How can Shavuot transform us? If the mitzvot were given to refine, uplift and transform us into better people, as the Ramban (in his commentary on Devarim 22:6 based on Midrashei Chazal) says they do, then we need to probe and understand how the festival of Shavuot can provide us with such an opportunity for self-creation and self-transformation. Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, which took place exactly 3 331 years ago. The question is, how does the knowledge that the Torah was given by G-d at Mount Sinai more than three millennia ago change who we are today?
It’s certainly an important ideological principle. Belief in the Divine authorship of the Torah is one of the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, the foundational tenets of Jewish belief. The belief in the Divine origin of the Torah is so important, in fact, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillin 1:13) writes, based on the Gemara (Gittin 45b), that if a person writing a Torah scroll does not believe that G-d dictated each and every single word to Moshe, then that Torah is invalid, and indeed, should be burnt. It has no inherent sanctity. So Shavuot establishes the Divine origin of the Torah. But, what does this ideological principle mean for our daily lives?
It means in the most profound sense that our lives have a nucleus around which everything we do, think and say, revolves. In the same way that the planets circle the sun and are drawn to it through the powerful physical forces of the universe, so too the Torah is the centre point of our universe. It sheds light on who we are, what our purpose is, how we should live life to optimum effect. Like the sun, it provides light and warmth and energy. It infuses everything we do with sanctity and meaning.
The only factor that could justify the Torah’s place at the centre of our universe is the fact that it was designed and designated by G-d, Himself. Nothing less than that could make a claim on our time and our energies and our identity. Without its Divine origin, the Torah would make no greater claim on our lives than any other of the world’s belief systems.
It’s important to note that the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 2:13) itself maintains there is wisdom outside of the Torah, among the nations of the world. There is much valuable insight and understanding out there in the world, and many compelling ideas of how to live – but, the Midrash makes the point that there is only one Torah, which is to be found exclusively among Klal Yisrael, and it is a complete, inalienable blueprint for life that we were privileged to receive from G-d, on Mount Sinai, on 6 Sivan, the date of the festival of Shavuot.
That’s why the belief in the Divine origin of the Torah is central to us. It gives us clarity and direction, a map of our existence. Of all existence. Without it, we are adrift in a world of noise, with endless ideas clamouring for our attention, all with competing claims of truth. What sets the Torah apart is that it was designed by the Creator, Himself.
The Torah occupies the centre of our universe because it has been authored by G-d, who is the centre of our universe. This is reflected in one of G-d’s names, HaMakom – literally, “The Place”. What does it mean when we call G-d, “The Place”? The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68:9) explains that the world is not G-d’s place, but that G-d is the place of the world. In other words, we don’t look at G-d as part of our universe; rather, G-d contains the universe. There is nothing besides Him.
This idea can be quite a paradigm shift for those who compartmentalise their faith; who see G-d as just one aspect of their lives. The designation of HaMakom means G-d is front and centre of our existence, he encompasses our lives. This extends to His Torah. Our relationship to Torah is not one which is a wisdom and an offering among the many endeavours that we have in life, but rather the central one around which our entire own personal universe revolves. We live a Torah life.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (in his article ‘Kodesh and Chol’) takes this idea one step further. Exploring a person’s relationship with G-d through the lens of Kedushat HaMakom – “sanctity of place”, Rav Soloveitchik delves into the difference between a nomad and a settled person. In early human civilisation, people were typically nomadic, wandering from place to place, often with their flocks, remaining where the grazing was good and circumstances supportive, moving on when they were not. Eventually, as civilisation advanced, human beings began settling en masse, establishing villages, and then towns and cities.
What is the psychology of a nomad in relation to a settled person? Rav Soloveitchik explains that the nomad is purely selfish, taking what they can while circumstances are in their favour. Because of this mindset, the nomad cannot form an emotional bond with a place because they are only there temporarily, while it serves their needs. In contrast, a settled person forms part of a community, and helps build, that community. That person’s attachment to place is more solid and they will remain there, committed, even under adverse circumstances.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that our relationship with G-d and with Torah functions in much the same way. We can relate to Torah as spiritual nomads looking for a dose of inspiration, a dash of wisdom, here and there, but abandoning it when challenges emerge, when it suits us to look elsewhere. Under this self-serving mindset, real attachment – with G-d and with Torah – is beyond our reach.
On the other hand, we can relate to Torah as someone who is settled, as someone not just connected to a place, but connected to HaMakom – the Place. This is the concept of Kedushat HaMakom – “sanctity of place”. Out of this commitment, this detachment from the narrow demands of the self, a true, deep connection emerges; an emotional and spiritual bond with G-d and with the Torah that is deeply satisfying. This is the personal transformation that Shavuot can help us realise if we are open to its message.
An analogy that helps us to understand the difference in worldview of the nomad versus a person who is settled is that of a relationship between a man and woman. The nomadic philosophy is that while the relationship is good, you stay in it, and as soon as there is any challenge, you move out. But the Torah has created the idea of marriage in which the couples commit to one another in a way that is idealistic and self-transcendent. They commit to building a home together and creating a relationship together, and they commit to making each other the centre of their lives. They commit to working through all of the challenges without moving on to another relationship whenever there is anything difficult to deal with. Marriage is about commitment, but it is also about a deep emotional bond.
Our relationship with G-d and the Torah is compared by our sages to that of marriage. The Mishna (Taanit 4:8) compares the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to a wedding, where a bond and a deep relationship was entered into between G-d and the Jewish people. At that moment, G-d and Torah moved from a mere diversion, something at the periphery of our lives, to become the core of who we are. This year, on 6 Sivan, 3 331 years later, by relating to Shavuot correctly – by re-experiencing and re-igniting the energies under that marriage canopy in the Sinai wilderness – we, too, can change everything. The process of self-creation and self-transformation of Shavuot is for us to move G-d and the Torah from the periphery of our vision and lives into the very centre. This will change everything.
Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein is the Chief Rabbi of South Africa. In his twelve years in office, he has launched and lead a number of revolutionary initiatives that have changed the landscape of both his own community and indeed world Jewry. Locally these include The Bill of Responsibilities which has been adopted by the Department of Education in schools nationwide, CAP, a radical crime-fighting initiative proactively protecting more than 250,000 South Africans and Sinai Indaba, perhaps the largest annual Torah convention of its kind in the world. Two of his local projects have been embraced and implemented by world-Jewry: Generation Sinai, a quarterly Torah learning experience between parents and children and more recently, The Shabbos Project which has united Jews in over 1152 cities and 95 countries through the keeping of one Shabbat together. A qualified Dayan, Rabbi Goldstein has published several books including Sefer Mishpat Tzedek, Defending the Human Spirit and The Legacy. The Chief Rabbi has a Ph.D. in human rights and constitutional law and is a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post.