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How Sinai singlehandedly changed us



It was the sixth of Sivan in the year 2448. Seven weeks earlier, a nation of survivors walked out of the clutches of their oppressors. After more than 200 years of back-breaking slavery, torture, abuse, and horrors, the Jewish people were finally free. This was a nation that had been born into the depravity of Egyptian hedonism and idolatry. The Jews were at the lowest level of spirituality.

Seven weeks later, they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, witnessing the greatest revelation of G-d the world has ever seen.

In a dazzling display of thunder, lightning, and sound, G-d laid out his mandate for the Jewish people. I’m your G-d; believe in me; honour your parents; keep Shabbat; don’t murder or steal; don’t be a false witness; and more.

It was a transformative moment for the Jewish nation and the entire world. But what really happened? Didn’t the Jews know about the mitzvot beforehand? We’re taught that Avraham was the first Jew to discover monotheism and the truth of G-d singlehandedly. Did Avraham and Sarah not keep the 10 commandments and all of the mitzvot of the Torah? What about Yitzchak and Rivka? Yaakov, Leah, and Rachel? The 12 tribes? We know that they studied the Torah and observed its mitzvot.

If the Torah and its mitzvot were part of the life of a Jew since Avraham, what was so extraordinary about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai that we celebrate it annually with the festival of Shavuot? How could you give something to someone if they already had it?

Two things changed at the giving of the Torah. Before Mount Sinai, those who observed Torah did so entirely of their own accord. They initiated the relationship based on their own logic, conclusions, and feelings. As such, their connection to G-d was entirely dependent on their understanding and emotions. However, at the giving of the Torah, G-d connected His essence to the Torah, and gave it to us. G-d reach out to us, from the depths of his core, commanding us to follow His will. Since then, every time we learn Torah or perform a mitzvah, we connect to G-d’s essence, regardless of how much we understand or feel.

Secondly, the effect the Torah had on the world was permanently changed. Before matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), Torah and mitzvot were spiritual matters and didn’t have an impact on this physical world. They didn’t leave a lasting imprint on the material objects used to serve Hashem. At the giving of the Torah, however, G-d shattered the barrier between the physical and spiritual, between the theory and the practical, the sublime and the mundane. This fundamentally changed the way the world and its physicality would function forevermore. Torah and mitzvos would now affect, uplift, transform, and elevate this world.

Judaism isn’t a religion of ideas; it’s a religion of action. G-d didn’t give us the Torah to use as a vehicle to separate ourselves from the chaos of this physical world. He gave us the Torah as the ultimate tool to transform this world into a home for Him, a world where peace and goodness reign. And every year on Shavuot, we receive this mandate anew. We celebrate being tasked with transforming the world around us, not through debate and meditation, but through our actions.

G-d deliberately created an imperfect world. We live in a chaotic world and turbulent times. Our nation has experienced the worst horrors since the Holocaust, which continues until every hostage is returned safely home. On university campuses and across social media, we witness a terrifying rise in antisemitism. Closer to home, our country faces government corruption, failing infrastructure, service delivery failures, crime, and more. It’s easy to be a passive bystander and shake our heads at the enormity of the problems we face as a Jewish nation or as a South African Jew.

But rather than being victims of our circumstances and focusing helplessly on the difficulties and challenges, let’s remember that Hashem has given us the tools to be partners with Him in solving the problems we face. We have the power to make a difference, to make the world a better place, to bring order to the chaos, to make sense of the nonsense, and to turn a jungle into a home.

I’m grateful for the incredible, truly one-of-a-kind community that we have here in South Africa, its leadership, its infrastructure, its institutions, and mostly, its people. Those of us who have chosen to remain in this blessed country and beautiful land, among mostly wonderful people, have done so with an attitude that we can affect change, make our mark, and shape our future. This is done with humility, with constant reverence to Hashem, who ultimately runs this world and every aspect of it, and has given us His Torah as a compass and guide for life and for our mission and purpose. But with a recognition that Hashem has tasked us with the opportunity – and indeed the responsibility – to do that which is in our power to improve the world around us for today and forever.

Shavuot reminds us of the transformative power each of us has. We need to ask ourselves what we can do to make a positive impact on our surroundings. How can I help my local and global Jewish community? How can I make South Africa a home for G-d?

And because G-d wanted to make sure you know that you’re up to the task given to you at Sinai, he gave the Torah to survivors – people who had experienced the worst in humanity and left Egypt in the lowest levels of spirituality. G-d gave the Torah to imperfect, flawed human beings like you and me.

Don’t tell yourself that you’re not observant enough to make a difference or that your acts are too insignificant to create the change this world desperately needs. Every word of Torah you study, every prayer you whisper, every mitzvah you perform, and every act of kindness towards another creates a cosmic shift in our reality.

Let’s each do our part to fulfil G-d’s vision for this world, which he endowed us with at Sinai. Let’s build a beautiful home for Him, for us, for our children, and for the future of the mighty Am Yisrael!

  • Rabbi Motti Hadar is the rabbi at Pine Street Shul.

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