Prior to the section about the giving of the Torah, the Chumash states that the Yidden came to the Sinai desert. This must therefore be necessary information. There must be something very special about a desert. The answer is that a desert has a unique feature over other geographical areas in that it doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s generally considered hefker. It’s so vast and it’s so empty. If you want to pick a flower, people won’t tell you that it belongs to them. Why was the Torah given in a desert and not in a specific country? To teach us that the Torah belongs to everybody. There’s no person or no group that can say, “It belongs to us. We are the scholars and sages, we are the priestly family, we are the royal family.” It’s not important. The Torah belongs equally to every single Jew. And that is why the Torah was given in the desert, to illustrate that point. It is free for all. Anybody who wants, can have it.
The Torah is described as an inheritance, “an inheritance for the congregation of Yaakov.” Why is the Torah called an inheritance? This highlights another aspect of Torah. When a man passes away, the offspring automatically receive an inheritance, even if the child is only one day old. Whatever belongs to the father will automatically go to the children, even if the children are not virtuous, or not very bright, or undeserving of it. When a parent passes away, the personality of the child does not count — he inherits his parent.
The same thing is true of Torah. The Torah belongs automatically to every single Jew, no matter who he is, whatever his personality, whatever his intelligence, whatever level he has achieved or failed to achieve, whatever his background and lineage. That is all irrelevant. What is all-important is that he’s a Yid. And if he’s a Yid , the Torah is his entirely.
The Rebbe explains that there’s a difference between a family that has several children and a family that has only one child. In a family that has only one child, that child receives everything that his father owns, whereas if there’s a family of several children, you have this terrible problem of having to divide it among all the children. But according to the Torah the relationship between HaShem and the Yidden , between Him and each and every Yid , is like that of a father to an only son. Accordingly, every Jew gets everything, not only a single verse.
The First Letter
The Torah begins with the letter beis — the first letter of Bereishis. The Rebbe explains that the letter beis is written in such a way that it is closed on three sides and open only on one side. What does that mean? That what is above is closed. A Jew does not know what is happening in the spiritual realms. That’s sealed to him. What happens below, in Gehinnom , we also have no way of knowing. It’s not within our domain. What happened before, prior to our times, we also cannot know clearly. We do not know what happened in generations before us. We do not know what happened before the world was created. There are certain things that we must humbly admit are beyond our reach.
The only thing we have knowledge about is the present, our little world that includes us here and now. That’s really a very small fragment of the world. And yet that’s what HaShem is telling us in the Torah — that through the Torah we can have knowledge about the here and now, and what we do here and now affects the future. That is why one side of the beis is open, because the future is open-ended, it all depends upon us.
The letter beis has another feature. It’s the first letter of the word berachah , blessing, and this is why, of all the letters, it was the one selected to begin the Torah, as pointed out in the Zohar. When a person learns Torah and lives by Torah, this brings blessing into his life.
Guarantors of the Future
It is a Lubavitch custom to bring even the smallest children to shul on Shavuos, even tiny babies, to hear the reading of the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments). What is the reason for this custom?
There is a well-known Midrash that says that when HaShem wanted to give the Torah to the Yidden He asked them, “Who is going to guarantee that the Torah will be accepted and studied?” First they said, the Avos , Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. They were such great tzaddikim. They will be our guarantors that we will keep the Torah and study it. But HaShem rejected them. So they said, “Our prophets. We have such great prophets, they will be our guarantors.” But HaShem did not accept that one either. Finally they said, “Our children, our sons, will be our guarantors.” And HaShem said, “That I accept.”
In other words, the fact that our parents or our forefathers were rabbis who learned Torah is not enough yet to guarantee that Torah will have a continuation. It’s only when our children are taught Torah that its continuity is assured.
The Rebbe once mentioned this at a farbrengen and he said that reminds us of America. In America we find this Midrash re-enacted. You go to a Jew who is not observant — a little traditional but not very religiously observant. And you ask him, “So what about the Torah? You’re a Yid. Do you learn Torah?” He says, “Torah? I have a father who’s eighty years old and he’s in a religious nursing home and he has a shiur three times a day. Isn’t that enough? My father’s such a religious Jew.” And he’ll point to his dining room and he’ll show you a picture of his zeide in Europe with a long white beard.
