Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shavuot: The Torah's Many Faces and Multiple Voices

Saturday evening begins the holiday of Shavuot. It remains an orphan among Jewish holidays. Passover with its glorious seder is more compelling. Even Sukkot with its back to nature like pull offers more. The High Holidays with their grandeur and majesty beckon us to attend. Shavuot appears forgotten. And yet Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Could there be a greater theme?

The moment of the giving of our Torah, zman matan torateinu, was an extraordinary event. “All the people saw the thunder and the lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.” (Exodus 20:15) It was so miraculous that the people saw what normally could only be heard. They saw thunder! I wonder. Do we still retreat from the Torah?

Shavuot remains distant. The midrash suggests a cure. “All the people saw”—sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning. How many sounds could there have been, and how many flashes of lightning? Rather, what it means is, each person heard according to his (or her) capacity, as it is written in the Psalms: “The voice of the Lord is koach—strength or capacity.”

Each of us must find our own path to Torah. Even though we read Torah in community, even though Shavuot is celebrated as a congregation, the way into finding our Torah is found within our own heart. It begins within our own minds. It begins by inclining our ears toward the gift of Torah—matan Torah.

The tradition also teaches that there are seventy faces of the Torah, shivim panim latorah. This is often explained to mean that there are seventy different ways of reading our most sacred text, but on this occasion I prefer to understand this to mean that there are seventy different pathways. I recognize that such numbers might appear overwhelming or even off putting, but I hope instead to see it as welcoming.

We can each find its face. We can each discover its voice within our own heart. The Torah is no longer found on Sinai. It is discovered instead in our hearts.

The Torah offers many faces and speaks with even more voices.

We need not travel far to discover this gift. We need only see its voice and behold its face.

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