This Shavuot (5781 on the Jewish calendar; 2021 on the secular calendar) gets a quadruple three: 3,333 years of Torah. That’s 3,333 years since we stood together as a single nation at Mount Sinai, trembling in awe as we accepted the entire Torah for all generations.

In fact, it’s actually five threes, since Sivan, the month in which the Torah was given, is the third month of the year—Nisan being the first.

Three thousand, three hundred and thirty-three is more than a cute number. Listen to the words of the Talmud:

Blessed is the Compassionate One who gave a threefold Torah to a threefold nation through a third child, after three days of preparation, on the third month.1

So here are your five threes:

  1. The Written Torah has three parts: The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and Scriptures. (In Hebrew, we call that תורה, נביאים, כתובים Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, or TaNaCh תנ“ך for short.)

  2. The Jewish people comprises Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites.

  3. Moses, who brokered the Torah covenant for us, was a third child, after Miriam and Aaron.

  4. Three days beforehand, G‑d told Moses to “Prepare for the third day.”2

  5. And Sivan, as we said, is the third month.

Again, not just cute. There’s a vital connection between the number Torah is written in such a way that contradictions abound—meaningful contradictions, awaiting you to resolve them by finding the third key in the text.three and Torah. Indeed, Torah could be called “The Third Way.”

Consider one of the major principles of learning Torah–indeed, perhaps the major principle, since it’s the principal arbiter by which we determine halachah. Here it is, as articulated in the Beraitha of Rabbi Yishmael:

Two verses contradict each other, until a third comes and arbitrates between them.3

Meaning, the Torah is written in such a way that contradictions abound—but they are meaningful contradictions, awaiting you to resolve them by finding the third key in the text.

The Third Way

The rule doesn’t just apply to verses in the Written Torah, but in every Torah discussion. When we study Torah to determine what it is instructing us, we consider and give credence to every opinion of the sages. We don’t say, “I don’t like this one. This is not true.” We say, “Why does this sage say like this and this says the opposite? What is behind their argument?”

They are sages after all, and their every word is Torah—even when they disagree.

By appreciating that, we come to a deeper understanding. And that ultimately leads us to a third way, one that satisfies the truth of both opinions.

Think of the whole of Jewish tradition: Progress is central to Jewish tradition—we want the world to change, and that’s what Torah entered the world to do.

Yet, at the same time, we have survived these 3,333 years due to Torah’s capacity to transcend change. The text of Torah never became brittle and dry. It remained ever-youthful and fruitful, as though it was given just that day.

Like it says, “These words that I command you today…4 Comment the sages, “Every day, the Torah should be new.”5

How does that work? It works because we don’t need to adapt Torah to time and place. We don’t say, “Hey guys, this is not working anymore. Let’s just chuck out some stuff, bring in the new, and go with the flow.” Torah doesn’t need to be changed. None of its limbs require amputation, neither does it need prosthetics.

Rather, our approach is to delve deeper, to ask, “Where in our Torah is the key to the current moment?”

And Torah being a divine teaching, as long as we search deep enough, we will always find a key to open the door of wisdom for every time and place.

Call it an “organic progress.” Living organisms such as algae, squirrels, and human beings, are great survivors because they adapt. But that doesn’t mean they stop being what they are. Rather, in new situations, their cells look into their DNA and ask, “Where in our repertoire of chromosomes and markers are the tools we need to make this situation work best for us?”

There’s a distinction, however. All those living beings have their Torah has unfolded its DNA for us in each era, in literally every part of the world.limitations. Torah has proven itself virtually limitless.

Torah has unfolded its DNA for us in the nomadic world of Sinai, the agrarian settlement in Israel, when we were a mercantile class in Arabic civilization and Europe, and through the industrialization of the past 200 years. In each era, in literally every part of the world, we studied the same 53 parshiot with its 613 mitzvahs, applied our oral traditions of interpretation, and learned how Torah was to be applied in those times. The Torah simply became more and more fascinating as we went along.

Scientists test the veracity of a hypothesis by observing whether it applies under multiple conditions. The Torah has proven the ultimate veracity. Infinite depth in pragmatic application.

Always the same three-step process. The past says “We’ve always done it like this.” The present says, “But now the world has changed.” And the Torah provides a third way, saying, “You don’t need to change me. You must change yourselves to understand me better. Look deeper within me, deeper into how you always understood me, into what I always really meant. There you will find your path into the future, holding me yet tighter, yet closer to your hearts.”

The ultimate change is when the core never changes. Indeed, true change is the emergence of the true essence of things.

Three to the Core

We can go deeper than that. Torah is about the number three at its very core.

The first word of Genesis, describing the creation of the world, is the letter ב bet—the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.6 That’s because this world as it is handed to us people is all about the number two. There’s heaven and earth. We are body and soul. We grapple with good and evil. We live, then we die.

