“Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer.”
Almost there! Shavuot will be here in just a few days – am I ready? What does it mean, to be ready to receive the Torah?
Memory: my first Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, when I finally felt a part of the Torah Study group at my synagogue. I think it had something to do with studying so late and so long around the table that we all got giggly. At any rate, I finally relaxed and felt like “one of the gang,” which was good, since momentous things were to follow. Soon after, it was time for me to go to the beit din and the mikveh to complete my conversion to Judaism. And then, on the same day many years later, I got on the plane to go to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical school. Lots of memories, indeed!
The question remains: what does it mean to be ready to receive the Torah? That magical night when I felt I truly belonged to the group, that was part of it. The Torah is given to Am Yisrael, not to any individual on his or her own.
A little later, when the beit din questioned me, they were looking to see: was I there for the right reasons? Was I truly free to make this decision? Was I holding back some piece of my old life? And all of that, too, is part of being ready to receive the Torah. Sinai wasn’t possible until Passover was done: only a free People could make a covenant with the Divine. They didn’t quiz me on the fine points, because after all at the original deal, at Sinai, the People said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” [We will do and we will hear]. Both the Jews and this individual Jew had to make the leap without knowing every detail: this covenant requires risk. It takes heart. One must have heart to be ready to receive the Torah.
Then, the mikveh: I had heard about warm and lovely mikveh experiences, but mine was more like, well, a dash of cold water. A whole mikveh full of cold water, actually, because they’d forgotten to turn on the heat. I took a deep breath, and walked down into what felt like the Arctic Ocean until all but my head was submerged in the water. I called to my mikveh attendant, our cantor, and when she came in, she saw me cringing and said, “Are you OK?” “I’m freezing!” I said. “Let’s get this over with!” So we said the blessings in between dunks, she made sure it was all kosher, and I came flying back out of that icewater as soon as modesty permitted.
And that, too, was appropriate, even if it wasn’t the usual way. We motored through those blessings, but nothing was skipped. Sometimes, in Jewish prayer, you just do what you have to do. I dressed hurriedly and went out to the mazal tovs of family and friends with my hair still wet. Na’aseh v’nishma: we will do and we will hear. And sometimes we will “do” in a hurry. The sages tell us to run to do a mitzvah: and so sometimes run we must!
And then, in a later June, but still in that same week of Shelach L’cha, my friend Fred drove me to the airport with three enormous bags for my flight to Jerusalem. I had no inkling of what lay ahead. Na’aseh v’nishma: Doing before understanding. Had I any idea how hard the next six years would be, I’d never have gotten on that plane, and I’m so glad now that I was ignorant, because being a rabbi has filled my heart and my life beyond all my dreams. I suspect that had the Hebrews at Sinai been shown all that lay ahead, they’d have said, “No thanks:” no thanks to the years of wilderness, no thanks to the lawless age of the Judges, no thanks to Babylon, no thanks to Rome, no thanks to the Inquisition, no thanks to the Nazis. But they didn’t know. I am so glad we didn’t know.
And now we are about to stand at Sinai yet again. And yet again we will say, “Na’aseh v’nishma,” And now, unlike the first time, when we trembled at the fire and the thunder, we know to tremble at the wild abandon of this promise: We will do it, whatever it is! We will understand it later.
And then we will be ready to receive the Torah.
- Op-Ed: If Passover is the question, Shavuot is the answer (jta.org)
- Staying Awake Shavuot Night (jewishpress.com)
- In The Past We See Our Future (jewishpress.com)