Tag Archives: Shavuot

How Do We Receive Torah

At Shavuot, how we receive the gift of Torah is one of the great questions posed.  I found a path towards understanding in a passage of the Talmud.

One is really two and two is really four. This is not a set of alternative facts but an insight from the Talmud (BT Shabbat 2a) about the nature of things. Shavuot is the time of the giving of Torah. But in any transaction there are two components, giving and receiving; one is really two. But it doesn’t stop there.

Both giving and receiving are either active or passive. In giving, we can thrust it towards another actively or we can be passive and open our hands for the other to take it. Similarly, in receiving, we can actively take the gift with eagerness and enthusiasm, or we can open our hands to passively receive the gift that is to be bestowed upon us. Two is really four.

So at this time of matan haTorah, the giving of the Torah, how do we receive it? Our tradition focuses that this is a gift from God to us and it is about the giving. The Eternal gave it once but we are always receiving Torah. And although we think of ourselves as all being at Sinai in this incredible moment, each generation comes to Torah to take it as their own. It is entirely up to us to accept it passively or embrace it actively.

How will we come to Torah?

Will you grab the Torah with gusto or just accept it. Is it truly a gift a living thing that brings meaning to us, something extraordinary to be treasured, loved, and lived; or is it some musty manuscript kept safely away in an Ark in a place we rarely visit if ever? The choice is ours, collectively and individually.

Perhaps it is this distinction in the way we receive this gift that helped God understand that the generation that received Torah was not the generation ready to enter the Promised Land. For the way we receive a gift can affect how the giver gives the next gift, which builds on the first. If we receive it enthusiastically and with gratitude, the gift giver might be more excited to bestow the next gift. And if we receive it passively perhaps the giver might consider whether, in fact, the recipient was ready for it or for the next gift.

This brings to mind the phrase mitzvah goreret mitzvah (Pirkei Avot 4:2) a good deed encourages more good deeds. So at this special time and place, are we able to exclaim a special Shehecheyanu, enthusiastically offering gratitude to God for this amazing gift of Torah, and use it to live our lives fully and with meaning, and preparing ourselves for God’s next gift?

 

My father was God

A beautiful poem I shared for Yizkor Shavuot by Yehuda Amichai-

My father was God and did not know it.

He gave me
The Ten Commandments
neither in thunder nor in fury; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat         In a single melody and he pleaded and

cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,“Do not take the name of God in vain,”       do not take it, not in vain,I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”           And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear“
Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”

And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing.“Honor, love, that your days might be long On the earth.”  And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.

אבי היה אלוהים / יהודה עמיחי

אבי היה אלוהים ולא ידע.הוא נתן לי את עשרת הדיברות לא ברעם ולא בזעם, לא באש ולא בענן אלא ברכות ובאהבה. והוסיף לטופים והוסיף מילים טובות, והוסיף “אנא” והוסיף “בבקשה”. וזמר זכור ושמור בניגון אחד והתחנן ובכה בשקט בין דבר לדבר, לא תשא שם אלוהיך לשוא, לא תשא, לא לשוא, אנא, אל תענה ברעך עד שקר.וחבק אותי חזק ולחש באוזני, לא תגנב, לא תנאף, לא תרצח. ושם את כפות ידיו הפתוחות על ראשי בברכת יום כפור. כבד, אהב, למען יאריכון ימיך על פני האדמה. וקול אבי לבן כמו שער ראשו. אחר כך הפנה את פניו אלי בפעם האחרונה כמו ביום שבו מת בזרועותיי, ואמר:”אני רוצה להוסיף שנים לעשרת הדברות:הדבר האחד-עשר, “לא תשתנה”והדבר השנים-עשר,”השתנה, תשתנה”כך אמר אבי ופנה ממני והלך ונעלם במרחקיו המוזרים.

