Shavuos is an interesting holiday. It comes a mere seven weeks after one of the most celebrated holidays (Pesach) and for the vast majority of the non observant Jewish world, it’s either an afterthought or not even taught. I, myself, hadn’t even heard of Shavuos until a few years ago. But if you ask some Rabbis, many of them may tell you that Shavuos celebrates the single most important moment in all of human history. Period.
Quite a Bold Statement
Many of us understand Shavuos is the holiday when God gave the Torah. But, for some reason, the majority of Jews fail to grasp the magnitude of that action. That this gift resulted in transforming the children of Jacob into the Jewish nation and fundamentally changed the nature of how God relates to humanity. Why is this so glossed over? Part of that answer may be found in an obscure story from the gemara.
The following is a Midrash (stories that illuminate moments in the Torah.) The Midrash themselves aren’t meant to be taken literally, but they also shouldn’t be disregarded either. So take it with a grain of salt, but know that there’s a core meaning that is essential. The story, found in gemara Shabbos 88b, goes as follows (paraphrased).
When Moses is on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, he actually ascends into Heaven. It’s there that the angels stop him and turn to God protesting, “How can you give the Torah to this mortal thing? It should stay up here with us!” God responds, “Interesting point” then turns to Moses and says, “Answer them!”
Moses is put in the position of having to, on the spot, defend the entire purpose of the Jewish people, suffering through slavery, transversing the desert, to receive this Holy document. His answer? “Do you angels have parents you need to honor? Do you lie, cheat, and steal? Do you have an evil inclination you need to overcome?” The angels consider his answer then rejoice in agreement, showering Moses with blessings and gifts.
What the What????
It’s a strange story. Why do the angels care whether the Torah goes to the Jews or not? How are they not aware of its obvious instructions? And why does that satisfy them?
To answer this, I’ll refer to another Midrash that says when God created the universe, He looked into the Torah. Now obviously He didn’t open a book and see, “love your neighbor as yourself” and boom there’s the Milky Way Galaxy. The idea is that the essential nature of the Torah is something far more profound and expansive than the scrolls we take out from the ark and the Talmud we pore over. The Torah is actually the blueprint of creation and the very engine the world runs on.
A story from Rabbi Gabi Fried illuminates this idea. A CEO and founder of a company built said company from the ground up into a multi billion dollar corporation. One day, he decides to retire and gives full control to his son, a 17 year old with no college or business training. The CEO/father says, take care of the company, keep it going, but now it is yours. Needless to say the board members are quite concerned. That’s God giving the Torah to the Jews.
Why does Moses’s answer satisfy the angels?
The Torah has many levels of meaning. There is the surface understanding (known as pshat), there are inferences (remes), Kabbalistic secrets (sof), you can even understand the text as a series of numbers (gematria). The angels understood Torah in a very spiritual form as the blueprints of creation. It took Moses to point out to them that the physical form of the Torah that God was now giving to the Jews wasn’t just a blueprint for constructing and running creation but an instruction manual for perfecting it. It’s at that point the angels finally “got it” recognizing a whole new dimension of the Torah. With that new understanding they rejoiced.
Learning Torah Is Unlike any Other Mitzvah
In the morning we make a blessing over learning Torah. Immediately after that blessing we learn some Torah to ensure we fulfill the blessing. One of the verses we recite lists several mitzvahs we get reward for in this world as well as the world to come. Visiting the sick, honoring your father and mother, burying the dead, etc. Then the verse ends with, “and the study of Torah is equivalent to them all.” So if I have a choice of visiting the sick or continuing to sit there learning Torah, I should stay reading my Talmud? Some might say yes, but I think the verse is getting at something more important.
Doing mitzvahs is not just important, they are essential. But a person can get into a routine and the performance of those mitzvahs can become stale. That’s essentially what the angels do. They’re given tasks and they execute them. But when you learn Torah, you’re going to grow. You’re going to learn how to do the mitzvah better. You’re going to be challenged to reach your potential. Your nature is going to get rewired. And you’re going to learn about God and in doing so, become more like Him.
But on top of all that, not only are you engaging in the ultimate self help book, you’re tapping into that engine of creation that the angels were so protective of. God used the ultimate tool when he created the world and He gave it to us to finish the job. On Pesach we receive a freedom from our slavery. On Shavuos we receive the freedom to go after our purpose.
So when you surround yourself with the Torah, you align with the mission of perfecting yourself to perfect creation. Creation then realigns itself, helping you achieve that mission. It’s a tremendous gift and the offer is being made again, as it is every Shavuos. May we all merit the choice to accept it. Chag sameach.