Shavuot – Of Life and Logos
Everything in life is luck, Donald Trump is reputed to have once said with uncharacteristic humility.
And for a change, the great Rabbis of Talmudic times agreed. Hakol toluy b’mazel. Everything depends on luck, even the Sefer Torah in the Aron Kodesh. It’s absolutely true; some Torah (Bible) scrolls get lucky and are used in Shul regularly. Others, for reasons unknown even to the Shamash, get relegated to the back of the Holy Ark and are rarely used, if ever. Some people have more mazel than others and, yes, even some Torahs enjoy more mazel than their neighbors.
And so, it would appear, is the case with our Jewish holidays. Our festivals all evoke excitement and splendor. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and Sukkos all come wrapped up in festive symbols that fire our imaginations. The Shofar, the sacred Fast, the little huts we build and the Lulav and Etrog we buy, Matzoh and the whole Seder experience – they all shape so much of the imagery we have inside our childhood memories. Neither are Chanukah and Purim short on symbols – Menorahs and Graggers are only two of many. It is these vivid symbols that stimulate our eager anticipation of beautiful and meaningful holiday celebrations today.
But what about Shavuot? Does it not seem somewhat orphaned, bereft of imagery? Where is there a strong symbol for Shavuot? What prominent image do we hold aloft to represent the season of the Giving of the Torah? Yes, there are the Ten Commandments, but they are used all year long too. Why do all the other Festivals seem to have specific signs, vivid emblems or icons to capture our attention and Shavuot does not?
The 19th century German Orthodox leader, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that for something as special as Shavuot, which represents the Giving of the Torah itself, i.e. the very foundation of Judaism, a mere symbol would be utterly inadequate. What are Jews without Torah? What is Judaism without Torah? To reduce Torah to a symbol is to violate its sanctity. The only way to represent Torah is to live by it. Torah is measured by substance not by symbols. Can Torah be contained or encapsulated in a logo? G-d forbid!
In the language of the Chassidic masters, the Torah is higher than mere symbolism; it is beyond depiction or embodiment. It is not only wisdom or law. The Giving of the Torah was not merely an event or a historical experience. Torah is the very essence of everything.
So because we need to remember the Exodus and the miraculous protection in the wilderness, we do things to keep that memory alive to help us relive those experiences. But Torah is not limited to memories. Remembering Sinai, the Ten Commandments, the thunder and lightning is not good enough. The only way we can plug into Torah is by living it. There are no shortcuts. We need to study Torah, learn its ways and live by it.
That’s why the great Torah teachers through the centuries have not necessarily been outwardly charismatic, at least not in the popular sense. Nor have they needed to be tall, larger than life personalities. Some of our greatest spiritual leaders have been small in size but giants in stature. They were humble, unassuming and pious. It wasn’t their powerful baritones or handsome features which attracted the people but their nobility of character that commanded respect. Sure, their deep wisdom was an outstanding quality but, more importantly, it was their flawless behavior that made them stand out. Those who were academically brilliant at Talmud but whose conduct did not match their scholarship did not become the Torah leaders of their generation. The truly great ones who stood out were those who became “Torah personalities.” The genuine Torah leaders of history weren’t seeking fame or fortune. They hired no publicists to mount PR campaigns. They were men of truth and, intuitively, the people flocked to them.
And the same holds true to this day. Because Torah is truth and truth must be lived truthfully and consistently, otherwise it’s a lie.
On Shavuot we recite Yizkor, the memorial prayer for our departed loved ones. And what do we remember? What they said or what they did? How they looked or how they lived? It is not how they talked the game of life that counts but how they played it. After all is said and done, we remember what was done, not what was said. When talk is forgotten, deeds live on.
So, like life itself, Shavuot has no dominant symbol. Torah is too powerful, too awesome and too sacred to be slickly packaged or labeled with a logo. Torah is truth. And truth cannot be marketed. It can only be lived.