The Living Torah

Most Jews (and even many non-Jews) know about Pesach, the Festival of Freedom. In fact, more Jews participate in a Pesach seder each year than in any other Jewish observance. It is ironic, then, to note that Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, which is the climax and completion of Pesach, is largely unknown and ignored. Pesach arouses the hopes and yearnings of the Jewish people; Shavuot fulfills them.

The singular significance of the Torah is often obscured by inaccurate analogies. To view the Torah as a book of laws of a set religious system is a distortion of the Jewish worldview and a misunderstanding of the essence of Torah. Defining the Torah as “Law” puts it in the same category as the “Law” of Gravity and the like, denying the most fundamental feature of the Torah: It is unique and self-defined. The term Torah may be used for one thing only: Torah.

Religion is an ideological and practical framework designed to regulate a certain part of life: that which pertains to God’s worship. Judaism, as expressed in the Torah, cannot and must not be restricted in this way. The Torah views life as a unified system that embraces the entire lifestyle of Jews and of the Jewish people, down to its smallest details, within a distinctive format. The Torah, therefore, contains not only laws that govern religious ritual (bein adam la’Makom – commandments between the individual and God) and social life (bein adam la’chavero – commandments between individuals), but also history and poetry, guidance and prophecy, assertions and wonderments.

In this sense, the Torah, like life itself, is not made up of separate compartments, each with its own features. Human life is always a mixture of everything, of the entire world and all its parts. Of course, we do create artificial partitions within our own being; we do define categories and set boundaries. But in reality, every part of the human being is nourished to some degree by all the other parts of the human being.

These components are not separate parts that are somehow joined together; they are one indivisible entity. One can see this clearly in Leviticus 19?20, which many commentators see as a repetition of the Ten Commandments. The text here moves effortlessly from the commandment to respect one’s parents to the laws of sacrifices, from commandments regarding gifts to the poor to the command to love your neighbor as yourself, from the prohibition of vengeance to the ban on wearing sha’atnez (a mixture of wool and linen).

This is precisely the reason why the Torah is, uniquely, the Torah: From the linguistic root that means “to teach”, “to point to”, or “to show the way,” it lays out and paves a way of life for a people. The totality of life is found within the Torah and is directed by it. Judaism, then, is the fusion of the Torah and the people who live it. To limit the Torah to the framework of religion – whether it is done by those who believe in it or by those who deny it – is to destroy it. To confine its purview is to eviscerate it. What the Torah does demand is that a Jew be a Jew, building the entirety of his or her life according to a special approach whereby everything is Torah.

The Torah is given to the Jewish people so that they may channel their freedom into perfecting all aspects of themselves and their lives. The Rebbe of Kotzk pointed out that Shavuot is the Festival of the Giving of Torah. Its complement – receiving the Torah – is of equal importance, both personally and nationally. The process of receiving has no fixed time or place. It occurs continually, when the Torah truly becomes a Torah of living.