In Chapter 34 of the Book of Exodus, it is written, "You shall make the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) with the first offering of the wheat harvest." According to the holiday prayers, it's "This Feast of Weeks, our Festival of the Giving of our Torah." Yet in the Torah itself there is no explicit mention of a Festival of the Giving of the Torah.
A few days ago, in his farewell speech, Tony Blair said his nation is the best among nations, a special people, and that the whole world knows and recognizes this. I almost said to myself - What could Blair be thinking, to try to steal this distinction from us? But on further thought, I was quite relieved: We Jews are not the only ones who suffer from the "chosen people complex." Other nations suffer from it too. In fact, there is no nation in the world that doesn't attribute superior qualities to itself, and inferior ones to other nations.
At the time, the choice of the Jewish People wasn't an obvious one; it wasn't even a first choice. God essentially put out a tender and only after other nations failed to leap at the chance and decided not to take part did the Two Tablets of the Covenant end up ours. Legend has it that before giving the Torah to the Israelites, God tried his luck with other nations. When he came to the children of Esau, they asked him: "What is written in the Torah?" And he told them: "Thou shalt not kill." And they said: "But our father Isaac blessed us, saying 'You shall live by the sword,' so how can we accept a prohibition against killing?"
Rejected and disappointed, God tried his luck with the Ammonites and the Moabites, and they, too, asked: "What is written in the Torah?" And to them he replied: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." And they said: "But we were born out of adultery" (from when Lot slept with his daughters).
God stubbornly refused to give up. What value did the goods have if there was no demand? So he went to the Ishamelites, who also wanted to know something about the content, and were told: "Thou shalt not steal." And they said: "But our lives are all about theft and stealing."
And so God wandered among the nations, and only at the end of the line offered the Torah to us. And the Israelites, as usual, didn't ask questions. If someone's giving, then you take. Without any inquiries or demands, they accepted immediately and cried, "We shall do and we shall hear," as it is written in Exodus, Chapter 24: "All that God has spoken we shall do and we shall hear." They always excelled at far-reaching commitments that they could have trouble fulfilling. A rash people.
Over the generations, this na'aseh venishma, "We shall do and we shall hear," became the supreme expression of total faith, of accepting God's will, accepting the burden of Torah and mitzvot. But it is also an expression of a way of life and education, of blind faith in ourselves: First we do and only afterward we listen, and "everything will be fine." Were we not punished for the accursed haste which is not Godly but just the opposite? Hasn't our hasty "We shall do" been causing us problems from time immemorial? Have we not embarked on needless adventures and lost lives in vain only because warnings and alternative proposals were not heard in time? There is no greater rule in life: Always listen and look very carefully before proceeding.
At the center of the holiday Torah reading is the Ten Commandments. Even those who don't pray regularly are advised to read them over again, all 10, all the way to "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house." Think of them as a form that's easy to fill out. Test yourself on each and give yourself a grade. Out of 10, see how many you can check off and then consider the result. If you scored just five out of 10, that's not so bad, it might even be excellent, or just passing or insufficient.
In the real test, it's worth considering whether next time we'll be less avid and more thoughtful; first we'll listen well, and only afterward decide whether to accept or reject. When we don't leap right away, and are less select and elite in our own eyes, we'll be much better in reality. A chosen people must be chosen each day anew, and only its actions at the foot of the mountain are what may earn it this distinction.
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