When you tell him that this is good for his father, but what about him? Then the American Jew says, “Well, what about my Rabbi? You should see my Rabbi. He can daven Minchah by heart, without a Siddur even. He’s such a tzaddik , so righteous. And I’ve seen him rattle off verses from the Torah. I pay his salary. And my father in the old-age home, I pay for him there. So I have a portion in my father’s Gemara in the nursing home and I have a portion in my Rabbi’s sermons. He’s so learned, he gives such nice sermons, and I pay my dues.”
Neither of these is a good answer. You can’t make do with your Rabbi who’s scholarly, or your father who learns a lot while he’s in the retirement home. That is no substitute for each and every Jew having a direct personal involvement with the learning of Torah.
I remember a story about a certain rabbi who went into a restaurant of some sort. He started to ask the owner, who didn’t look like a very religious Jew, about the kashrus of the establishment. The man pointed to a picture of his grandfather on the wall, a bearded Jew sitting over a sefer. “That’s my zeide,” he said to the rabbi.
“Now if your picture was on the wall, and your zeide was behind the counter, that would be different. Then I wouldn’t have any questions about the kashrus,” retorted the rabbi.
This is why we bring our children to shul on Shavuos — they are the future of Yiddishkeit.
Why is Shavuos a time of great joy? Because two things happened on Shavuos that in our lives are also occasions for great simchah. One is a marriage. We know that weddings are always very happy occasions. And the other thing that causes us tremendous joy is when a child begins learning Torah. When a child goes into cheder we make a big celebration. It is a very happy occasion. The Rebbe explains that on Shavuos both of these things happened — the Yidden went into cheder. They started learning Torah. Even though they had practiced the mitzvos before the Torah was given, there was nevertheless no book to learn from… That was when they began their formal education. So, of course, it was a day of joy.
Rabbi Manis Friedman once told a story about a discussion he had with a student who was having a hard time accepting the divinity of Torah. He was trying to prove it to the student, but he wasn’t accepting it. While he was having this discussion, there was another student sitting quietly on the sidelines listening, and after a while the other student said, “Look, I can’t hold myself back any more. I’ve been listening to you going on for an hour and I just want to say something. I’m not religious. I don’t keep the Torah yet. But, I know one thing, that when the Jews came out of Egypt they were slaves. They didn’t have any ethical code. They didn’t have anything. When they came out of the desert after forty years, they had five books. And with these five books they’ve been living ever since. The Bedouins have been in the desert for 3,000 years. They don’t even have one pamphlet. Nothing. What do they get from being in the desert? I don’t know exactly how this revelation happened, but one thing I know, something happened. It doesn’t matter if they heard it this way, or that day. I don’t know the technicalities, but I know that something happened in that desert that gave the Jews a guideline and a guide book forever.” Then, turning to the other student he says, “Why do you argue so much? If your grandparents got this book, some way they got it, you want to read it. Instead of arguing, just open it up. Just read it once instead of arguing all the time.”
It was also the marriage of HaShem and the Yidden. Many of the details of weddings, Torah weddings, are based on events that happened at Sinai. We know that the chuppah that the bride and groom stand under is compared to the mountain that was lifted above the heads of the Yidden when they received the Torah. Could you imagine? Har Sinai was like a chuppah. They stood under the base of the mountain. The mountain was above their heads. So that was like the chuppah of the wedding ceremony. The Groom of course was HaShem Himself, and the bride was the Jewish people. The thunder that they heard is the source for the fact that you have music at Jewish weddings. We don’t only have music because we want to be happy, but it says the Jews heard sound so we also have music at our weddings. The lightning is the source for the candles which are held at the chuppah. When you go to the chuppah you take a candle. Why do you take a candle? It’s not so dark that you can’t see. Because it says there was light and there was sound, so we have candles and music to remind us of the thunder and lightning.