In our tefillot we emphasize that Shavuot is the “Festival of the Giving of the Torah.” The Slonimer Rebbe and author of Netivot Shalom wrote: “However, in addition to marking an essential event and defining moment in the history of the Jewish people, Shavuot is also a time in the year when we receive the Torah again as individuals and as a nation.” He claims that a unique spiritual possibility is available to us at this time of year, when we have the power to renew our relationship with the Torah and its place in our lives.
Following this line of thought, I believe that it is essential for us to consider some of elements that allowed us to receive the Torah the first time, and consider to what extent we can prepare ourselves as individuals and a community to receive and renew our acceptance of Torah during this Chag.
First, the Sages taught that the reason the Torah was given in the desert is because the desert is ownerless. This teaches us that a person must make himself “hefker” (ownerless) in order to receive the Torah in the deepest and most authentic way. What does it mean for me to be ownerless?
For me this means that I must free myself from all the judgments and expectations that often rule my decisions that determine my way of being in the world. Am I owned by my desire to please and impress others, feel successful, fears of change and failure, or loss of hope and optimism in the existence of a better self and world? Do the relentless demands of ego and survival instinct determine who I am? If I am to receive the Torah, I must work to free myself from these “owners” and open myself to the possibility of encountering Torah with an open, trusting, and honest self. How can I become more ownerless and who can help me?
Second, the Midrash teaches that the entire Jewish people were prepared to receive the Torah as “a single nation with a single heart.” Torah was not given to individuals. It is a gift for the entire people as a people.
Am I open to feeling fully connected to the Jewish people even as this connection sometimes challenges my individuality and personal freedom? Can I attach myself to the Jewish people even in the face of the endless disagreements between factions and movements that seem to make ‘one heart” an impossible goal?
Being part of the Jewish people includes remaining open to the way other Jews hear Torah and embracing them, even when their approach is so different from mine. Can I appreciate these differences and challenges without feeling threatened by them?
Finally, the reception of the Torah was the beginning of a process not the culmination. Torah must be studied, interpreted, and applied to our lives. This is the heart of the oral Torah, a Torah that the Jewish people are responsible for creating and transmitting in every generation. On Shavuot we “recreate” the moment at Sinai by filling the room with our own analyses and interpretation of what the Torah is telling us right now. We renew our reception of Torah by receiving it through the lens of our life experiences and wisdom.
Will I have the strength and courage to bring my own voice to this discussion? Do I trust that I have a unique Torah that only can bring to the on-going discussion? Will I help others find their own?
Even if the giving of the Torah happened only once in human history, the receiving of Torah is an on-going challenge and opportunity. It is also a source of great happiness, creativity, and connection with others.