top of page

Shavuot 5783

May 21, 2023

Rabbi Geier


BS"D || Rabbi Geier

Shavuot 5783

Why was the Torah given in an inhospitable, uninhabited place? When something as important and significant as the Torah is delivered, one would expect an environment that matches its importance. But in the desert? What does the desert have to offer as a backdrop for the giving of the Torah?

The Midrash addresses this question and provides a highly convincing answer: It was given in the desert to avoid problems with the tribes; so that no tribe can claim ownership and say, "The Torah is mine, as it was given in my territory." Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place that belongs to no one.

Similarly, when King David wanted to build a capital for his kingdom, he decided to do it in Jerusalem, a city that didn't belong to any particular tribe, in order to prevent envy among different sectors of the people.

In the same vein, the Midrash asks (Mejilta, BaChodesh): Why wasn't the Torah given in the Land of Israel? And the answer is given: So that the nations of the world cannot claim that they didn't accept it because it was given in a land foreign to them. Therefore, it was given in the desert, publicly and openly. Those who do not receive it do so because they don't want to, not because it doesn't belong to them.

That is why the Torah has been compared to water, as the prophet Isaiah says, "All you who are thirsty, come to the water" (Isaiah 55:1). The Torah is for everyone.

Knowing human nature, God gave the Torah in the desert and renews its giving every year on the holiday of Shavuot, teaching us that it is accessible to all, and no one can say, "The Torah is mine." The Midrash has compared the Torah to the desert, to fire, and to water, to teach us that just as these elements are free for all of humanity, so is the Torah.

The moment of the Torah's giving has another peculiarity. Israel camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, according to the biblical text and Rashi's commentary on Numbers 10 and 11. It is therefore particularly striking that in Parashat Va'etchanan, the Lord almost expelled the people of Israel from there. "The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: 'You have stayed long enough at this mountain'" (Deuteronomy 1:6), urging them to leave that place. Normally, the sign for the children of Israel to move on was the lifting of the clouds of glory. So why did the Lord use such language to invite them to resume their journey?

The answer is that it is difficult to leave holiness after being exposed to it. The Torah suggests that the children of Israel had to leave there, practically by force, as they couldn't detach themselves from that ecstatic state of holiness achieved through the encounter with Maasé Har Sinai, the episode of Mount Sinai.

However, such exposure is a means and not an end in itself. Those who find themselves encamped at the edge of Mount Sinai at the moment of receiving the Torah may make the mistake of thinking that the entire world is Sinai.

The Lord's reaction, a few months after receiving the Torah, is nothing more than a warning: Do not assume that the world is about being ecstatic in a cathartic state of contemplation of holiness. On the contrary, the challenge lies beyond Sinai, when we manage to bring the sparks of that holiness to which we were exposed to the four corners of the earth. When we manage to introduce some spiritual elevation into the mundane aspects of our lives.

Then, yes, we can return to that place from time to time. That desert that once sheltered us as a People and sometimes appears to us in moments of distress and helplessness, in sadness or anger when everything becomes uncertain. And once a year, on Shavuot, we can return to reaffirm our connection with the text that provides us with that spirituality that helps us to continue and that message that reconnects us with our past and our future.

Returning to that place and receiving the Lujot Habrit, the Tablets of the Law, the divine word carved in stone. "I had gone up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant" (Deuteronomy 9:9).

It is not gold, bronze, or marble, the chosen materials to hold the divine word, but rather stone. Nor was it the highest mountain or the most lush geography where God chose to reveal Himself. And this is surely another message we must grasp. We must revalue what is in front of our eyes and what we take as mere valueless elements.

The same happened with Moses. Walking through the desert, he passes by a bush that is burning like so many insignificant bushes that burn from the heat of the desert, and he notices that this one in particular is not consumed.

It was the capacity for wonder that made Moses hear the voice of God. It was his attitude of transcending the limits of the object that changed the history of the people of Israel. The same must happen on this Shavuot and every Shavuot. We are called to the desert, to that which has little appeal, to revalue it and find the transcendent within what doesn't seem to be.

We are receiving, once again, the most precious thing, whose exchange value is not money or possessions, but the willingness to receive, the capacity to see beyond.

That's why the desert. That's why the stone. Let us find our priceless deserts and stones in our daily life.

bottom of page