This evening begins the holiday of Shavuot. Although it celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is not widely observed. Why? Unlike Passover with its Seder and four cups of wine and Sukkot with its booths and four species (the lulav and etrog), Shavuot offers little more than an all-night Torah study session. That is to be honest a difficult sell.
And yet what could be more defining than the study of Torah? More than anything else Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is what makes us a Jewish people. This act has allowed us to breathe new life into an ancient text for generations. It is not an easy task of course. Study is challenging. The meaning discovered in these words can sometimes be elusive. But we continue to pour over the words of Torah.
Year after year we read the same portions. Generation after generation we uncover new, and different, meaning in the Torah’s words. This is what Shavuot celebrates.
The freedom we mark on Passover discovers its true importance when wedded to the gift of Torah. This is why the date of Shavuot is given in a different manner than all other holidays. We count from the second night of Passover seven weeks (shavuot) until arriving at the holiday of Shavuot. The holiday’s name intimates this important connection. Even the wandering we celebrate on Sukkot is given fuller meaning by the celebration of the fact that as we wander we continue to carry the Torah in our arms.
What we most prize is a book.
It is not just the act of carrying this book, even though throughout our history, and in too many instances, we did so under duress and even threat of persecution. It is not simply holding this book close to our hearts and carrying it from one place to another, or even lifting this scroll into the arms of our children, but instead pouring over its words and wresting meaning from its pages. True, study can be difficult and challenging, and sometimes because of the Hebrew and the verses’ ancient constructs, appear off-putting and uninviting. And yet Talmud Torah remains defining. The study of Torah leads us to everything we must do, to everything we are required to do, to all that we envision for our most noble selves.
The Talmud teaches: These are the things that are limitless of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world, while the principal remains in the world to come. They are: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, morning and evening, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people. But the study of Torah encompasses them all. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)
For the Jewish people it begins and ends with the study of Torah.