Lessons from Shavuot

Shavuot commemorates the “Giving of the Torah” and played a pivotal role in forming the Jewish identity and covenant with G-d. Despite its importance, modern observance of Shavuot is often quiet. However, the essence of Shavuot is rich in symbolism, inclusivity, and renewal. The iconic image of Moses atop Mount Sinai and the collective consent of the people remind us of the enduring bond between G-d and His people, transcending time and encompassing all generations.

Shavuot is an inclusive celebration, welcoming attendees of all ages. The text even incorporates a mystical sentiment, invoking the phrase ‘those who are here today and those who are not yet here,’ which suggests a connection to all Jewish souls across time—past, present, and future. Imagine the profound scene of unity and participation that this implies.

Moses looks out and sees thousands of people. He says to the people, “atem nitzavim hayom kulchem”.

You’re all standing here together, the leaders, the men, the women, the children, the stranger, the people who cut the trees and the people who draw water from the wells.

You’re all standing here to enter a covenant. And furthermore, the covenant between you and God is not just with you. It’s also with those who are not here today.

“V’et asher einenu po imanu hayom.” (Deut. 29:13) *1

On the day of Shavuot, Moses went up the mountain to receive the Torah from G-d. When he came back down, he saw that the people were ready to accept it. In the book of Exodus (Exodus 19:5-6), G-d told Moses to tell the Israelites that if they obey His voice and keep His covenant, they will be a unique treasure to Him above all people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. However, this promise is conditional upon their agreement to the terms set forth by G-d.

“And Moses went up to God.

The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the LORD had commanded him.” (Exodus 19: 1-7)

The Collective Commitment to Torah

The word ‘hieroglyph’ comes from the Greek language and refers to a form of communication that uses pictures. In Greek, ‘Hiero’ means ‘priests,’ and ‘hieroglyph’ means ‘priestly writing.’ This term was used because only priests could read and write during ancient times and even later.

However, in contrast to this exclusivity, Moses was instructed to share the teachings of the Torah with not only the priests but also the elders. The elders, in turn, were required to pass on this knowledge to the children of Israel. As a result, every person in Israel was to be educated in the Torah, and the entire community became a ‘kingdom of priests’ – a group of both teachers and students. The focus was on gaining knowledge of Torah laws, which led to holiness. This sanctification was the result of their unique relationship with G-d, a connection established through the covenant of the Torah.

All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!”

And Moses brought back the people’s words to the LORD.’

(Exodus 19 v 1-8)

The Rabbis contemplated how the Israelites could have given their willing consent to accept the Torah in the wilderness, given the vulnerable conditions of the desert and the absence of apparent alternatives. This raised the question about the authenticity of their consent. As a result, the Jewish people renew their commitment annually on the Shavuot holiday.

All present witness the giving of the Commandments when the mountain thunders, seeing and hearing.

“All the people saw the sounds and the lightning, the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 20:15) *3

Renewing Commitment

Shavuot celebrates the strong connection among the Jewish people, offering a yearly chance for everyone to renew their commitment. The main tradition for this holiday is studying the Torah. During the morning prayer service in the synagogue, we read the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1 – 20:23) and The Book of Ruth. It’s also common to study the Torah all night.

The “aseret hadibrot” is a Hebrew term that translates to “the Ten Commandments.” These commandments form the cornerstone of Jewish law and serve as the foundation for Jewish ethics and morality. They cover principles related to monotheism, proper worship, ethical behavior towards others, and observance of the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments hold a distinct significance during Shavuot as they symbolize the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Exploring the Arrangement and Implications of the Ten Commandments Amidst the Pandemic

Due to the ongoing pandemic and curfew restrictions this year, a special Torah study session was organized in the synagogue from 6 to 9 pm. Limited to 25 pre-registered participants, this effort aimed to maintain the valued tradition while following safety guidelines.

Our Rabbi Eliyahu Gateno explained the importance of how the Ten Commandments are traditionally arranged, on two tablets, with five commandments on each.

  • Acknowledgment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”
  • Worship: “You shall have no other gods before me; avoid making graven images.”
  • Reverence: “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
  • Observance: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”
  • The fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” may seem distinct, but considering that the Creator of the heavens and earth is also the Creator of humanity, honouring parents becomes a way of keeping the Creator.

The second tablet, encompassing commandments 6-10, addresses interpersonal relationships. It delineates moral imperatives related to the treatment of others:

  • “Thou shalt not murder.”
  • “Thou shalt not steal.”
  • “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
  • “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

The tenth commandment is distinct, extending beyond overt actions. It cautions against coveting, expressing a psychological aspect different from the preceding four commandments. It admonishes against desiring your neighbour’s wife, enslaved people, animals, or any possession of your neighbour.

The Rabbis of the Talmud elaborates that numerous actions stem from the inherent human tendency to envy aspects of one’s neighbours, such as their household, spouse, employees, or livelihood. Consequently, addressing and mitigating this aspect of human nature can help individuals avoid inclinations toward murder and theft.

During the annual celebration of Shavuot, we reaffirm the covenant between God and His people and recommit ourselves to the principles that unite us. As we reflect on the lessons taught by the “Giving of the Torah,” we are reminded of our responsibility to uphold moral values, nurture our relationships with others, and overcome envy and covetousness. Through study, reflection, and collective engagement, Shavuot offers us an opportunity to renew our commitment to Torah principles and strengthen the bonds of our community. This ensures that the lessons of Shavuot resonate not only in our past but also in our present and future endeavours.



  1. Generations Yet Unborn Are Watching, Sunday, September 15, 2013
  2. The Shadow of the Mountain: Consent and Coercion at Sinai By Gerald Blitstein
  3. Sefaria: Seeing sound making sense of Sinai offers a collection of the many oral Torah explications over the centuries and within our own time about seeing and hearing the voices and sounds at Sinai.

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