William Makepeace Thackeray
This is what we read from the Torah on Shavuot morning:
In the third month after the departing of the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. And when they were departed from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinal they encamped in the wilderness, and there Israel encamped before the mountain.
And Moshe ascended to G-d, and HASHEM called to him from the mountain, saying, “So shall you should say to Beit (the House of) Yaakov and tell to the Sons of Israel” (Shemot 19:3).
After the children of Israel successfully escaped from slavery in Egypt, they traveled through the desert, eventually arriving at the mountain of Sinai. There they camped next to the mountain from which they were to receive the Torah. It says ‘this day (יום הזה) they came to Sinai’. Grammatically, it should say ‘that day’ (יום ההוא). This day is in the present, and that day is in the past, and the story takes place more than 3000 years ago.
Rashi explains that it says this day, “so that the words of the Torah should be new to you as though today He gave them.” In other words, every day, when we learn Torah, we should come to it with the excitement, and the curiosity, and love that we feel when we receive something new. Every time you open a chumash you should feel like it’s your first time.
That’s a difficult order. We are commanded to learn Torah every day. How do we keep the love of Torah fresh?
Rashi answers that too.
But first, let’s read this bit again: “So shall you should say to Beit (the House of) Yaakov and tell to the Sons of Israel”
Why does it say both Beit Yaakov and Bnei Yisrael? Essentially, they are the same thing. Rashi explains that Bait Yaakov are the women, and the sons of Yisrael are, well, the sons, i.e., the men.
Moshe is instructed to say (תאמר) to the women, and tell to the men (תגיד).
Both Rashi and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch ask the question: why are the women mentioned first? Why does G-d tell Moshe to say to the women but to tell to the men. Why are two different words used, and what is the difference between them?
Rashi and Rav Hirsch both answer in the same way. G-d was about to give mankind His Laws. Through these laws, through the Torah, man would be redeemed. Peace would reign over the world. But G-d knows the Laws are not necessarily easy to keep. They are revolutionary. They are difficult. They require a certain amount of sacrifice of the self. And so, to get Bnei Yisrael – the men – to keep these laws, G-d had to go through the women.
To say לאמר: Rashi says this means to speak with soft words. The way to learn Torah is softly, with love. While women are not required to actually teach (the Biblical meaning of to tell [להגיד]) the Law, they are expected to set the atmosphere of the Law. Women have been entrusted to ‘set the atmosphere’ for Torah life. A child’s first encounter with Jewish life is through his/her mother, in the home. The home should exude an atmosphere of love and peace. The child should be taught to love G-d and to love his/her people with all his/her heart and all his soul; to cherish the Jewish way of life, so that later, the Laws are learned and practiced with love and awe.
The home is considered to be the equivalent of the Aron Kodesh, the home of the Torah itself, a holy place. Whether the mother or grandmother, sister or daughter, it is the woman’s mission - her calling if you will - to ensure that love and peace flourish, that acts of kindness – chesed – abound, to make sure that the Torah is not just a book, but a life force, and that Torah life is exciting and fresh.
This mission; these responsibilities of living Torah are infinitely harder than simply learning or teaching Torah.
Bearing in mind this responsibility given to women, it is no wonder that the two books in the Tanach that are named after women – Esther and Ruth – deal with chesed, and with examples of baseless love (ahavat chinam). This is one of Ruth’s connections to Shavuot. If Shavuot is Chag Matan Torah, what better way to illustrate what the Torah is really about than to read a book dealing almost entirely with chesed, because that is the essence of the Torah.
Shalom – peace – one of the names of G-d – will only come to our people if it is first found in the home. And we can have peace in the home when a Torah life is allowed to flourish, if acts of chesed abound, if love of G-d and people and the Land is nurtured.