Rabbi's Viewpoint: Back to Basics
Shavuot, first and foremost, celebrates the gift of the Torah, the Law, the Ten Commandments, to the Jewish people. It is, in a way, the high point of the calendar since everything else was a preparation for the climactic moment when God revealed His will to mankind at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Exodus from Egypt which we recall on Passover and the Wanderings in the desert that we highlight on Sukkot were all aimed at making possible a land and a people where the Word of God would be revered and fulfilled.
That fundamental law is as important and indispensable today as when it was first promulgated. Thou shalt not kill – How wonderful it would be if there were no more wars abroad and homicides at home. Thou shalt not steal – How wonderful it would be if we didn’t need twenty locks on our doors and windows to keep out burglars who get in anyway. Thou shalt not commit adultery – How wonderful it would be if men and women remained faithful and devoted to each other instead of causing the termination of one out of every two marriages. Thou shalt not covet – How wonderful it would be if we could teach people that their happiness depends not on how many things they possess but how much they love God. Thou shalt not bear false witness – How much heartache and needless pain could be avoided if people simply told the truth. Honor thy father and mother – How wonderful the world would be if children treated their parents with respect instead of disdain and vice-versa. Remember the Sabbath Day – How badly society needs a chance on a regular basis to get off the daily treadmill that drives so many to psychiatrists or to an early grave. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain – How blissful and pleasant it would be if people felt the sacred presence of God and used language carefully and meaningfully. Thou shalt have no other gods – How many have substituted worship of the one true God with homage to the bitch goddesses Money and Fame with disastrous consequences. I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt – How badly we need to return to the history and the traditions of our forefathers.
The rabbis tell us that when the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, “The Holy One blessed be He tilted the mountain over them like a bowl and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, it is well, if not there shall be your sepulcher’” (Sab. 88a). This tale proclaims a clear warning to the Jewish people of the seriousness of this historical occurrence in the eyes of God. The acceptance or rejection of His Moral Law is not a matter to be lightly regarded. The Almighty has given us a mandate to preach His word to the world in order to elevate our mundane concerns into intimate involvement with matters of the spirit.
The tilted mountain represents the gravity of the assignment. To practice righteousness and to teach the truth in a world which is hostile to such values is not an easy undertaking. At times it appears hopeless to think that our efforts can appreciably alter or illuminate the ways of our civilization. But we dare not give up the struggle, for humanity’s regeneration depends upon us. No matter how long or how hard we need to work, we must not falter in our labors. God chose us to be Eved Ha-shem – the suffering servant of the Lord. The survival and well-being of our people depends upon our willingness to remain faithful to this charge.
The laws given on Mount Sinai are more urgently required by the human race today than ever before. Our forefathers accepted the duty of observing and teaching these laws on the first Shavuot. We, their descendants, can do no less than rededicate ourselves to the same lofty aims.