Shavuot, the holiday that falls seven weeks after Pesach, celebrates the giving of the Torah, what is considered the seminal point in our history. Before the Torah, we were a hodgepodge collection of people with no direction, with no sense of purpose. The Torah provided us with a framework, a blueprint for our lives and it has been the wellspring of our existence for over 3000 years.
The events at Mount Sinai when our ancestors received the Torah have been a source of interest and speculation over the centuries. Reading into, under, over, around and through the description we find in the Torah, rabbis, philosophers and poets have offered varying versions of how our ancestors felt about getting a rulebook, a lifetime game plan, guidelines that would give them (and us) comfort and discomfort, pleasure and obligations over and above anything our people, perhaps any people, had experienced before.
The midrash provides a few alternate versions of what happened based on words, phrases or juxtapositions in the text. One of the most famous of them depicts the Israelites as standing “under” the mountain (that’s one translation of the Hebrew) that God has lifted over them. He says: ‘Accept the Torah and all will be well. Refuse it and you will be buried under this mountain.’ That’s what’s called free and unbiased choice.
Another famous midrash tells us that God offered the Torah to all of the nations and each one found a reason to refuse it. One nation could not abide by “No murder.” Another was put off by “No stealing.” Another by “No adultery.” But the Israelites said ‘We’ll do it and [then] hear [what it is we accepted].’ That cat-in-the-bag approach is not recommended when doing business.
Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had a different take on the scene. In “Gods Come and Go but Prayers Stay Forever” he wrote:
God left the earth He forgot the Torah with the Jews
and since then – they look for him
and cry after Him, “You forgot something, You forgot,” in a loud voice
and others think that this is the prayer of the Jews.
And since then,
they strain to find hints in the Bible
as to the place He might be found
as it says, “Seek the Lord where He is to be found,
Call upon him when He is close”.
But He is far.
Rabbi Michelle Missagieh points out some of the ironies in the poem. Amichai says we read and reread Torah in an attempt to find God. In other words, the more we seek a way to return the lost item (the Torah), the less able we are to distance ourselves from it. Then, our very act of trying to be unburdened is perceived by those around us as our prayer to the entity from whom we want to break our ties!
Another irony. Amichai’s idea, suggesting that the Torah isn’t ours, but God’s, is both radical but true. In this reading, we cry, “You forgot something” because – it is intimated – we don’t want Torah. It’s too much of a burden and we wish to return it to its rightful owner. And yet, as Missegieh notes, the only way we can give the Torah back to God is making it closer to us, by combing the text for evidence of God’s presence.
Amichai’s final statement, “But He is far,” is the kicker. Does this mean we will never succeed? We can understand “far” as the opposite of “close” in the preceding line, in which case God, like Frazier, “has left the building” and left us to our own devices. So tough luck.
But it can be understood in a second way. The Torah will not, cannot, be returned because we don’t really want to return it. “It’s so far” is the excuse people make when they don’t want to do something but they want to give the impressive that they do. We don’t really want to renounce the Torah, despite our protestations to the contrary, perhaps because our deep involvement in it has made the Torah an even more integral part of who we are. Why do “prayers remain forever?” Whether God is close or far, we are either with Him or searching for Him. This dichotomous attitude, this approach-avoidance conflict, is visible in our society at every turn.
And so we have Shavuot, to celebrate the Torah, the compelling code of living that we accepted – willingly or unwillingly, joyfully or grudgingly – and that is at the center of our being.