The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) tells a version of how the Israelites accepted Torah at Sinai. Based on the description of our people standing under Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:17), we learn that in fact, G-d held the mountain up over the Israelites and asked whether we accepted Torah, with a clear implication that if we did not, G-d would drop that mountain on top of us and we would be no more. (The Talmudic rabbis also made clear that at other times, we accepted the Torah without such duress, in case we would think the whole covenant were not binding.)
This month, we celebrate Shavuot (beginning the evening of May 19), commemorating our receiving Torah at Sinai. To some, it is a holiday for feasting on dairy foods and studying all night long. To others, it is the culmination of the last seven weeks of counting the Omer and a longing to present first fruits for sacrifice to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. For all of us, it can be a time to recommit to Jewish life.
So many have pointed out that in our modern world, all of us are Jews by choice; there are so many options available to us in our world and our society, that Judaism sometimes feels like just one of many alternatives.
This Shavuot, we do not have a mountain over our heads, at least not in the physical sense, so we can think about the meaning and beauty that Judaism adds to our lives. Judaism gives us a set of ethics and values that help guide us to be the best we can be as individuals and in relationship with others, it reminds us to take care of the world around us, it connects us with the divine. Judaism gives us a sense of personal, family and communal history. It gives us culture (and, of course, some pretty fantastic foods).
On Shavuot, we read the book of Ruth, perhaps most famous for Ruth’s words affirming and choosing Judaism: “Ruth replied, ‘Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you’” (Ruth 1:15-16).
On Shavuot, we mark one woman’s commitment to Judaism as we reaffirm our own. We consider how excited Ruth was to join her mother-in-law Naomi, to dedicate herself to Judaism, to learn about it and become part of it — even though as her daughter-in-law, she had already committed once before. On Shavuot, we can join with Ruth. We can remember the aspects of Judaism that excited us in the past, the holidays we love, the questions we still have. This Shavuot, we can stand at Sinai once again, and even without a mountain hovering above us, we can affirm, “na’aseh v’nishmah,” we will live Judaism, and we will seek to understand, to explore, to connect to Judaism all over again.
Rabbi Jessica Barolsky is school rabbi and a Hebrew teacher at Milwaukee Jewish Day School.