The Gift of the Law

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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Traditionalists may be forgiven for finding a dark irony this year in the celebration of Shavuot, which begins next Tuesday, May 25. The festival traditionally marks the giving of the Law to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after their departure from Egypt. True, the Passover holiday, coming just weeks before, enjoys a popular romance because of its easily accessible message of human freedom. But it’s Shavuot, the traditionalists say, that carries the deeper message. It was on Shavuot that the Jews received their true gift, the sublime moral code that forms the most profound Jewish legacy to humankind.

How discordant that theme of sublime moral revelation seems today. If we’ve given humanity a gift, it’s hard to discern the gratitude. Jews and the Jewish state are increasingly seen as pariahs these days, not benefactors. Jewish children in Paris, that other crucible of liberty and equality, are advised not to wear their skullcaps on the street. Even in America, we’ve gotten used to seeing Jewish communal buildings guarded like military installations. As for Israel, it finds itself at the center of an ever-mounting international storm, condemned as a criminal state for actions that scarcely attract a yawn elsewhere. Thousands are massacred daily in Congo, Sudan and Chechnya, yet no urgent meetings of the Security Council are convened to consider those threats to world peace. Israel moves against terrorist cells, destroying a few dozen homes and, yes, unintentionally killing a group of civilians, and the world erupts in a frenzy of moral outrage. No, it wasn’t right. But where is the proportionality? Why, some of us wonder, should we even bother pretending there’s any morality other than the law of the jungle?

Shavuot is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that the gift of the Law was not meant to comfort or flatter us, but to bind us. You shall be holy, the Law tells us, not because it will make you popular, but because it is right and proper. We must not follow the multitude to do evil, the Law tells us, but follow the right even when everyone else is wrong.

What is that law? Part of it has to do with what we eat and when we pray, but a great deal of it has to do with forgotten details like paying workers on time, holding government to rule of law — a king, too, must “keep all the words of this law,” Deuteronomy says — and treating prisoners of war with dignity.

We must love our neighbor as ourselves, the Law tells us, whether or not our neighbor loves us back. Most of all, we must choose life.

It was a gift to the world. It was a promise to ourselves.

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