In the Jewish calender, the holiday of Shavuot is about to return into the flow of time. Shavuot celebrates the day when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. But what is meant by the word “Torah”? Many people associate the word “Torah” with the Five books of Moses, but according to Jewish wisdom, the Torah and what was given at Mt. Sinai was much more than a book.
Translated, the word Torah means “instruction” or “teaching.” Judaism teaches that at Mt. Sinai, when God gave the Torah, both a Written Torah and an Oral Torah was given. The Written Torah is what we know as the Five Books of Moses, traditionally known in Judaism as the Chumash. The Oral Torah was something different, it was and is a living body of knowledge covering every aspect of life, from taxes and zoning laws to spirituality and sex, that has been evolving throughout history for more than 3,000 years until today. Included in the Oral Torah are instructions about how to interpret and understand the Written Torah. In fact, there are many passages in the Chumash that cannot be understood without the Oral Torah.
For example take the passage found in Deuteronomy 11:18: “You shall put these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall tie them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.” Nowhere in the Chumash are instructions given as to what these “words” that were to be a “sign” and “totafot” are. The Oral Torah teaches that what is being described in this passage are called Tefillin. Tefillin are leather boxes containing four parchments on which are written certain key passages from the Chumash, and they worn on the arm and forehead. Pairs of Tefillin were discovered in the Qumran archeological site (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) dating back to around 1,900 years ago. These ancient Tefillin were constructed according to the insturctions given in the Oral Torah and were made in the same way that Jewish scribes make Tefillin today.
On a deeper level, the Torah (both written and oral) given at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot is the spiritual path of the Jewish nation. When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai it was not given to an individual, it was given to the people of Israel. In the book of Exodus, God says to the Jewish people that they are to be a “kingdom of priests.” In many monastic and priestly traditions, adherents withdraw from society, from the marketplace, even from having a family in order to focus on Truth or God or Being (pick your word for whatever it is that is beyond any concept). This is not the Jewish path. Judaism cannot be practiced alone, it is meant to be experienced in communion, in relationship both to others and to God. Judaism is a worldly religion, but the goal of Judaism is beyond the world.
The Torah given at Mt. Sinai is also a body of laws governing Jewish life which is known as Halacha. To function in a healthy way, a nation in the world needs laws. When literally translated, Halacha means “the way” or “the walk.” These laws are meant to cultivate an awareness of the presence of God in all areas of life, from economic, to familial, to spiritual. God is not just in the synagogue, God is in the kitchen, and the boardroom. To follow Halacha is a spiritual practice, and when followed the mundane becomes Holy. When you are feeding your child, you are not just feeding your child, you are serving God. There is even a word used to describe how Halacha is meant to be practiced, which is with kavannah (this idea is based on the teachings of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan). Kavannah can be loosely translated as “aim” or “intention.” A Jewish life is meant to be lived in such a way that in every moment, a person is present, thinking and acting mindfully. Living with intention, with kavannah, is the opposite of living on autopilot. Halacha when practiced with kavannah re-contextualizes life into a sacred ritual, which allows the depths of life, the innate Divinity within life, to come forth.
There is a teaching from the Oral Torah: The reason the Torah was given in the desert is to teach us that in order to receive, like the desert, we need to be empty. This Shavuot may God bless us to let go of any preconceptions of what we think is true, and to be open to hear God speaking to us personally, and that we find our letter in the Torah.
Originally published by me on the Huffington Post