After the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, we were without “means” of connecting with God. Until that time, the prime connector was the sacrificial system. Just as we feel connected with someone when we give a gift, accordingly, offering sacrifices in ancient Temple times connected us with God in our sharing of possessions.
Today, prayer replaces sacrifice in the absence of the Temple. With prayer being more abstract and, for many, beyond reach, the challenge is to find ways for prayer to fill the void once filled by sacrifice.
Likewise, it is challenging to find ways to connect with Torah. We are taught that it is ritually the means to connect with the will of God and the laws by which to live, yet it seems distant from daily matters and concerns.
For Jews of our age, with so little time, it is daunting to find ways to connect to the power of our past, and the feeling of connection to God that came through the sacrificial system and the light of Torah that guided us in our paths.
All of this is the “agenda” of Shavuot, the holiday of the “giving of the Torah” celebrated with a special service on Tuesday, May 22 at 8:00 PM. It is called “giving”, rather than “receiving”, to indicate that the key to Judaism’s continuity is for each generation to extend itself to “receive” the teaching, the gift of Torah.
The Torah is always “given” in the course of the Sabbath morning service. The challenge for us is to find the time (and the will to find the time!) to accept it. The challenge is to find or “make” time to come to a service that highlights the Torah. Doing so is a powerful mitzvah, not only in terms of reengaging your roots, but also in enabling you and fellow community members to provide a minyan, ten Jewish adults, which comprises community. Only with a minyan can people say Kaddish, when necessary, for loved ones. Only a minyan can access other core prayers for drawing near to God.
Prayer asks for a different kind of sacrifice, of time, rather than possessions. The rewards are similar; it draws you close to God in providing for needs of community and each other.
In the bigger picture, you are creating contexts for community, and that is the outcome of embracing the Torah’s teachings. You are transforming the American propensity for individuality into a commitment to community. In engaging the Torah’s teachings, you are exposing yourself to principles of community you do not find in secular contexts: Mitzvah, doing what is right, good and helpful, whether or not it is convenient, or you are in the mood; Bracha, generating positive energy by noticing and praising what or who is praiseworthy; Chagim uZmanim, celebrating joyous times and seasons that bring people together to honor and elevate community values and history.
It all begins with Shavuot, the time of the giving of Torah, and that its presentation was made not to an elite few, but to the entire people, and not only to them, but to generations yet unborn…us!
As rhetorical as Mi Chamocha, “Who is like You, oh God?” is the question: Where else in the world will you find principles for building community?
That is why the Torah is called the Tree of Life. It is God’s gift to us of the means for bringing full meaning to life, that people work and play together in bringing a world of harmony and wholeness, Shalom, into being. The Gift is being offered. We have to make the choice to accept it, and we will do that, not as much by words, but by actions.