30 May 2014

Naso-Shavuot 5774: Radical Reception

“I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation…They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth…”
-John Adams
“What is a Jew?…The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire and has illuminated with it the entire world…The Jew is the emblem of eternity.”
-Leo Tolstoy
“Some people like the Jews, and some do not.  But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.”
-Winston Churchill
“The Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of.…”
-Mark Twain

The great thinkers of the world have taken notice of our unique accomplishments and contributions. They are, however, contributions that come with profound internal and external struggle. The Talmud identifies the holiday of Shavuot as the day that the Torah was given to the nation of Israel by G-d, and it is that Torah that has set us firmly apart from other nations. Yet, while Shavuot is called zeman matan toratenu – the time Torah is given, kabalat toratenu – receiving our Torah, is not quite as definite. The acceptance of Torah remains an open-ended question that has challenged our people across the ages.

The struggle between the people of Israel and their Torah is epic. Every self-aware Jew must, at one point in life, address the question of whether or not to receive Torah and, if so, in what capacity. It is an astonishingly powerful question, even after all these years. ‘Do we follow it completely?’ ‘Will it fit in with my life and world?’ ‘Is G-d asking too much of me?’ It seems that these questions vexed us from the onset, as the Talmud metaphorically illustrates:

The Holy One trapped them by holding the mountain over their heads saying, ‘If you accept the Torah, good. If not, here will be your gravesite! (Shabbat, 88a)

There was a sense of pressure and uneasiness that the people felt in receiving Torah, and many of us still feel as though that mountain is hanging over our heads. Why? One reason is that the thought of G-d being involved in the everyday aspects of our lives, like what we eat, with whom we choose to spend our time, and how we engage in business, seems more than a bit uncomfortable. Torah doesn’t simply present us with G-d in terms of a general world view. Torah places G-d in our daily experiences and actions. His intimate presence in our lives is highlighted in both this week’s parasha and the book of Ruth, that we traditionally read on Shavuot.

Tell Aharon and his sons to bless the Children of Israel this way. Say to them:

‘May G-d bless you and keep you.
May G-d shine His face upon you and grace you.
May G-d turn his face to you and give you peace.’
And they shall place My name upon the Children of Israel, and I will bless them. (6:24)

Boaz established that people should greet each other with G-d’s name. Where do we see this? As it says (Ruth, 2:4): “And he (Boaz) said to the reapers ‘G-d be with you’ and they said to him ‘G-d bless you’” (Makkot, 23b)

To accept Torah means that we accept G-d in the world, and in doing so, we learn to see the otherwise mundane elements of creation as sacred and meaningful. Therefore, the Jewish people find meaning everywhere — in human existence, in history, in morality, in justice, and even in suffering, and we share that vision with the world. In doing so, we invite G-d in, and bring value, sanctity and grace into our lives. We have consistently done so in proportions that far outweigh our numbers.

But the Jewish people have struggled with this responsibility throughout the ages. Every Shavuot the opportunity to make a commitment to the endeavor by receiving Torah is brought before us. There have been many Jews who have opted out over our long and arduous run, due to its great weight and responsibility, but for each of us, the question remains intact — Torah is given, do you wish to receive it?

The acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people has brought holiness to an otherwise random world. As observed in the quotes above, we have made our standard the sacred rather than the profane. To the Jew, life is never without real meaning. And in the deepest, darkest, most painful moments, one is comforted and lifted knowing that the world is infinitely beautiful and that G-d will take care, as expressed in the blessing of the kohanim and the greeting of Boaz. I believe that it is this commitment that has kept our people alive and thriving through the ages, and has allowed us to shine through history with G-d by our side.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim LeSimha!
Rabbi Joseph Dweck

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