The Gift of Torah

Rabbi Steven I. Rein
May 29, 2012
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Shavuot is z’man matan torateinu – the time of the giving of the Torah. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (6:17) describes Torah as one of three gifts that were given to the world, as it says, quoting Exodus 31:18: “When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, God gave – gifted – Moses the two tablets of the Pact.” To speak of Torah as a gift is to say something quite profound. Emerson once said, “Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself” (Gifts, 1844). In other words, God’s giving of Torah was a gift of and from God. The giving of the Torah – a gift from God – indicates the current value of our relationship with God.

Regarding Israel’s arrival at Sinai we read in Exodus 19:1, “In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, on this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.” The ancient rabbis asked, why on this day? It should have said: on that day. This can only mean, according to Rashi, that the day of the giving of the Torah can never become past; that day is this day, every day. The Torah, whenever we study it, must be to us as if it were given to us today. Heschel teaches that creation is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and for ever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process (Heschel, The Sabbath, 98). Hence, we are each present and witnesses not only of God’s creation of the world, but also of God’s revelation. We are each recipients of this divine gift as were Moses, Joshua, the Elders, the Prophets, and every generation that has followed. Our relationship with God, as does every relationship, begins with a gift – a gift that keeps on giving.

The cultural critic Lewis Hyde wrote that “the spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.” (The Gift, xix) God and the Jewish people are united in a cycle of gift and countergift. We receive this gift from God and we reciprocate through our informed relationships with both God and fellow humanity. These reciprocal gifts, like God’s original gift, must include a portion of ourselves. Every mitzvah that we fulfill – from lighting Shabbat candles to reciting kaddish for a loved one, from studying Torah to acts of hesed – we fully engage in the divine system of gifts: giving, receiving, and reciprocating Torah.

With each passing day we look for ways to ready ourselves to accept God’s gift of Torah, eagerly striving to take hold of this gift and reciprocate. We may all feel as if we are wandering around in God’s department store, looking for that perfect gift. Fortunately for us, we have a divine wish list. We simply have to embrace our gift of Torah and, more importantly, use it as a guidepost for all our relationships – both human and divine.

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