There is an interesting Midrash that describes the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Midrash makes a remarkable statement: "God held Mount Sinai above the heads of the Jewish people and declared: 'Either you will accept my Torah, or this mountain will be your gravesite'."
For a religion so built upon the notion of free will, this appears at first glance as incomprehensible. And if this in fact did happen (or even if it isn't literal, but accurately reflects the psychological reality of the event), why is such a big deal made out of our acceptance of the Torah? It would seem that we were compelled and had no other alternative!
An old story sheds some light on this perplexing episode. An American Frigate was doing a maneuver off of the coast of Nova Scotia. On its radar screen it detected another vessel directly in its path and sent a radio message to the ship. "This is the S.S. Goliath and we request that you veer your vessel 5 degrees to the south."
The reply was as follows: "This is the Canadian Coastguard and we suggest that you veer 5 degrees to the north."
The Americans answered back: "You probably didn't understand that you are dealing with the American Warship the S.S Goliath and we demand that you veer 5 degrees to the South."
The Canadians replied, "You probably didn't understand our last message because this is a Canadian lighthouse (you fools!) and we respectfully suggest that you veer 5 degrees to the north."
The moral of the story: Some things in life are fixed and unchanging, and other things are not. And it can save you a lot time, energy and embarrassment to know the difference between the two.
At Mount Sinai the Jewish People were introduced to their Creator and understood in the clearest way that their lives were to be henceforth vested with meaning and purpose as laid out in the Torah. From this day forward there would be a set of spiritual laws of nature as immutable as the physical laws of nature. In the same way that we can't really choose to live outside of the law of nature, so too we can't really live outside the world's spiritual laws. If we choose not to eat, for example, we would die.
So too, if we ignore the spiritual realities of life, we die spiritually. We may look alive, but our lives reflect a hollow inner reality that will not live on, beyond our body's sojourn in this world. In other words, without clinging to the spiritual truths of life we can become walking dead men, and the light of our souls slowly loses its powerful animating force.
We can choose to ignore the laws of nature at our own peril, but our choice will never determine whether they apply to us or not. As an illustration, if a person steps off the Empire State building he won't hit the ground any later if he doesn't believe in the law of gravity. Belief doesn't determine or undermine reality. It only sheds light on your level of understanding of the world, or your sanity, or both. The guy who steps off of the roof of a building is either missing crucial information, is insane, or a combination of the two.
So too with the laws of the Torah; once God made these laws part of reality, a person could ignore them, but his ignorance could never negate their existence. It was as if God held a mountain over their heads and said: "The reality of Torah is so clear, that your own minds and hearts are compelled to follow them.
For the Jews at Sinai, the choice was not "to believe or not to believe." The reality of God was too clear and obvious for that. Their test was whether to accept living with reality, even if it meant dashing some or all of their illusions on the jagged rocks of truth. Their acceptance of Torah was a great act because it was an acceptance of reality.
Indeed, from the dawn of time mankind has struggled with accepting an externally-imposed reality. It is much more appealing and comfortable to define our own rules and create religions which bow to us, rather than we bowing to them. And all of us today are still plagued by this deep tendency to hide from reality and escape hard decisions and choices -- whether they be in our relationships, with respect to our own self image or public persona, or concerning the direction or our careers and our lives.
On Shavuot, we look life squarely in the face and declare that we want to live in accordance with reality.
I was always a person who tried to avoid confrontation in personal relationships, dreaming that by avoiding the issues they might somehow soften or go away. Over many years (and through much personal angst) I discovered that not only don't they disappear, but they become much worse.
A world without God (or one built upon man-made idols) is a cold, capricious place where blind fate rules, and justice and peace have no real permanence. Only in a world where God exists and creates a purposeful reality, which we can work within and trust, does man ultimately have true security.
The holiday of Shavuot marks our re-acceptance of the Torah, as our ancestors did on Mount Sinai. Accepting and believing in the Torah does not make it true. Denial does not make it false. And ignoring it does not make it go away.
On Shavuot, we look life squarely in the face and declare that we want to live in accordance with reality. We want to escape the illusions and the sideshows that seem to disproportionately dominate our lives. We want to latch on to sanity and create lives of real meaning.
The Jewish people always understood that our Torah created this type of real meaning and purpose in the world. The challenge of Shavuot, therefore, is: 1) to want to live in accordance with reality, and 2) to confirm or discover whether the Torah indeed lays out the blueprint for the laws of metaphysical reality.