A Night of Learning and Celebration
My exploration of Jewish knowledge began in a traditional Jewish home in Montreal. Growing up, I balanced my days between a Protestant public school and Jewish after-school classes. My Jewish education includes experiences from a religious-Zionist summer camp called Moshava and youth programs at the Bnei Akiva-sponsored Sabbath synagogue.
I continue my journey of Jewish learning through various avenues, including Torah classes, extensive reading, explorations in different settings, tuning into podcasts, and active participation in my local synagogue. Interestingly, the pandemic, facilitated by Zoom, unexpectedly provided opportunities to study the Torah with renowned rabbis and scholars, revealing a silver lining amid adversity.
The Mishna and Talmudic rabbis aptly refer to Shavuot as “zman matan toratenu,” signifying the time of the giving of our Torah—a dramatic account detailed in Exodus 20:1-17.
Exploring the reasoning behind choosing the wilderness as the setting for delivering the Torah to the Israelites, our sages provide a surprising answer. According to their insights, the Torah was granted in the ownerless desert to emphasize that it’s accessible to anyone seeking its wisdom, not limited to a specific group.
My nephew, Rabbi Yair Silverman, has recently explored this thought-provoking topic in a video presentation. (LINK TO VIDEO)
The Interconnected Tapestry of the Ten Commandments and the Torah
The Ten Commandments, called “aseret hadibrot” in Hebrew, are the direct words of the Jewish God spoken at Mount Sinai 50 days after the Israelites escaped from Egypt. While often seen as commandments, they are part of a more extensive set of 613 laws and injunctions known as “denim and hukim” given by the Jewish God.
These regulations, agreed upon by the Israelites, cover diverse aspects of human existence, from social and economic realms to intimate and spiritual relationships. Initially prescribed for the Jewish people, many of these principles have transcended their origins, becoming part of the world’s shared heritage, akin to the American Constitution or Bill of Rights.
This interconnected web is illustrated in the Torah’s 613 commandments, derived from the text of the Five Books of Moses. Consider the injunction from Leviticus 19:35-36, emphasizing fair practices in the marketplace—an echo of the eighth Commandment, “not to bear false witness against your neighbour,” and the ninth Commandment, “not to steal.”
“You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures. You shall have accurate scales and weights.”
In our Canadian society, the importance of honesty in the marketplace is enforced through civil and criminal courts, invoking echoes of biblical principles when individuals swear to tell the truth. Yet, the origins of these ideas and rules often go unrecognized.
Another Torah directive, addressing workers’ just treatment and wages (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15), resonates with the principles of not stealing and not bearing false witness. As explained by the Talmudic rabbis, these interconnected principles reveal the internal links between the commandments.
“Do not withhold the workers’ wage with you until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13). “Do not extort the impoverished wage from among your kin or the strangers that reside in your land and within your gates. Each day, you shall pay him his wage—the sun shall not rise upon it—for he is poor, and he has staked his life for it.” (Deuteronomy Ch.24 V.14-15)
Similarly, this directive resonates with the eighth and ninth principles—#8, “You shall not steal,” and #9, “You shall not bear false witness.” These precepts are intricately interconnected, as elucidated by the Talmudic rabbis. According to their teachings, neglecting the tenth Commandment, “Not to covet your neighbour’s wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, donkey, or anything else that is your neighbour’s,” can potentially pave the way for transgressions such as murder (6), adultery (7), theft (9), or deceit (9).
Individuals, groups, and nations can be vulnerable to ideas, leading them down the primrose path to deceit, theft, adultery, and murder. This is best exemplified by the Nazi ideology that coveted the assets and talents of Jews and the lands and slave labour of the Slavs, Ukrainians, and Russians. In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that the Aryan German citizens were disadvantaged by the success of German Jewish citizens living amongst them. Jews contributed their intellectual and financial strengths to the German state. They did so in every state they inhabited without asking for anything other than to be accepted and respected as equal citizens. The sad story of the misunderstanding of Jews in Germany is brilliantly portrayed in Amos Elon’s book, The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933, which shares the intimate stories of the individuals who inhabited this period. A powerful and tragic read!
Consider the profound relevance of the First Five Commandments in our contemporary context. How do these directives, centred on our relationship with the Divine, resonate with us today?
The first Commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” prompts reflection on why G-d emphasizes this point. Is it an expression of self-doubt on His part?
Moving to the second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image,” we delve into the significance of this prohibition in the eyes of G-d.
The third Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” raises questions about the inherent dangers of such actions.
It is crucial to delve into the historical backdrop of the Jewish people’s encounter at Sinai to unravel the essence of these commandments.
