Shiurim & Adult Education

This Week's D'var Torah

by Malcolm Greenbaum

Another in the series of Divrei Torah written by our members

We all know that Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. Interestingly, nowhere is this mentioned in the Torah, which presents Shavuot in an agricultural context only.

Many commentaries suggest that the reason the Torah does not mention the date it was received is that every day we must receive the Torah anew. I am not sure that this is a direct reason why the Torah does not explicitly mention that it was first given on Shavuot, so I have searched for another explanation and one such explanation is that the Torah we now have is not the one that Hashem first pronounced.

The sin of the golden calf annulled the covenant between G-d and B’nai Yisrael, with Hashem initially wanting to destroy us (“Now, do not try to stop Me when I unleash My wrath against them, to destroy them” – Shemot 32:10).

Only through the determined efforts of Moshe Rabbeinu, ignoring G-d’s request not to stop Him, did G-d agree to renew the covenant with us. This new covenant was established on Yom Kippur, and the Torah was received anew. With the Jewish people forgiven and the covenant restored, Yom Kippur became the happiest day of the year (Ta’anit 26b).

The parsha opens with a seemingly unrelated mitzvah. Those over the age of twenty were to give a half shekel—no more and no less—for the upkeep of the Temple. This half shekel is described as “giving an atonement”, and a mere five verses later, we are told, “it will thus be a remembrance for the Israelites before G-d to atone for your lives” (Shemot 30:16).

There seem to be different interpretations as to why a half shekel was the chosen amount. One interesting interpretation is that a half shekel represents one half of one of the tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them that Moshe Rabbeinu smashed when he saw the sin of the Golden Calf – and that bringing two half shekels together from different people repairs these stones.

Chazal teach that Yom Kippur has the power to atone, at least partially, for those who see themselves as part of the community—even if the person continues to sin. Such is the power of Yom Kippur that the mere act of identifying as a Jew helps to renew our relationship with G-d. However, those who cut themselves off from the Jewish people cannot receive atonement on Yom Kippur.

Jewish identity means supporting our communal infrastructure, of which the Temple was at the centre. It served as a gathering place of the Jewish people, a place to come together as a people to worship G-d. Everybody had to participate, and participate equally; money does not impress G-d. The half shekel perhaps also indicates that no Jew acting alone can be truly effective. Only when all Jews work together can we build a community.

The importance of ensuring that all Jews participate in Jewish life is a key lesson learned from the sin of the golden calf. Out of 603,550 Jewish men, only 3,000 participated in worshipping the golden calf (Shemot 32:28). 99.5% of the Jewish people remained faithful to the G-d of Israel, yet G-d was planning to destroy the entire nation.

Many observant people seem quite happy with the remarkable strides that have been made in religious observance over the past couple of generations. Many even gloat at the renewed strength of traditional observance in the face of predictions of its demise. Yet the Torah tells us that even an assimilation rate of 0.5% (5 in 1,000) is intolerable.

If the actions of the observant community cannot induce others to see the beauty of Judaism, then we are not properly worshipping G-d. We must do our utmost to ensure the participation of every Jew in the building of the community.

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