(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shavuot - as the late, great comedian Rodney Dangerfield might have characterized it - is the holiday that gets no respect. It is devoid of prominent, eye-catching symbols, such as the shofar or the hanukkia; it is the shortest of the festivals, lasting just one day (in Israel), and it comes on the heels of a host of other holy days, such as Pessah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day and Yom Ha'atzmaut. As such, it seems to somehow get lost in the shuffle.
Yet Shavuot deserves a better fate, as it represents a moment of cataclysmic importance, a day that changed civilization in a most profound way. The giving - as well as the receiving - of the Torah on Mount Sinai energized our people forever and brought order, justice and civility to the world at large.
The code word of that great moment of revelation, the collective response of the Jewish nation to God's offer of the Torah is na'aseh v'nishma, we shall do and we shall hear. But that statement is as puzzling as it is powerful. For while faith is certainly a vital component of our religion, our unquestioning, almost blind belief in this most comprehensive set of laws and behavior seems quite out of character for the Jewish people. We usually read the fine print oh so carefully, delving into the meaning and nuance of every detail before we decide to finally jump in.
So what happened at Sinai?
I WOULD LIKE to respond to this classic question with a story from our recent history, one that is as relevant today - perhaps even more relevant - than when it first occurred. In 1978, the Camp David summit with Egypt resulted in the return of the entire Sinai Peninsula. US president Jimmy Carter, delirious with joy that Israel had decided to give two-thirds of its land mass to an enemy nation, decided he would try to push the envelope. He told prime minister Menachem Begin that, before ending the summit, he would like to discuss the issue of Jerusalem, that he wanted Israel to consider either ceding part of it, or internationalizing all of it.
Begin flatly refused Carter's request.
"At least think about it for a few days," said Carter.
"No!" said Begin defiantly.
"What?!" answered an incredulous Carter, "You won't even think about it? Why not? How can you be so obstinate?"
Begin replied: "I think it's time to tell you about Rabbi Amnon."
He then proceeded to relate to Carter the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. Pressured incessantly by the bishop of that city to convert to Christianity, he finally asked for three days to think about it. He was then so overcome with guilt that he begged God for forgiveness. "How could I ever even contemplate such an act of heresy?" he lamented.
When he did not return to the bishop, Rabbi Amnon was cruelly tortured, his limbs amputated one by one. Yet through it all he did not relent. Maimed and mutilated, he was finally brought home. Three days later, on Rosh Hashana, he asked that he be brought to the synagogue and placed before the Holy Ark. There he uttered his famous prayer that has become the centerpiece of the High Holy Day liturgy - Un'taneh Tokef, Who shall live, and who shall die - and there he expired.
When Begin finished the story, he turned to Carter: "There are some things in life, Mr. President, that a Jew cannot even think about - and relinquishing Jerusalem in any way, shape or manner is one of them." With that emphatic statement, Begin returned home.
It is true that, normally, we weigh our important decisions with great deliberation and give pause to consider all the pros and cons.
But on certain issues, our gut instinct takes over and there is nothing to discuss. We know, deep inside, that there is a God, even if we cannot prove it; we believe He gave us the Torah and, by virtue of our mutual obligations to one another, that we have a special relationship with Him. And we are absolutely certain, regardless of world opinion and the ranting of our neighbors, that Israel is our home, and Jerusalem is our eternal, undivided capital.
To even consider rejecting these fundamentals of faith, well, don't even think about it.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. email@example.com
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