In the era of the Egyptian Pharaoh, the ruler wasn’t merely revered as a king but held god-like authority, akin to modern autocrats like Stalin or Kim Jong Il. These figures erected monumental statues of themselves, and criticism or dishonour of their names was severely punished. Regrettably, contemporary parallels can be drawn with leaders like Vladimir Putin.
In stark contrast, the Jewish G-d instructs against constructing statues or grand depictions. Instead, the emphasis is on adhering to rules crafted to protect the innocence and vulnerability within our communities, safeguarding societal harmony.
In the Sinai desert, God urges the Israelites to embrace the guidance of an “invisible” deity, introduced as “the creator of all that exists on earth under our sky” and the compassionate force that liberated them from the oppressive conditions of Egyptian slavery.
As explored in my recent blog, “Matzah Passover and Freedom,” these commandments are timeless principles guiding our understanding of spirituality and societal conduct.
“The road to freedom and redemption is long and winding and does not end when the Jews leave Egypt. It is only the beginning – the freedom from oppression.”
Genuine freedom finds its roots in a harmonious society founded on love and mutual care, and the Torah provides us with a meticulously crafted blueprint for achieving this ideal. As astutely observed by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:
“Freedom is not won by merely overthrowing a tyrannical ruler or an oppressive regime. That is usually only the prelude to a new tyranny, a new oppression. The faces change, but not the script. True freedom requires the rule of law and justice and a judicial system in which the denial of rights to others does not obscure the rights of some.” *1
However, before the acceptance of G-d’s laws, there is a prerequisite: the establishment of His authority in the eyes of the people. This task involves employing the familiar language and rituals of divine power rooted in Egyptian culture. Consequently, the God of Israel urges the Israelites to accord Him the same reverence they once directed towards the Pharaoh-G-d. Yet, unlike the previous context, this request is not for the benefit of God Himself but for the enhancement of the Israelites’ lives. The Torah consistently underscores that these statutes are designed not to serve the Divinity’s interests but to bring about tangible improvements in the lives of the Israelites and future generations who adhere to the Torah’s principles.
What sets the Jewish G-d apart from the Pharaoh-God of Egypt is the insistence on avoiding the construction of statues in His honor. Instead, the directive is to embrace specific ideals and cultivate love and care for one another, extending this compassion to family members, fellow citizens, and strangers.
Within the framework of the Ten Commandments, the guidance provided in the fourth statement is:
“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God. You shall not do any manner of work—you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your cattle, and your stranger within your gates. For six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath Day and hallowed it.”
Does an infinite G-d necessitate rest? It seems like resting is more for our benefit. The Sabbath is God’s greatest gift to humanity, ensuring equal importance for everyone, including people and animals. Scientific studies emphasize the human need for regular rest and renewal. The Torah acknowledges this and makes it a fundamental human right. Ignoring this crucial principle comes with risks.
The fifth Commandment instructs:
“Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
How does this concept align with the current discussion? It unfolds that parents serve as the primary emissaries of G-d, entrusted with the significant responsibility of transmitting civilization’s core ideas from one generation to the next. Therefore, giving due respect and honor to parents is just as pivotal as showing reverence to this specific G-d.
Celebrating This Jewish Holiday in Contemporary Times
With tea or coffee in hand this weekend, Jews will partake in their yearly all-night Torah study session, a time-honoured tradition observed in communities across the globe to celebrate Shavuot.
Legend has it that the depth and breadth of Torah study are comparable to the ocean’s vastness. In a playful exchange dating back to the 1st century AD, a curious Roman soldier once asked Rabbi Akiva if he could learn the entirety of the Torah while standing on one leg. In response, the Rabbi wittily replied:
“Yes. Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you. The rest is commentary.”
The Baal Shem Tov, a 17th-century Hassidic leader, taught that understanding the Torah and feeling God’s care isn’t just about studying; it’s also experienced through enjoying good food, drink, laughter, song, and dance.
Throughout history, the Torah has been a guiding light and a constitutional pillar for the Jewish people, offering principles of freedom, joy, and prosperity within its rich tapestry of parables and six hundred and thirteen mitzvot.
During the Passover seder, the call to envision a personal escape from Egyptian slavery echoes. On Shavuot night, we are urged to personally embrace and receive the Torah, carrying forth the legacy of the Jewish people.
Today, everyone is privileged to study Torah, whether in person, through books, or on the internet.
Wishing you a joyous Shavuot celebration filled with profound engagement with the Torah, delightful food, and cherished moments with friends throughout the year!
Hag Shavuot Sameach, Have a joyous Shavuot.
*1. “Passover’s Lessons for Freedom Fighters,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks