Hashem gave us a present; do you know what it was?
A few days ago, we celebrated having received the Torah, the greatest gift a tired, long enslaved but recently freed nation could hope to receive. And it was a truly momentous occasion, and we recreate elements of that occasion each year on Shavuos: by staying up all night to learn Torah as a tikun for the Jewish people who slept the night before Matan Torah (Magen Avraham 494:1); by decorating our homes and shuls with flowers to remember Har Sinai’s beauty (Levush 494:1); by eating lots of cheesecake to remember how, after receiving new mitzvot about kosher meat, Bnei Yisrael could only eat dairy until they had time to prepare meat (Mishna Berura 494:12).
And then, like every holiday, it’s over, and we return to our regularly scheduled lives.
But, like with every holiday, we kind of sort of know we should probably be carrying something of the momentousness of the holiday into our regularly scheduled lives. (Cue the requisite joke about cheesecake and carrying extra pounds…) In the times of the Bais Hamikdash, the Shalosh Regalim offered an important opportunity to reconnect with Hashem, calling on Jews everywhere to pick up and leave the drudgery of regular life for an intense religious experience that would refresh their lives with renewed devotion.
As it happens, we have a specific mandate to create that kind of renewed connection to the giving of the Torah not just on Shavuos, and just in the times of the Bais Hamikdash, but every day – especially today.
Shemot 19:1 introduces the story of Matan Torah by telling us that “In the third month after Bnei Yisrael had left Egypt, on this day they came to the Sinai wilderness.” Rashi cites a question from midrashic tradition: “It should have said ‘on that day’; what is [the meaning of] ‘on this day’?”
In a similar vein, the Torah elsewhere alludes to itself and its mitzvot as having been given to us “today” (eg. Devarim 26:16) and Rashi addresses the obvious question: What do you mean, “today”? The Torah wasn’t given in May of 2018! In a text intended to have eternal relevance, emphasis on “today” seems oddly limiting.
Rashi explains that the Torah refers to its mitzvot having been commanded “today” not as a matter of historical fact but as a matter of perspective. On Devarim 26:16, he writes “Every day, [the mitzvot] should be new in your eyes, as if you were commanded about them that very day.” And on Shemot 19:1, “That the words of Torah should be new upon you, as if He gave them today.”
The idea is not to limit our receipt of the gift of Torah to one day, but to expand our view of that receipt, viewing the Torah as if it were just given to us, now, today. To imagine that we didn’t only receive the Torah on 6 Sivan in the year 2448, nor only every year on 6 Sivan, but every single day.
When I learned this idea as a kid, it certainly made sense and even spoke to me. Presents are fun! We can all relate to the excitement of getting something new, and I could respect the goal of being excited about Torah every day.
But as I thought about it more recently, I realized Rashi’s point goes deeper than simply the excitement of getting or even having something new.
I once received a gift card to Starbucks, and while it certainly looked lovely in my purse, the joy I got from seeing it sit there was nothing compared to the joy of using it. Of deciding how I would use it, whether for my basic no-frills, just-need-a-drink-so-I-can-sit-here-and-work option or for something more fun. That gift card carried potential, and the excitement of having it was about starting off with that new potential, deciding how I would actualize it – and then making that a reality. Without being used, it would be just a piece of plastic.
Another silly example: I bought myself a shirt about six years ago that I loved, but that was so different from anything else I owned, I couldn’t quite figure out what to wear it with or when or if it was really “me.” (As a wise friend once said, “Sarah, if you like it, it’s you!” But still.) It sat in my drawer for six years, with the tags on, until about a week ago when I finally pulled it out and wore it in honor of Rosh Chodesh Sivan. Not surprisingly, I got more enjoyment out of that one day of using that shirt than I did in six years of looking at it in my drawer. Like I’d just bought it that day. It was fun to finally put together an outfit around it, and that excitement carried into the whole day, as I finally wore it with pride.
A less silly example: Years ago, a friend who had recently gotten engaged was sharing with me some of the frustrations of engagement. While I certainly understood and sympathized with her feelings, I found myself getting almost jealous, as our conversation reminded me nostalgically of the exciting side of engagement, when everything is fresh and new and full of potential. There is great joy to be found in day to day married life, but there is something special about the joy of beginning, of looking ahead to the unknown future and its great potential, of working together to determine where to go with that potential. Will we rent this apartment or that one? Buy this couch or that couch? It’s not the apartment, or the couch, or even the partner that’s truly exciting; it’s the vision of what the future will look like with that partner, in that apartment, sitting on that couch and creating that life.
Beginnings are exciting, new things are exciting – not because we’ve gotten there, but because of where we can go from there.
So – what does it mean for the Torah to be new to us every day? It can’t possibly mean that we’re simply excited to receive this nice gift, to own it, to put it in our purses or drawers and simply notice it there in the background once in a while. “Oh, isn’t it nice that Hashem gave me Torah!”
Rashi is reminding us to view every day as if we just received the Torah so that we can view every day as a new beginning, full of potential for what we will do with this gift.
I got this Torah today. What will I do with it today?
And again the next day: I got it again! What can I do with it this time? Am I happy with how I have lived Torah so far? What can I renew, refresh, or change? What mitzvah will I focus on today? What area of Torah will I learn, and how will I go about it? What Torah thought will I share, and with whom, and in what setting?
Every day, is an opportunity to make a new decision, to determine how we want Torah in our lives, to make it happen.
If we’ve put Torah away for a while, coasting through our lives with it in the background, looking at it once in a while but maybe unsure exactly what to do with it beyond the basics– we can choose to make today the day we truly receive it. The day we cut off the tags and decide “I will wear this with pride.” The day we feel the excitement as if we just got it for the first time, fresh and new and full of potential.
And if we’ve always had Torah as an active part of our lives – we can still do the same thing. We can make the Torah new every day, by taking the opportunity each and every day to think about the potential contained in this gift and where we want to go with it. Maybe I already learn every day, but I will begin again with something I’ve never learned before, or in a venue I’ve never tried before. Maybe I want to focus on a mitzvah I haven’t thought much about in years.
Maybe someone said something the other day that I’d never heard before; I can choose to let it go, continuing the drudgery of my regularly-scheduled life, learning and/or doing exactly what I’ve always done – or I can choose to begin again, pulling in this fresh new piece of my relationship with Hashem and examining it for all its potential.
Day in and day out, we are called upon to renew our vows in our relationship with Torah, with Hashem, and look for the potential contained in that day’s new beginning.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.