—Yehuda Amichai

The Give and Take of Torah

Our sages impress on us that Shavuot is the time of the Giving of Torah.  Giving and Receiving are seen as two separate acts.  The Giving is important because it is a one-time event and it is in the Receiving of Torah that we experience ongoing revelation. However, I think it is more complicated than that.  Both the Giving and the Receiving are inextricably bound together, two sides of the same coin. Both come with their own set of expectations and obligations.

Giving

A true gift is given freely and without strings attached.  Like so many of us, I have commented in the aftermath of the giving of a gift, with the gift box open and wrapping paper strewn, that “If you don’t like it, you can always bring it back.”  And that is true.  I do not want a gift to be kept merely to keep from offending me.  But whenever I give a gift, I select it thoughtfully and with care.  I want the gift I am giving to convey the meaning and love with which it was given. And I also want it to be loved and enjoyed.   So I rarely shop for Jewelry for my wife, unless I find something truly extraordinary that I know will fit her aesthetic sense.

Similarly, I believe the Gift of Torah is given with a similar intention.  It is given as an extraordinary expression of love that God has for his people.  And, if you will permit the anthropomorphism, I cannot help but think the Almighty would be crestfallen if we asked whether the receipt was still in the box somewhere.  Torah was not given just as a something for us to have.  It is to be a prized possession.  It is the greatest gift of all, short of life itself arguably.  There is an expectation and hope that we will embrace it fully and use it to guide our lives.

 Matan Torateinu, the Giving of our Torah, is more than something given in love.  This extraordinary act of Giving requires an equally extraordinary act of Receiving.  Sadly Torah can be rejected and “returned” as it were. It can be ignored, or possibly worse, misused as a means to exert power or personal gain at the expense of others.  All of us are diminished when one rejects Torah. Instead we hope to we turn it and turn it delving into its beauty and depth, revealing wisdom and ways for us to make meaning both in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.

Receiving

The Receiving of a gift is another matter.  I recall my mom teaching me as a boy, that it was proper to receive gifts with graciousness and gratitude.  The value of a gift lies in the intention with which it was given, not the price paid.  So understanding how a gift is given is very important to the receiver.  But what we actually do with the gift is up to us.

We determine how a gift is to be used.  A gift can be placed on a shelf.  It can be an object to be admired and appreciated.  But without interaction, it often does little more than collect dust.  Our willingness to engage it will determine how much it will mean to us.  But we must decide how to do this.  Even when the giver advises us how to use our gift, it is ultimately up to us.

And certainly when we do interact with it, the way we do it is also under our control, even when the gift is Torah.  We can return to it regularly or sporadically, we can be ready to engage fully or we could be more nonchalant, ready to pick up where we left off or to start afresh, we can be literal or figurative in interpretation.   We can plumb its depth and seek ways that it speaks to us and guides us.  It is said that when a piece of art or great literature leaves its creator, it becomes that which the recipient decides it will become.  All the more so Torah; for Torah is the supreme such work and yet still can only have as much meaning as we are willing to impart to it.

 I recall a Midrash spinning a story about the moment the people received Torah.  God lifts the mountain and suspends it over B’nei Yisrael by a thread.  The people are told they have a choice to accept or reject Torah.  But if they reject Torah, God will let go.  I actually prefer to understand the story another way.  The gift of Torah is the thread itself.  The world, as the mountain, can be harsh and cruel and the weight of the world can be crushing.  Torah gives us the ability to live under the reality that is our world and keep it from destroying us, instead giving us the opportunity for a full and meaningful existence.  Torah is the ultimate lifeline.

 In this case, both the receiving and the giving are dynamic.  We are always in the process of receiving, and arguably God is also always in the process of giving.  The Torah writ large is a living work, continuing to expand and evolve.  Both giver and receiver are actively involved in the process.  Both are intimately involved in the give and take.

 So how do we do justice to the gift of Torah?

For one thing, it is to embrace it with vigor to engage it and find how it speaks to us in ways that can affect our lives.  How do we grapple and test and probe with a sense of reverence and gratitude that comes from knowing Torah is given in love and the giver hopes that this priceless gift will be used for all its worth.