Seeing the Voices: The Spiritual Work of the Self on Shavuot
On Shavuot Eve, many of us will go to hear interesting and varied lectures into the wee hours of the night, consuming too many cups of coffee and slices of cheesecake in desperate attempt to stay awake. But what is the real point of Shavuot? What is the spiritual work required of us?
At first glance, Shavuot seems to be the celebration of a one-off event: Matan Torah at Mount Sinai, where the primary and exclusive recipient of the Torah is Bnei Yisrael. According to this view, Matan Torah is the defining event for which God brought us out of Egypt. This position is well anchored in rabbinic literature, but there are quite a few sources that represent a more dynamic picture.
The Midrash Mekhilta (Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael – from Sefer Yitro) explains that the Torah was given in the desert "in public, in no man's land" so that "anyone who wishes to receive will come and receive it." If we were to accept the Torah in the Land of Israel we would say, "The nations of the world have no part in it." In light of the Mekhilta, two fascinating points arise:
First of all, at its core, the acceptance of the Torah is a universal event. The Torah does not belong only to the Jewish people, and cannot necessarily be interpreted exclusively by an innately Jewish reading. On the contrary, anyone who wishes to journey to the desert and receive the Torah can do so. Its values are universal; it is the Torah of Life, and the directives of the Torah can apply equally to all.
Second, the event of giving of the Torah seems to be a one-time occurrence (therefore, we say in the tefillah, "z'man matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah"). However, understanding this seminal event depends on our initiative, our desire to take ownership. It follows that receiving the Torah is a personal experience that depends on the individual's spiritual effort, and his or her desire to be a receptacle for the internalization of the Torah. The Midrash Sifrei on Devarim, chapter 343, tells us that God offered the Torah to every nation before Matan Torah. This goes to show that the Torah could potentially belong to any nation, if they answered the Divine call.
The reciprocity between the internal-personal discourse versus the universal discourse is expressed in the teaching of the S'fat Emet on the verse, "And all the people see the voices" (Shemot 20:14). The S'fat Emet explains this synesthetic description: "each person saw the root of their vitality, saw with their own eyes that piece of the Divine soul which everyone possesses." In other words, Matan Torah was not a uniform experience. Rather, each individual experienced Matan Torah, and their relationship to the Torah, according to the level of their perception - the "root of their vitality." Alongside this intimate and individual experience, they also saw "with their own eyes, the part of the Divine soul that everyone possesses," meaning that the Torah is composed of all the different souls.
Thus, Matan Torah was at once the ultimate personal-spiritual experience, which exposed each individual to their inner self and the source of their vitality; and also constituted a communal event. This shared experience instilled the awareness that it is impossible to attain God's will as a lone individual – without the understanding that everyone's soul has a piece of the Divine, of which the Torah is comprised. We are all diverse individuals, partnered in the experience of Matan Torah.