There are plenty of moments we can choose to define as the start of Jewish peoplehood. Perhaps it was when Abraham left his family home, or when the Children of Israel went out from Egypt. If we’re looking for a powerful singular moment in our tradition, though, it is hard to look past the revelation at Sinai. Our people came together for a moment of high drama and left as a nation, a community united through the giving/receiving of Torah.
There are two elements that made the collective experience at Sinai a key moment in cementing the Jewish people as one. The first was the brit/covenant which was formed between the Jewish people and God. The Children of Israel accepted the responsibilities of entering into a relationship with God, but that wasn’t the only commitment we made. In accepting the commandments, we committed ourselves to each other arguably far more than we did to God. Showing love towards one another is not just a pleasant thing to do – it is undoubtedly our duty and obligation as Jews. We must look out for each other, we must support each other in times of need. At Mount Sinai, when these Jewish values were accepted for the first time, represented the Jewish people going from a group thrown together by the fate of birth and chance into a true community, a nation.
What was the purpose of that nation? The second element of the experience at Sinai was the start of the long Jewish tradition of learning. It is said that both the written and oral tradition were passed down at Sinai. Together with those words came the entire universe of Jewish wisdom – as Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag says in the Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot, “turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it”. The giving of the Torah was not a passing down of information, but the start of a process of generating learning and understanding that will continue so long as there are Jews to continue it.
Torah is not a simple document. It is possible to imagine a world in which the giving of Torah could have been simply a set of clear and unambiguous directions from a divine source, but instead we have the exact opposite – a rich and complex tapestry of ideas, stories and debates which themselves birth more ideas, more stories and more debates continuously over time.
I believe we learn some deeply important lessons about community, and our community specifically, through the complex nature of Torah. The first is the value that every person brings to the table. Our unique attributes as individuals allows us to each bring something new to the learning of Torah – each of us has our own wisdom to impart and something to learn from everyone. We have a tradition of learning Torah in pairs or groups for a reason: it is impossible to extract all the wisdom from Torah without the multiplicity of experiences and viewpoints that a community of learning contains. Whether you are the greatest scholar or not, you have a part to play.
We also learn that our community has the ability to remain resilient to changes around us. The Torah is no less relevant today than it was the day it was given precisely because it isn’t simple. Every generation is able to bring new understanding based on the time they live in, drawing on how we continually push back the frontiers of knowledge. The Torah is our bedrock and it remains as compelling today as it ever has been, which means our community retains its importance, its relevance – no matter the strains it may be put under.
At Shavuot, we celebrate the events of Sinai and the Torah which cemented our Jewish peoplehood and formed the communities which we are still part of. This isn’t a celebration of a particular set of words, though – it is a celebration of everything which makes our communities so special to us. Our dedication to one another and our commitment to learning together are the true causes for celebration and together they enable us to see the value in every person and to remain strong through the tests of time. It is our responsibility to celebrate Shavuot by putting these values into practice – by ensuring our communities remain places of inclusion, love and learning – and to continue the chain of tradition which started on this day.