Imagine living in pre-biblical times, when prevalent values included infanticide, human sacrifice and idol worship. It was a largely chaotic human landscape, devoid of moral anchor, where "might makes right" and barbarians reigned.
Then 3,300 years ago, the Jewish people stood at Sinai and – bang! – in the course of one revelation, humanity acquired a Divine code that quickly spread its revolutionary ideals of sanctity, justice, compassion, family, education and peace.
Over the millennia, various influencers – Christianity and Islam – helped Torah values become firmly rooted in human consciousness.
Just as the physical universe expands from its seminal moment, so too Sinai's spiritual Big Bang reverberates today. With the founding of the United States of America the voice from Sinai echoed in the ideals of "all men are created equal"; "in God we trust"; "proclaim liberty throughout the land." These are bedrocks of civilization and stem directly from the declaration of Genesis 1:27 that every human is "created in the image of God."
The words of history's greatest leaders, philosophers and historians – including U.S. Presidents from John Adams ("I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation.") to Lyndon Johnson ("Our society is illuminated by the spiritual insights of the Hebrew prophets.") – attest to Sinai's profoundly powerful effect.
The holiday of Shavuot, which marks the Sinai experience, presents a unique opportunity to access Torah's unparalleled spiritual power.
But while any Jewish holiday requires intense preparation (before Sukkot we build the sukkah and obtain the four species; before Passover we clean the house and prepare the Seder), the very name of this holiday – Shavuot means "weeks" – alludes to the essential seven-week preparation period. Through a process of self-introspection, we attain a new level of clarity and commitment in four key realms:
At Sinai, every Jew humbly stood in a barren desert, before a humble mountain, and in unison declared: Naaseh v'Nishma – we gladly accept the Torah, sight unseen.
Today, we demonstrate our acceptance of Torah through a commitment to study its words, day and night. Particularly in modern times, with the propensity of distraction so great, passionate and constant Torah study is our best chance for making the right choices.
Beyond mere "obligations," the 613 mitzvot – defined by God as the instructions for living – exert a practical observable affect on our lives. For example:
- Shabbat – our weekly rest and recovery seminar, exerting a centrifugal force of shared time that binds families and the community.
- Kashrut – instills a lifelong sense of self-discipline, enabling us to choose higher human pleasures over the competing desire for immediate gratification.
- Mikvah and associated laws – infuses married life with fresh vitality, appreciation and closeness.
For those who love God and Torah, a natural desire is to share these ideas with others.
The Torah was given not to individuals, but to a nation, teaching us that its loftiest levels of fulfillment are achievable only as a group.
The Jewish message is fully universal. Anyone can join the club, and every righteous human being has a secure place in Heaven.
Finally, Torah is the ultimate unifier. Unity is a prerequisite for receiving the Torah, as Exodus 19:2 implies: The Jewish people stood at Sinai as one body with one heart. Only by seeing ourselves as part of an organic whole can that organism thrive.
Yet despite the many material-spiritual comparisons, one Big Bang is not like the other.
The cosmological Big Bang was a one-time event, which no human intervention can ever impact.
The influence of Sinai, by contrast, is a constant voice, beckoning each of us to choose Torah.
Torah study and observance is the very act of discovering self.
Torah is not an abstract and arcane text, but rather provides everything we need to live a healthy life.
By constantly directing us toward our unique life mission, Torah study and observance is the very act of discovering self.
On Shavuot, we stay up all night immersed in study, celebrating the Big Bang, and declaring that Torah – like water – is the essential life-sustaining force.
That's one thing worth staying up all night for.