By the third month after leaving Egypt, בני ישראל had reached their first destination, the base of Mount Sinai. The purpose for the exodus from Egypt, to make them a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” was just days away. How would this transformation occur? How would it brought about? What was going to happen?
The drama of the experience is captured for all eternity in the םפר שמות, the Book of Exodus. Prior to knowing what was going to transpire or what would be asked of them, בני ישראל gave Moses their assurance and commitment saying unanimously, “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will listen.” This is probably the only time in Jewish history that all the people agreed.
Twice daily we are commanded to recite the שמע, Shema. This mitzvah is the one that our Sages tell us expresses the concept of accepting the עול מלכות שמים, “the yoke of the Kingship of Heaven.” Webster’s Dictionary says a “yoke” is an arched device formerly laid on the neck of a defeated person. Such a person is now under the control of the victor and must be submissive to the victor’s demands.
Thinking about all of the mitzvoth in the Torah, the Shema doesn’t come to mind when considering “a burdensome” mitzvah to do. True it must be said within a certain time frame, the first three hours after sunrise and again any time at night. Surely there are more onerous commands than the recital of the Shema. Those that restrict the foods we eat, those that limit our opportunities to engage in business or farming, the prohibition against all work one day a week, an imposed tax on my crops and wealth, come to mind long before the mitzvah of saying the Shema.
Even more startling, the Talmud says the practice of idol worship, whatever form it takes, is considered בליעול, “without burden.” How could human sacrifice practiced by the Incas, for example, be considered “non-burdensome” while saying the Shema is considered “burdensome?”
Let me suggest an answer I heard from my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yisroel Chait.
In idol worship, each person or society sets up a system to deal with or ward off the fears all people face in life. Fears may stem from external phenomena like earthquakes or hurricanes. They may also arise internally such as the fear of illness or death. To combat these fears people create their own systems for coping. Since these systems arise from the imagination of the human psyche, they are self-satisfying. The most ridiculous performances are easily rationalized and justified. Even the murder of innocent young men, women and children becomes sanctified by calling it a “sacrificial” ceremony. A system revolving around the projections of our inner feelings onto reality is truly “without burden.” The individual is doing exactly what s/he wants.
In contradistinction to idol worship, the system of Torah given to nation of Israel on Shavuot is not the creation of human imagination. It is not designed to escape the complexities and difficulties of natural human life. But by adhering to its precepts a person will first harness the unruly parts of his nature and second learn to redirect the vast reservoir of human energy to understanding how reality works. Then he will have the best existence possible. Secure in the knowledge of reality, man can face any challenge. In fact once a higher philosophic level is attained, the common strivings of man become silly and superficial. But there is one catch, accepting that there is an עול מלבות שמים, a reality outside of our imagination.
The acceptance of an objective reality, how to live life, was to our ancestors at Har Sinai the same starting point from which every scientist embarks on his quest to understand the physical world. He accepts that there are objective rules governing the phenomena to which he adheres. Then he goes about trying to understand them. When בני ישראל responded to Moshe, נעשה ונשמע, “we will do and then we will listen,” they were in essence saying we accept that we must submit our actions to the will of God. At the same time we will study and learn how they make sense and afford any person the best possible human existence.
Neither system created by God has anything to do with whether we like it or not. It is, for example, more and more burdensome for humans to travel. The flight of a bird seems so easy and enjoyable. Sure, eating whatever you want has its advantages and having to wait between foods is annoying. But we must. Why? What? When? Where? How? Who? All are good questions. Go and learn.
Shavuot marks the seminal event, the grounding of all that we do as Jews. It encapsulates our approach to life. Just as our ancestors affirmed at Har Sinai their acceptance of the עול מלכות שמים saying נעשה ונשמע, “we will do and then go learn,” so too let us reaffirm this Shavuot our commitment to “the yoke of kingship of heaven” embracing the King’s commands through doing and learning.
Wishing the entire David Posnack Jewish Day School family a שבת שלום and a חג שמח,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan