Matan Torah - Giving the Gift of Torah
Next weekend we will celebrate Shavuot, the festival that commemorates Matan Torah, the giving of Torah. Jews around the world will welcome in the holiday by staying up all night studying Torah. Part of the magic of the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the all-night study session, is the sense of excitement and anticipation. After counting the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot, and after staying up all night, we arrive at the culminating event in the Jewish story, the revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai.
You won’t be surprised to hear that there are numerous midrashim - rabbinic legends - imagining this climactic moment. One of my favorites is this story from the Talmud:
When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said: Master of the Universe, what’s keeping You? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.” Moses said: “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God said to him: “Turn around.” Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall but did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. At one point in the discussion, Rabbi Akiva’s students said to him: “My teacher, from where do you derive this?” Rabbi Akiva said to them: “It is a halakhah transmitted to Moses from Sinai.” When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive. Moses returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said: “Master of the Universe, You have a man as great as this and yet You still choose to give the Torah through me. Why?” God said to him: “Be silent; this is the way I planned it” (Menachot 29b).
So here we see Moses as he arrives at the top of Mt. Sinai and sees God putting the finishing touches on the Torah. He asks what’s taking God so long and God tells him that a certain scholar, Rabbi Akiva, is going to be able to interpret even the little crowns that decorate the letters of the Torah scroll. Moses then does a little time-traveling, arriving in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. He’s dismayed because he doesn’t understand the discussion, but when Rabbi Akiva asserts that the halakhah he’s teaching comes from the same Torah that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, Moses’ mind is put at ease. Moses asks God, “If there’s someone as brilliant as Rabbi Akiva, why are you giving the Torah through me?” And God replies with the classic parental response, “Because I said so.”
In this story, Moses is characteristically humble and just a little insecure. Remember when Moses first encounters God at the burning bush and God tells him he’s got a job to do? Moses argues with God, saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11) and “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?” (Ex. 4:1) and “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (4:10). Even after he leads the Israelites out of Egypt, even as he’s about to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai, Moses doubts his worthiness. But whether he believes it or not, he’s the right man for the job. In spite of his lack of confidence in his ability to communicate and persuade, Moses becomes the greatest prophet, leader, and teacher the Jewish People has ever known.
The story from the Talmud is full of ironies. First, Moshe Rabbeinu, Our Rabbi Moses, the quintessential teacher of Torah, doesn’t understand the Torah being taught in the yeshivah! And second, the teacher in the yeshivah is Rabbi Akiva, one of the more unlikely scholars in the Talmud. According to tradition, Akiva is a poor shepherd who doesn’t start learning Torah until he is 40 years old. He is inspired to learn by, of all things, a well. He says, "Who hollowed out this stone?" and is told, "Akiva, haven't you read that 'water wears away stone' (Job 14:19)? - it was water falling upon it constantly, day after day." So Rabbi Akiva asks himself, “Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study at least one section of Torah.” So he starts learning the Alef Bet alongside his son and learns, letter by letter, until he has mastered the Torah and surpassed the knowledge of his teachers (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2). In another story from the Talmud, Akiva leaves his wife as a poor shepherd and comes back 12 years later as a famous Torah scholar with 12,000 disciples accompanying him (Ket. 62b). And, tragically, we also learn that Rabbi Akiva is executed by the Romans for continuing to teach Torah to his students after the government has forbidden it (Ber. 61b).
Moses and Rabbi Akiva -- two men from humble beginnings who become heroes of the Jewish People. Their heroic act? Teaching Torah. If I were to presume to guess why God chooses them, I would say that they are chosen because of their modesty, their devotion to God, and their love of their people. They demonstrate that love by serving the community, even if it means sacrificing their own comfort or even their own lives.
I bring this up because even though it’s been nearly two millennia since the days of Rabbi Akiva, and many more since the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, we still need teachers of Torah. Matan Torah, the Giving of Torah, only works if there are people to receive it and then to pass it on. When the clergy stand here on the bima with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we talk about the chain of tradition that is passed on l’dor vador, from generation to generation. As we pass the Torah scroll from grandparents to parents to the B’nai Mitzvah, we are empowering our young people to claim Torah as their own inheritance and to become teachers of Torah on that day. And yet, it is impossible for our B’nai Mitzvah to be those teachers of Torah without having first been taught.
That’s where you come in. Every year, hundreds of students come to Beth Am to learn about the texts, the rituals, the holidays, and the values of Judaism. That means that every year, we need dozens of teachers to teach them. And while we have many wonderful, devoted teachers, we need more. We need committed, knowledgeable, enthusiastic Jews to teach Torah to our young people. We need people who love Judaism and Torah and want our children to love Judaism and Torah. You don’t have to be Moses. You don’t have to be Rabbi Akiva. But you might be like Moses, a little shy, maybe unsure of your own worthiness to be a leader. You might be like Rabbi Akiva, having come recently to your own Jewish learning. And like both men, you just might find that you have a hidden gift for sharing your learning with others. If you care about the Jewish community, if you want to see it survive and thrive, then consider becoming a teacher. And if you can’t be a teacher but you know someone who can, send them our way!
Tonight, right before the Sh’ma, we prayed Ahavat Olam, which says, “With eternal love you have loved us, Adonai. Torah and mitzvot, laws and precepts You have taught us.” It is a holy act to teach, an act of divine love. On this Shavuot, let’s rejoice in the giving of Torah, and make sure that the next generation receives it too.