I’m a little confused. We are about to celebrate Shavuotand I’m told it is the "Season of the Giving of the Torah." But isn’t there another holiday when we celebrate with the Torah? Simchat Torah, right? So why are we celebrating twice? Why two festivals to remember the same thing?
The answer is that on Simchat Torah we conclude our annual reading of the Torah. We end the Book of Deuteronomy and immediately begin anew the Book of Genesis. We have reason to rejoice at the achievements of the year gone by, so we celebrate.
And how do we celebrate? We dance with the Torah. Is the Torah scroll on the bimah (reading table)? No. It is in the aisles. Is it open? No, it is closed and covered. Why? Because on Simchat Torah we are reminded that even if a Jew has, G‑d forbid, not opened the Torah all year long, he still has a spiritual place in the Torah. Even if, for him, the Torah has been a closed book, nevertheless, every Jew has a deep-rooted, innate connection to Torah. As we read on Simchat Torah, "The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob." Each and every single Jew, the entire congregation, has an intrinsic relationship with Torah. Torah is not the private property of the intellectual elite. Scholars or simple folk, academics or the unlettered, Torah belongs to one and all.
But there comes a time when you have to open the book! We don’t dance with the Torah wrapped in its mantle all year long. That is for Simchat Torah. But we also have to open, read, study, ask, learn and become more familiar with our heritage. We need to get to know Torah from the inside, to understand the Torah as a textbook too.
That time is every day. But the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah is Shavuot. That is when we celebrate the Torah as a book of wisdom, as a moral code, an ethical system, and a guiding light in our lives. Shavuot reminds us that the Torah is not only a beautiful, cherished ceremonial ornament to revere and dance with on Simchat Torah, but the source of all our wisdom, knowledge and understanding about life and how we are to live it.
I was present some years ago at a celebration to welcome a new Torah Scroll into a neighboring congregation. The guest speaker was Rabbi Volpo from Rishon L’Tzion, Israel. Let me share with you a very apt analogy he used in his remarks there. He told a story.
There were two sisters. One married a rich man; the other’s husband was poor. Yet, ironically, it was the wealthy sister who was the unhappy one. Her sister couldn’t understand why she should be so miserable. “He supports you handsomely. He buys you beautiful clothes, expensive jewelry. Just look at your diamonds. Why are you so unhappy?”
The wealthy sister replied. “Actually, I am jealous of you, my sister. You have a wonderful, loving relationship with your husband. Yes, my husband does buy me expensive things. It is true that he does spend money on me. But your husband spends time with you and mine does not.”
So while it may be true that we adorn our Torahs with exquisite velvet mantles, precious silver crowns, breastplates, bells and pointers, all the expensive ornaments don’t come close to spending time with the Torah. And the Torah is unhappy and cries out, “Thanks for the silver, thanks for the décor, but what I really want is you! I want your time, your mind. I want you.”
It is surely one of the sad ironies of contemporary Jewish life that this most educated generation should be so ignorant of its own heritage. How is it that we have produced the most successful people in the professions, in commerce - titans of industry - and yet knowledge of our priceless Jewish wisdom is at an all-time low? Why is it that our most brilliant legal minds have never even read a single page of the Talmud? Why should our most sophisticated computer whiz kids not know which way to hold a prayer book? Why should Ivy League professors be content with the Jewish education of a 12 year old, and otherwise intelligent, mature adults satisfy themselves with the Jewish syllabus of a nursery school?
So on Shavuot we are reminded that we need to open the book and spend some quality time, meaningful study time with the Torah.
Practically speaking, this is the season to commit oneself to a regular time for Torah study. In every community there are so many options to choose from. Wherever we are in our Jewish education, it must be ongoing. We must have fixed times for learning Torah and those times should be non-negotiable.
And because this is the Season of the Giving of the Torah, we are assured that the Torah will indeed be given to us once again if we but make the sincere effort to acquire it. Hopefully, this Shavuot will be for us not only the Season of the Giving of the Torah – that is G‑d’s job - but the Season of Receiving the Torah – that is our job.