By Rabbi Yerachniel D. Fried
I grew up with little knowledge of the holiday of Shavuot, and my children are learning songs for it in religious school. Is it a minor holiday? Could you please fill me in as to its significance?
— Joanne W.
This coming Saturday night, May 26, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the 3,324th anniversary of our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
This is the day that the Jews received the 10 Commandments from God and accepted upon themselves the entirety of Torah, including a lifetime of study and observance of the 613 mitzvos.
Throughout the world, many Jews observe an “all-nighter” study session, spent engrossed in intensive Torah study until the morning. This is observed in many synagogues in Dallas-Fort Worth as well.
Shavuot is observed for two days in the Diaspora; one day in Israel. Its laws are similar to that of Shabbos, with certain exceptions. There is a custom to eat dairy at one of the Shavuot meals. One of the reasons for this custom is that Torah is compared to milk and honey, which is the epitome of sweetness.
When the Jews received the Torah, God revealed that Torah is the greatest enjoyment and ecstasy that is available in this world. It is a piece of the next world available to taste in this world; a transcendental, eternal pleasure that dwarfs all the transient, physical pleasures the world has to offer.
There are many messages included in Shavuot; I will offer one important perspective here:
The Torah describes the Jews at Sinai thus, “ … and the nation encamped across from the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). The encampment adjacent to the mountain is expressed in the singular, (vayichan), not in the plural tense (ve’yachanu), which is the incorrect tense for a group of people. Why did the Torah use the incorrect tense?
The sages explain that something very significant is being hinted to by that subtle change of referring to the Jewish people in singular tense. This was the only time in Jewish history that the entire nation was together with no dispute, like one person with one heart.
Why was this so? If we are so prone to divisions and arguments how were we able to be completely and totally united when receiving the Torah?
The Torah is the great uniter of our people. Every Jewish soul is connected to a letter, line or crown of a letter of the Torah. Only a Torah that is complete, with no letters missing, is kosher. Only a totally united Jewish people is complete, with all Jews connecting the lines, letters and crowns of their souls into one huge Torah scroll that is the Jewish nation.
The Jews understood at Sinai that without complete participation, the Torah will not be brought down from above and be presented to them, because any Jewish soul that would not participate would constitute an incomplete Torah scroll. The Jews, therefore, went beyond all divisions, accepting the yoke of Torah as one soul, with all Jewish hearts beating in unison in their acceptance of Torah.
This is a very profound message for us today.
We observe, unfortunately, many divisions in our people. The best way Jews can repair their divisions and reunite is to study Torah together. We are reminded of the profound words Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., uttered many years ago at the DATA Speaker’s Series in Dallas: “Although we can’t necessarily all pray together, why can’t we all study together?”
Shavuot is a time to join a study session, a class or program. It’s not just for that night, but an acceptance to increase our Torah study and Jewish literacy throughout the year, much as the Jews accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah for all time more than 3,300 years ago.
Rabbi Yerachniel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.