismiss as “ritualistic,” a Jew cannot actualize his inborn potential for holiness. Popular radio show host, Dennis Prager points out that even in secular life we have a concept similar to that of holiness. For example, he says, a person who eats spaghetti by burying his face in the plate and eating it in a messy fashion will be told that he is eating like an animal. The person is not evil or immoral, but he is nonetheless behaving like an animal. To be holy means to go beyond our animal nature and to do things that separate us from simply obeying our animal urges and instincts. Rather than being restrictive the Torah frees us from being slaves to these often self-destructive urges. Our modern society of “anything goes” and “do what feels good” has not produced happier people. Some boundaries in life are necessary and healthy. Plus even the non-rational laws are imbued with ethical and moral teachings that can be seen by those who study them in depth.
Receiving the Torah is to accept that there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct one’s life. As Jews we have a special responsibility to not only be good, but to be holy. Not only that, but those who claim they are “good” without Torah may be surprised to find out that the Torah demands a higher standard of goodness than what they may feel is necessary. There is good, and there is great. The Torah teaches us to be great. How do we define goodness? One person’s definition of good may be different from another’s. Who is to say what is right? The Torah brought a universal moral standard into the world. Only G-d can decide what is moral and what is not. The Torah conditions us to get beyond ourselves and our personal egos so that we can get to the truth. In this way we can become kinder, gentler, and more compassionate.
The Jewish people received the Torah on Mount Sinai as a united people – “like one people with one heart.” Jewish unity is also an important precondition to receiving the Torah. This year let us all resolve to study Torah, do more mitzvot – both the interpersonal and the non-rational ones – and develop more love for our fellow Jews. In this way we will soon merit the long awaited redemption.