Why Judaism is a ‘square’ religion

Shavuot and the partnership with God.

view of Jerusalem, Old City 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
view of Jerusalem, Old City 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Shavuot – along with the reading of the Ten Commandments and the eating of cheesecake – is the custom of staying up long into the night, or all the way through it, studying Torah. This practice is called tikkun leil Shavuot, or “rectifying the night of Shavuot.”
According to tradition, the Jews at the time the Torah was given were rather complacent about that cataclysmic event, even falling asleep before the great moment when God descended upon the mountain to award the Tablets of the Law. And so, to make up for that insensitive act, we demonstrate our love and zeal for the Torah by embracing it into the wee hours.
But I have another slant on this subject.
Let’s begin with a lofty question: Why is it that Mount Sinai, scene of such a momentous event that it shook the entire world, is but a footnote of history? Why do we not venerate that place and make pilgrimages there? Why do we not count it among our holiest sites? Indeed, our Sages pay it almost no attention after the fact, and we are not even sure exactly which mountain is Mount Sinai; say the words, and most people think you’re talking about a hospital in New York City.
Contrast this with another famous mountain – Mount Moriah. That place has enduring, eternal holiness; it is a place to be visited, a place that is the heart of our spiritual energy. In the shtetls of Europe, many people kept a box of soil from Mount Moriah on their mantel, and even today many people in the Diaspora place a bit of earth from it in the graves of their loved ones.
So why the marked difference between the mountains? Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik – known as “the Rav” – addressed this question with a question of his own.
“Why,” he asked, “is the blessing we recite after eating bread so lengthy, so steeped in history and filled with praise for the Almighty? Why does it contain within it the reference to so many other mitzvot and historical events – such as brit mila, the Exodus, Israel and Jerusalem – instead of just thanking the Almighty for the food we eat? Why does it require a ‘call to order’ when we say it? Why is it so much more involved than, say, the brief blessing we make after eating the fruits of the Holy Land?” The Rav was even more perplexed when he compared bread to fruit: “Fruit is a miraculous thing; it seems to come straight from the heavens, like the manna in the desert. It is delicious, nutritious and readily available to us with a minimum of effort – it grows on trees, literally! Bread on the other hand, is largely a result of our efforts: We sow, reap, winnow, knead, bake, etc., in order to produce that fine-tasting Shabbat halla.”
Said the Rav, “I would have thought that fruit – which comes to us almost entirely from God – would have the longer blessing, where we would wax poetic about the bounty of Heaven, while bread – where God provides the seed but Man is the primary producer – would evoke the shorter bracha. But it is just the opposite!” And so the Rav concludes that this is exactly the point: Where God acts alone, we must be grateful and appreciative, but only to a point. Yet where God and man work together, where they create a partnership, that is something to sing about, elaborate upon and celebrate with gusto. For it is the partnership between God and man that is the source of true spirituality, and from which man derives his sense of meaning and purpose in the universe.
Imagine, if you will, that you are at a concert given by the late Luciano Pavarotti. What a thrill to hear him sing! And then, suddenly, he asks you to sing while he sits in the audience and listens – what a privilege! But the greatest moment comes when Pavarotti takes you by the hand and says, “I would be honored if you would join me, and the two of us sing a duet, together!” At that moment, as the great Pavarotti performs side-by-side with you, your sense of self-esteem soars sky high.
And so it is whenever we accompany the Almighty; we feel that we have value and worth in this world. And that is why bread – which requires man-God teamwork – trumps fruit. And that is why Mount Sinai is humbled next to Mount Moriah. For Mount Sinai, great as the events of Shavuot may have been, was God’s show and God’s show alone. He warns the people on numerous occasions to stay away from the mountain, not to approach, and those who do come near will die. When it is over, it is over forever.
But Mount Moriah is different. It achieved its holiness from the actions of the akeda, when Abraham was prepared to offer up his own son Isaac to do the will of God. That event represents the ultimate in man’s willingness to partner with God; it showcases man’s determination to act in unison with the Divine will no matter what the consequences. And that imbues this hill with holiness forever.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the celebrated leader of 19th-century German Jewry, makes a brilliant observation.
The “default” shape of the universe, he says, is a circle or ellipse. The sun, the moon, the stars are all round. Most fruit – apples, oranges, lemons, etc. – are round. When a raindrop falls to earth, it disperses in a circular fashion, and so on.
But, in contrast, most objects in Judaism are squareshaped. Tefillin, a huppa, the Ark, a succa, a mezuza parchment, a tallit, the Tabernacle itself; all are a form of square. Why? Because while that which is round may come directly from heaven, that which is square could not have gotten that way without the hand of man being involved. A square, says Hirsch, is a signature that says, “Man was here!” And the essence of Judaism – as exemplified by its sacred objects – represents a grand partnership between man and God.
The first set of the Ten Commandments was fashioned totally by God Himself. Alas, they lasted just a few hours, Moses breaking them upon seeing the Jews worshiping the Golden Calf. But the second Tablets were carved out not by God, but by Moses. Those Tablets were never broken, but are immortal, for they are the handiwork of both Heaven and Earth.
Now we may return to our original topic, the tikkun of Shavuot night. I suggest that the deeper meaning is this: When the Jews went to sleep, having little personal involvement in the Revelation at Sinai, they missed out on the opportunity to forge an alliance with God.
We take it upon ourselves to rectify that imbalance each year on the anniversary of that event by studying Torah Shavuot night with complete and total devotion. For it is in the active study of God’s word that we come to embrace one another, that we close the gap between Heaven and Earth, and that we qualify ourselves as fullfledged partners with our Creator.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.