The Meaning Of Shavuot

The Meaning Of Shavuot

Recently, I opened one of the many Torah commentaries that line my shelves, and found these words, “My Haftorah can be find [sic] on pg. 509 in the larger Hertz Chumash.” Forty-five years ago, I read those words before chanting the prophet Amos on the Shabbat when I became a bar mitzvah.  As I looked over the pages, I could even decipher transliterations over a few select Hebrew words.   

I had opened this Bible in search of an alternative translation of a curious Hebrew phrase.  In our weekly class, we were transfixed by an unusual verse and grappling with the meaning of some of the Torah’s words.  More often than not, I rely on other commentaries, but on this occasion, I searched for another interpretation.  Mysteriously, the Bible opened to my Haftorah.  And when I saw my handwriting and the introductory words scrawled above the Haftorah Amos, I stumbled upon my thirteen-year-old self.

I wondered.  “Why did the rabbi instruct me to scribble those words in the Chumash?”  I tried to jog my memory, “Did anyone else turn to pg. 509?  Had the rabbi taught me the meaning of the words I chanted?”  I do not recall.  I do remember the praise of family members and friends.  A flood of memories filled my heart.  My grandparents acted as if my bar mitzvah was the greatest in thousands of years.

I laughed as I remembered, “I believed that would be the last time I ever stood on the bima in front of a crowd!  Who would have thought that was the first of what would become thousands of times?”  I still recall how my voice cracked as Amos’ words rang from my mouth, “Halo–behold!”  Over and over again, Amos screamed “Halo!”  His beseeching was lost upon me.  His prophecy seemed timid as I repeated it in the tradition’s melancholy chant.

The meaning would wait to be found.   

Every year we give our sixth graders their very own Bibles.  My hope is that they use these Bibles throughout their lives, that they search through the Torah’s verses to find inspiration, that they uncover in its pages lots and lots of questions and maybe even a few answers.  I don’t imagine that they pore over its words too often, but I pray and would like to believe, that they might use this book to help prepare for their b’nai mitzvah or that they might study its chapters in a college class or even consult its pages in their later years.  For most, it will probably sit on their shelves, as mine admittedly did–until this past week.  

The strange, and wonderful, and beautiful, thing about the Torah is that it always stands ready.  Its weight is transmitted when you least expect it.  Its meaning is discovered when you did not even know you might require it.  That is its import.  That is its power.  

On Saturday evening, the holiday of Shavuot begins.  We will then celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Its central observance is a late-night study session, called a tikkun l’eil.  Even though it is about spending the evening in study anticipating Torah’s revelation, its name suggests something even more powerful.  It is a tikkun, a repair.

Torah repairs.  That is its meaning.  That is also its mystery.  

It is not always so clear the repair it offers.  It is not always so obvious the revelation this book affords.  Sometimes its words are unintelligible and require translation and even at times, transliteration, but its meaning is always there, perched on our shelves.  In order to discover its teachings, we have to lift it up off its resting place, dust off its pages, and read it anew.

We received the Torah in of all places, the wilderness, on a rather nondescript, ordinary mountain.  And that of course is one of its messages.  If we found revelation in a place that does not match the beauty of the Grand Canyon or the majesty of Victoria Falls, then we can find meaning in a dusty, old book sitting on any ordinary bookshelf.  

Halo–behold!  

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai offers, “And the memory of the dam is a blessing.”

The Torah waits to be reopened.  It sits perched, beckoning to be unlocked.  

And we wait to be repaired.


Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, a vibrant synagogue on Long Island’s North Shore. His writing appears in a variety of publications including Reform Judaism and The Times of Israel. He also blogs at rabbimoskowitz.com

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