A couple of years ago, my sons, among other first graders, participated in something called chagigat hasefer, the celebration of the book. The little ones stood on the stage, parents recorded the moment on their digital cameras, and teachers were slightly nervous wondering whether the kids will remember their lines.
Those simple but moving celebrations are the renewal of a 3,500-year-old love story between a people and a book. It is the moment in which a new generation – maybe without even realizing it – starts taking ownership of the rich textual tradition of Judaism.
At the center of our consciousness as a people lies a book. Some peoples build astonishing monuments of brick and mortar. Our great works are of ink and paper. We write books, we read them, we study them, we interpret them. Sometimes, we even struggle with them. Always, we structure our lives around them. Our Muslim brethren recognized this way back in the 7th century and respectfully named us “Ait-al-Kettab” – the people of the book. The name has stuck with us ever since.
Shavuot celebrates, among other things, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. Since then, the book has been the center of who we are. But in the Torah lies a paradox: it cannot simply be read. It needs to be interpreted. It demands an active engagement on the part of the reader. It is as if the book isn’t complete without the participation of the person who reads it. Since the beginning of our relationship with the book, we keep piling interpretation upon interpretation. And, interestingly enough, our interpretations are also called ‘Torah.’ Thus, we created the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash, etc. One can even argue that every bit of Jewish literary creativity is, in a sense, Torah. Early on, the rabbis were amazed at the richness and flexibility of a text that could yield so many different views – sometimes conflicting, though they may be. They exclaimed “the Torah has 70 faces!”
Arguably, the source of Judaism’s richness and diversity comes from being given the possibility, even the mandate, to add our own interpretations to the text. Our culture remained alive, I would suggest, because every generation could extract from the text the meaning and the lessons relevant to their time. The book is, at the same time, an anchor in the past and a projectile launched at the future. The book linked Jews of different countries and different ages. In a Talmudic page, Rashi (France, 10th Century) argues with a Babylonian rabbi (5th Century), who in turn discusses with a prophet, who talks to the Vilna Ga’on (Lithuania, 17th century). A page of Talmud transcends time and geography to form a creative dialogue between change and tradition, between past, present and future. The book is what Jews from all times and all countries always had, and always will have, in common.
Regardless of their religious beliefs – or lack thereof – Jews relate to the text as a source of inspiration, moral values, guidance, and comfort. As Zecharia Frankel would say, regardless of whether the Torah has a divine origin or not, the fact that our people have sanctified it for millennia makes it holy and meaningful.
In these days of virtual communications, Facebook, emoticons and Twitter feeds, the textual tradition of Judaism faces yet another challenge. How does our tradition of Talmudic discussion and textual analysis fit in the 140 characters of a tweet? Are we going to become “the people of the Kindle?”
Shavuot is a good time to reflect upon our relationship with our textual sources. It is the time to claim ownership of our books. Torah and its interpretation is nobody’s monopoly, no matter how pious or knowledgeable they may be (or think themselves to be). The capacity to interpret, and to draw inspiration, from the text belongs equally to you as to the most revered scholars. It belongs to each and every Jew in each generation. It is the magnificent gift that our tradition bestows on us.
During this holiday of the Torah, I invite you all to engage with our sources in a critical dialogue, discovering their beauty and their complexity. I invite you to take comfort and inspiration from them, as well as to struggle with those conflicts and contradictions that are the source of such richness. Like those first graders I mentioned, I invite you to receive the book and to discover why it is the ultimate bestseller. I challenge you to add your own interpretation, your own meaning to the intricate mosaic of Jewish thought.
Shavuot is a holiday of hope. After the uncertainty of the Omer, we collect the harvest and we rejoice in the fruit of our work. Shavuot is also Chag Habikkurim, the holiday in which our ancestors made offerings of their first fruits, as if to show that there cannot be affluence without generosity. Shavuot is the holiday of community, because we received the book that made us into a people. We spend the night of the Shavuot in a tikkun, a night of learning, embracing the text, wrestling with it, and finding in it whatever meaning is relevant for our lives.
Hope, joy, learning, continuity, and generosity. Those are the central values of Shavuot, and, indeed, the central values of Jewish Philanthropy.