By Rabbi Danny Shuman
Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah and revelation at Sinai. It seems strange and difficult to understand at first glance. G-d descends on Mount Sinai to give the Torah and speak to the world, a one-time event that would never happen again. One would think that G-d would communicate some awesome Divine secret or some esoteric mystery. Instead G-d speaks to the over three million Jews assembled at the foot of the mountain, and amidst thunder and lightning, communicates His message to mankind. “Honor your father and mother, don’t kill, don’t steal and don’t covet your friends possessions.” For this we need a Divine communication? For this we need a revelation at Sinai? Pretty anticlimactic to say the least.
Perhaps one way to understand what Sinai was all about, and what G-d was really after with the giving of the Torah, is to back up to the very beginning of the redemption from Egypt. The beginning of the redemption from Egypt was not at the first of the 10 plagues. Rather it was when Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flocks in the desert and was intrigued by a burning thorn bush. He stopped to look at the amazing sight, a bush that burnt but was not consumed. The verse says “And G-d called to Moses from the bush and spoke to him.” G-d had spoken to many individuals since the beginning of Genesis, Adam, Noah, Abraham and others, and yet never does the Torah tell us how He spoke to them – he just spoke to them. Why here does G-d call Moses from a burning bush? What would have been missing if G-d merely spoke to Moses like all the others before him and tasked him with bringing the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt?
Our Rabbis explain that G-d was communicating to Moses and to all Jews of all times that the exodus from Egypt is merely the beginning of the journey not the end. The Jews will experience many forms of Egypt, bondage and slavery in the millennia to come. Often they will be caught in the thorns of life and be unable to smell the roses, but G-d was telling them that In every thorn bush of life, collectively as a people as well as individually, G-d is there with us in the thorns and in the flames. There will be many thorny pit stops along the way to the land flowing with milk and honey, but we are not alone. G-d was telling Moses and every Jew to whom he was sent, that from this moment on, a Jew is never alone.
With this we can perhaps explain the message G-d was communicating to us at Sinai. He was telling us that He doesn’t want a relationship with us that’s limited to miracles and spiritual religious experiences. He doesn’t want us to think of Him and talk to Him only on High Holidays and at religious ceremonies. He wants us to think of him and talk to him even when we are in the streets, at business or stuck in the thorns of life. He wants us to know He’s there with us at all times. Even at difficult periods and at times and occasions that are seemingly mundane and separate from G-d. G-d tells us “honor your parents, don’t kill, steal and covet.” Every part of our life is meaningful and G-dly even when all we see around us are thorns and flames. Amidst those thorns and flames G-d calls each and every one of us and reminds us of the purpose and mission He sent us here to fulfill.
Perhaps that’s why remembering the revelation at Sinai is one of the six things a Jew is obligated to remember every day.
However, let’s be real…when we find ourselves in the flames of the problems of life it’s very hard not to be consumed by them. How do we rise above them? Perhaps for this we need to look back a little further to how we wound up in Egypt in the first place. The Torah tells us about a teenager named Joseph who was hated by his brothers. They sold him as a slave down to Egypt and while there he was punished for every right decision he made. He resisted the temptations of his master’s wife, and for that he wound up in prison. He helped the butler in prison and as a result languished in prison even longer. Yet when he became viceroy of Egypt, he was eventually reunited with his brothers and revealed his identity to them. At that moment, instead of letting his brothers have it for all the suffering they subjected him to, he tells them “And now don’t be sad, for you were not the ones who sold me as a slave down to Egypt, G-d sent me here so I can save you and your families and the whole region from famine.”
Joseph couldn’t change what happened in his life but he could reframe the events of his life. Joseph had a choice to view himself as a slave who was cast from one prison to the next and from one bad situation to the next or to look at himself as an emissary of G-d sent to save his family and his entire region of the world from the pandemic of his time.
Shavuot, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, reminds us that we too have the same choice as Joseph. How do we view ourselves when we look around and all we see are thorns? Shavuot calls to us to remember that G-d entered a relationship with each of us at Sinai. He promised to always be with us even when the situation is thorny. It’s our challenge and choice to remember we are not sold as slaves into any situation but rather sent as emissaries of G-d to bring light, love and hope to the darkest of times. That is the lesson of Sinai, the lesson of Shavuot
Wishing each and every one heartfelt wishes to receive the Torah anew this Shavuot and embrace our relationship with G-d and our mission in this world with joy and sincerity.
Rabbi Danny Shuman is the Executive Vice President at Shuman plastics and the Rabbi of the Himmel Family Chapel of Jewish Federation Apartments.