Shavuot is designated as zman matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah: one Torah, given at one time. This is God’s part of the event. But what about ours? What happens on the receiving end?
Receiving is precisely the opposite: We do not receive the Torah once; we receive it every day. And we do not all receive the same Torah; each of us receives the Torah meant just for us, because each of us is different.
The Torah is not a textbook. If a textbook is objectively good, I may study from it, but how I relate to it is irrelevant. I cannot argue with the mathematics it presents. I cannot argue with the rules of grammar it lays out. Certainly, I can learn from it, but it is not important to me, because it is utterly independent of me. It says what it says. With the Torah, on the other hand, I have to find my message. I have to figure out our relationship. Therefore, I have to care. I cannot glide over the text; I have to engage it.
But how do I prepare myself to receive the unique message God’s Torah has for me? How do I get ready to convene with God? According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi – the 18th century mystic and Talmudist – the pre-condition for this meeting is what he calls “self-nullification.” As developed in the Tanya, his quietly revolutionary work, self-nullification requires one to separate from his ego, his smugness, and his importance.
This is not to denigrate the ego. We need our egos in order to grow, in order to fulfill the Biblical charge to master the world, in order to effect tikkun olam. But, just as we suspend our physical creativity (i.e., the tangible expression of our ego) on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we must also subordinate our egos (on the deepest level) during those activities in which we seek to join our will to God’s.
A judge, for example, acting as an emissary of God in the search for truth and justice, must put aside his personal feelings – personal and philosophical – in order to adjudicate fairly. He cannot disregard the facts and side with a poor petitioner over a wealthy one because he feels the wealthy one can better “afford” to lose; he must decide according to the law. Similarly, a prophet can only prophesy when he transcends himself and becomes a conduit for God’s words. As we read in Kings II (3:11-15), when Elisha becomes angry – that is, when his ego is engaged – he cannot prophesy.
One need not be in a position as exalted as judge or prophet, however, in order to become a vessel through which God enters the world. Samuel II (6:14) relates how King David dances with utter abandon as he welcomes the Holy Ark back to Jerusalem. Temporarily casting off his ego identities – of king, conqueror and poet – and, perhaps, even his modesty, he is open to God, and God’s approval is clear: David’s wife, who reprimands him for his lack of “dignity,” is severely punished.
Each of us also has the ability to “channel” God. When we forget ourselves in prayer, we let God enter. When we give tzedaka – not as an expression of our power, but as an agent of God in the distribution of His bounty – we are God’s conduit into the world. And when we learn Torah as a way of unifying our minds with His, we are increasing God’s presence on earth.
This Shavuot, and every day, each of us has the ability to receive the Torah – our Torah – and become a vehicle for holiness.