To my mind, this question is essential not only in studying Shavuot or this particular sugya from Shabbat 88, but as Jewish educators—period. We, as professional and individual Jews, must ask ourselves this very question regularly: what is my relationship to the Torah—the text, the mitzvot, the theologies—personally and as a member of the collective? Harkening back to Shavuot, am I being given the Torah? By whom? How and when? And to what extent am I receiving the Torah? Am I a giver or a taker of Torah?
Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that social relations often are “initiated in an act or in an event at a definite moment of time” (“The Moment at Sinai”,Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 15). Heschel uses the example of a wedding as a key moment in time, with a beginning and an end, and yet this moment becomes “immortal” as if it were “still present…happening now” for the couple throughout their married life. Heschel describes similarly “the decisive event in the spiritual history of our people” as “the act that occurred at Sinai.” He writes that first this event opened up “a new relationship of God to man, in engaging Him intimately to the people of Israel; and second in Israel’s accepting that relationship, that engagement to God. It was an event in which both God and Israel were partners.”
When I read this passage, I imagine the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai to be standing at attention under a chuppah with God. They exchange their vows. And on Shavuot, as torchbearers of this covenant, we are charged to renew our vows, as individuals and as communities.
Now, returning to Rav Avdimi, I think it is imperative for us to distinguish which aspects of Torah we feel obligated, maybe even forced or demanded, to accept, and which we choose to embrace. One of my student asked in class: what’s the difference between being “forced” to accept (and observe) the Torah and growing up with it and not knowing anything else? Great question and in my view, case in point! Even though the sugya rejects Rav Avdimi’s notion of the Torah being forced upon the Israelites, my students reminded me that for many of us there is some part of our Torah that we’ve inherited consciously or unconsciously, without consent. And yet, as Jews living in the twenty-first century, we are constantly making choices about our Judaism and redefining our relationship to Torah.
Shavuot challenges us to sift through the Torah we’ve been given by our parents, our teachers, our communities and through our texts, and decide what aspects of that previously given Torah we are willing to receive and maintain, if at all, and what are the parameters of the personal Torah that we choose for ourselves.