We have just observed Shavuot, the day we celebrate receiving the Torah. Unique among our holidays, it has no specific mitzvah associated with it, something that helps contribute to its neglect among many. With no shofar, seder, Chanukah candles or sukkah, there is little to grab the attention of all but the most serious of Jews.
It’s precisely because Shavuot celebrates the gift of Torah that there are no specific mitzvot related to the holiday (outside of special sacrifices during Temple times). It’s Torah as a whole that we celebrate. Highlighting the overarching nature of the holiday is the fact there’s no specific date for it. We need specific times to focus on repentance, to celebrate our freedom and to recall our journey through the desert, but Torah itself is to be celebrated and observed every day.
Instead of a specific date, Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after Pesach, serving as the culmination of the Exodus. Freedom is crucial, but it’s not enough. We travelled to Sinai, where we were given our mission to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
A key aspect of holiness can be seen in a rabbinic teaching regarding Moses’ receiving of the Torah. The Talmud relates that the heavenly angels complained to God, urging Him not to give the Torah, so beautiful and pristine, to lowly man, who is full of sin.
With poetic beauty, the Talmud relates how God told Moses to answer their claims. One by one Moses went through the Ten Commandments, demonstrating how the laws of the Torah are applicable only to those who might kill, commit adultery, or who are jealous. Only those who work can rest on Shabbat, only those with parents can respect them, and only those who were slaves in Egypt can pay homage to the God who took us out of Egypt. Torah is needed not for angels, but for humans of flesh and blood.
Regarding the command of not taking God’s name in vain, Moses’ argument is striking. On the surface, this law could also apply to the angels, yet Moses connects this command to the world of business, arguing that since angels are not involved in the give-and-take of business, this law has no application to them. Left unexplained is the connection between taking God’s name in vain and the world of business. Moses understood that taking God’s name in vain is most likely to occur in a court of law, where, all too often, some will commit perjury, even at times unconsciously, as they drag their disputes through the courts.
Not surprisingly, there are more mitzvot regarding the world of business and commerce than any other area of Torah. How we act when dealing with money tells us much more about a person than what we eat, how or if we pray, or what we do on Shabbat. It’s here that we demonstrate our true character and our true fidelity to Torah.
Shavuot is preceded by the counting of the Omer, where we ready ourselves for the holiday, beginning 49 days prior. While these were meant to be joyous days, over the course of history, they became days of tragedy, and today, they’re observed with elements of mourning. It was the period when 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died (or were killed) and the period when the massacres of the Crusades took place some 900 years later. Our sages, looking inward to see what message we might take from tragedy, noted a lack of respect for one another among the students of Rabbi Akiva. Those and only those who truly respect others will ensure that their dealing with others will be conducted with the highest levels of integrity.
This is the message of Shavuot and the Torah as a whole, and it’s the message we must put into practice every day of the year.