Birth and the Giving of the Torah

| Shavuot By :  Melissa Crespy JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Jun 7, 2003 / 5763 | Holidays

As I write these words, I am waiting for the imminent birth of a child which my husband and I hope to adopt. The baby is almost fully formed, the sonogram shows a healthy heartbeat and good sized head, and all the fingers and toes are present. The birthmother is in good health. But we are nervous, because we don’t know for sure that this baby will be healthy when it finally arrives. Just as if I were giving birth to this child myself, there are a lot of “unknowns:” What is the gender of the child? Will it have a healthy body and a healthy mind? What will its APGAR score be? Will it reach all the baby “milestones” that the baby books tell us about? Will it be able to learn easily, relate to others in appropriate ways, and love the people who come to be its close relations? It is a very intense time for all of us.

And the parallels to Shavuot are not hard to see. On Shavuot we celebrate the birth of our people as a nation. They have lived through the torments of Egypt, survived the ten plagues, and crossed the Sea of Reeds (which some modern commentators see as the “birth canal” of the Jewish people). They have made it to dry land but are now waiting at the foot of Mt. Sinai three months later. They are expectant. They are to hear the word of God – but they must be ready. They must stay within restricted boundaries (no travel on airplanes), they must wash their clothes, they must remain pure (think of the antiseptic environment of the hospital birthing or operating room!) and they must not engage in sexual relations. They must wait three days, and at that point, the thunder and the lightning and the dense cloud surround the mountain. There is a very loud blast of the horn (a baby crying?), and the people are trembling (won’t we be trembling at the birth of our child?) Just as God is to speak, Moses is scrambling up and down the mountain trying to contain the people and appease God. Smoke is all around – and the expectation is at an all time high.

What will God say? What will God command? Will the people live through the experience of “hearing” God’s voice? And when the commandments are given, will the people live up to God’s expectations? Will they be able to follow the ethical and moral and ritual laws that God has decided to bestow on his “chosen people”? Will the people be able to learn God’s laws, relate to Jews and non-Jews in appropriate ways, and love God and the Jewish people as God hopes?

None of this is certain at the birth of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and it is an experience we relive every year at Shavuot, as we listen to the story, rise to hear the “Ten Commandments” recited, and ask ourselves whether we are legitimate heirs to the Israelites who received the Torah. Have we lived up to God’s expectations? Have we been faithful to the moral and ritual laws that God bequeathed to our ancestors? And what will the coming year bring? Will we try to learn more Torah, be more ethical, relate better to our fellow human beings? Will we raise our children to follow God’s laws and the laws developed by our people over the years? Will we strive to reach the closeness with God that our ancestors felt on the auspicious day that they received the Torah? This year, at Shavuot, let us try to feel the excitement of the birth of the Jewish people – much as we experience the excitement of the birth of a child – and strive to live up to the expectations that God has set up for us. They are not easy – but we can only become better people and better Jews for striving toward God’s high expectations.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.