Every word we speak has its opposite. Every object that exists could equally not exist. Every moment in time, every space, every sound, vision, and event can be reduced to a binary series of yes and no, is and is not. It’s a binary world.

And that’s how people attempt to survive within the world. There are those who choose heaven and those who choose earth. Those who choose the body and those who choose the soul. Those who embrace life and those who worship death.

Until Torah enters. Torah says that in the beginning, the same G‑d who created heaven created earth. The same G‑d who formed your body breathed within you a soul. The same G‑d who gives life takes it away.

And He saw all that He created and it was good, very All these dualities of our world find a divine purpose in Torah. They serve as a kind of dialectic of infinity, pointing to an origin that transcends all binaries.good. It is only that it is left up to us to find the inner truth, that brings all this into harmony. And that is the way of Torah, the third way.

Torah teaches that when we see evil and suffering in the world, it is not so that we should run from it, but heal it. The needs and passions of our bodies are not to be shunned, but sublimated and even sanctified through rituals, blessings, and moderation. Even the ego itself has its place, so that a person will take responsibility for the world in which we were placed “to serve and protect.”7

“Turn from evil and do good. Seek peace and chase after it.”8 That is the way of Torah: Not to be satisfied with obliterating evil or doing good, but to seek peace between all that G‑d has created, including the opposites within your own life.

It turns out that all these dualities of our world find a divine purpose in Torah. They’re not opposites just because that’s the way the world is. They serve as a kind of dialectic of infinity, pointing to an origin that transcends all binaries.

Eat, Drink and Celebrate

All this makes sense of an otherwise astonishing halachah:

Shavuot, on our current calendar, falls on the sixth day of Sivan, the day on which the Torah was given. That’s an awesome day to commemorate. How do you commemorate the day on which we stood at Mount Sinai as our entire reality was shaken from beneath us, as all the world came to a silent halt and we “saw the sounds and heard the sights”9 —lifted for a moment into an utterly spiritual dimension?

Intuitively, we would imagine such a day would That is what Torah is all about: Celebrating the ultimate spiritual experience in a physical way.have to be the most spiritual day of the year—a day to spend entirely in a synagogue, or perhaps out in a desert somewhere far from civilization, not even thinking about food, sleep and other mundane needs.

But the Torah tells us just the opposite. Each time the Torah mentions the festival of Shavuot, it tells us it is “a festival for you.” The traditional understanding of “for you” is that we must feast and physically enjoy the holiday.10

Practically speaking, if a person had a frightening dream the night of Shavuot and asks his rabbi, “Am I allowed to fast? I mean, it will be painful for me to eat! I really need to fast.” The rabbi must answer, “On any other holiday, even on Shabbat, I would tell you that you can fast. But on Shavuot, you must eat. The Torah says so.”11

Because that is what Torah is all about: Celebrating the ultimate spiritual experience in a physical way. Because it is all one.

Progressive Harmony

Why now have we arrived at this ultimate message of the number three? There must be some special relevance to our times.

And indeed, if at any time our world felt binary, it’s today.

The algorithms of our technology, the pathways provided for information, the very nature of the medium we use to communicate, have squeezed us into a myopic us-them mentality.

A recent study in America12 found a “perception gap”—a direct correlation between education and an exaggerated concept of “the other side’s” political views. In simple terms, the more you read, the more distorted your beliefs about other people's views will tend to be.

“This effect,” the report says, “is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.” From what I can read (through my own narrow lens), the situation in Israel, the UK and other parts of the world is not so different.

Our times, it seems, demand that whatever we read, we need to stop, think, and allow ourselves to go a little deeper. Where can we learn to If you’re really learning Torah, you will perpetually encounter ideas that seem to contradict all you’ve learned until that? No place better than a Torah class.

As I wrote earlier, if you’re really learning Torah, you will perpetually encounter ideas that seem to contradict all you’ve learned until now. And when you learn with others, you will find your own notions and previous understanding challenged—and you may even have to admit you got it wrong.

Friendly “arguments for the sake of heaven”13 has been a Jewish craft for millennia. Perhaps it’s time to review the rules of the game, and even teach the skill to the rest of the world—the skill of the third way.

As much as technological progress threatens our relationship with one another, even more so does it challenge our inner moral compass. We begin to imagine that for all these ages we’ve been fooled, that all those things our ancestors thought to be immoral were really good, and those things they thought proper and right were really evil.

Torah tells us to think deeper. That is what wisdom is all about. Our ancestors were at least as smart as us. What did they see, what did they know, that we cannot see today? Learn the Torah they taught us, ponder its words deeply. Extract a meaning that transcends time and place, one that will work today as it did for 3,333 years until now.

Ultimately, the goal of Torah is not to simply preserve tradition, but to create change and progress. It’s only that real progress is essentially accumulative—not a rejection of past values, but a deeper understanding, an unfolding, a harmony. Until we achieve the ultimate harmony, a time when the entire occupation of the world will be divine wisdom, may that be sooner than we can imagine.