As the holiday of Shavuot approaches, it is a good time to ask, “Just what is the Torah?” Since an explanation of the Torah, in all of its profundity and depth, is impossible in the format of a blog, we will concentrate on the national and personal aspects of the Torah in a concise and clear fashion, so that every reader can measure himself in line with the Torah’s guidelines.
Torah is a lot more than enjoying cheescake on Shavuot!
First, it is important to understand that the Torah is first and foremost the national constitution of the Jewish People. As we say in the blessing over the Torah, “Blessed art Thou, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has chosen us from all peoples, and given us Thy Torah.” The Torah was given to us, to the nation, and just not to scattered individuals. Over the 2000 years of exile from our Land, people adopted an incorrect understanding of Torah, seeing it as a list of personal commandments like putting on tefillin, eating kosher, and keeping Shabbat. This is because in the galut, without our own Land, we lacked our national essence, existing as scattered individuals and communities around the world, without a country of our own. But the Torah is far more than a list of individual mitzvot. The Torah is our national constitution and guide - how to live as a holy nation in G-d’s Holy Land.
The Torah was given at Mount Sinai, but it was not meant to be practiced there. The Torah is meant to be practiced in Israel. Over half of the commandments in the Torah apply specifically to the Land of Israel, including the laws of the Temple, the laws of kingship, the laws of war, the laws of the Land, the laws of the Sanhedrin. In fact, all of the mitzvot were given to be practiced in Eretz Yisrael. Rashi explains that we also perform the individual precepts like tefillin and kashrut in the Diaspora, so that we don’t forget how to do them during our absence from the Land. For the principle practice of the mitzvot is in Eretz Yisrael. This is the reason why G-d commands the Jews, after giving them the Torah, to leave Mount Sinai and take up their journey to Eretz Yisrael. G-d wants everyone to know that the Torah is to be lived in Israel, and not in Sinai, Brooklyn, Melbourne, or Tokyo.
Tragic proof of this is the incident of the Spies who returned from their scouting mission with a negative report of Eretz Yisrael because they wanted to continue to live in the wilderness of Sinai. Their rebellion against G-d brought about the death of the entire generation in the desert. In contrast to the sin of the Golden Calf where only 3000 men were slain in punishment, the entire adult male populace which left Egypt, over 600,000 men (excluding Yehoshua and Calev), perished in G-d’s wrath over their perversion of the Torah in not wanting to make aliyah to Israel.
G-d wants the Jewish People to live in Israel – period. He gave us the Torah to enable us to achieve the holy lifestyle necessary to live in our unique Holy Land. The Land of Israel is a Divine Land. It is like no other place in the world. It is a spiritual essence attached to the spiritual essence of the Israeli Nation, and to the spiritual essence of the Torah, in an inseparable three-way spiritual bond, all bound together in our life source in G-d. The Jewish People and the Torah can only be complete in Eretz Yisrael. The service of G-d can only be complete in Eretz Yisrael. “For the Torah will go forth from Zion, and the word of Hashem from Yerushalayim.”
This is G-d’s will for the Jewish People and for the world. In order to be a light to the nations, the Jewish People must build its sovereign, independent Torah nation in Eretz Yisrael.
Once the national aspect of Torah is understood and internalized, in the context of our national Torah which encompasses all of the nation, each and every Jew has his, or her, individual obligations as part of the nation. The Torah is the soul and identity of every Jew. To be true to his essence, a Jew must live his life according to the guidelines of the Torah. If he doesn’t, he is not being true to himself.
In order to explain this let’s take the example of a motor vehicle test. Every year in Israel, a car owner must bring his vehicle to an inspection center where his car is hooked up to a battery of machines which measure the performance of his motor, his headlights, his wheel alignment, his steering, and his brakes. At the end of the inspection, he receives a print out of everything he needs to fix.
Similar, when we make a self-accounting, measuring our lives according to the guidelines of the Torah, we get a print-out of our alignment to the Torah’s commandments and a list of the things we need to correct. For instance, are we actively connected to the ideals of the Nation and its goal of national Redemption? Are we living in Eretz Yisrael? Do we live our sexual lives according to the holy laws of the Torah? Do we guard our speech as the Torah demands? Do we guard our eyes? Do we endeavor to help our fellow in whatever way we can?
The holiday of Shavuot affords us the opportunity of encountering the Torah anew. It is our annual spiritual visit to the inspection center, where we are inspired to take a look at ourselves to make sure that our beings are aligned to the Torah’s directives. This is the meaning of receiving the Torah – accepting the Torah, in all of its wholeness and truth, and making it the primary aspiration and guiding light of our lives.