By Avi Lazerson
Shavuot is called the time that the Jews received the Torah. G-d descended from his lofty abode in the highest heavens and revealed His Presence on Mount Sinai and gave not just the famed Ten Commandments, but also the written and oral Torah.
Of course this was an extremely impressive action which has not been here-to-for duplicated. Yet we must realize that the giving of the Torah is not really something new. Rabbinical tradition relates that our patriarch, Abraham kept all of the mitzvoth that were subsequently commanded to his descendents on Mount Sinai. Not only Abraham, but also, his son, Isaac, and Isaac's son, Jacob were very careful in both study of the Torah and performance of the mitzvoth.
There are many legends of the patriarchs keeping Passover, kashrut, sacrifices and learning the various laws that are in the Torah today.
If this be so, then what was the purpose of giving the Torah? What was accomplished if we had the Torah before Mount Sinai?
True, there is the fact that a person who is not commanded to perform a mitzvah does not receive a reward equal to that of one who is commanded to perform the mitzvah. So we could say that G-d's giving us the Torah increased our reward. But if this were the only purpose, then why do the Rabbis of the Talmud tell us not to be like a servant who serves the master to accumulate a reward, but be like a servant who serves his master with out regard to a reward. Would it make sense that G-d would give us the Torah only for the purpose of receiving a reward, when the Rabbis warn us against seeking rewards?
There is something deeper in all of this. When the patriarchs and their children studied Torah and performed mitzvoth without being required, they went beyond their required duties. In doing this, they received a reward, but in addition, and more important, they made and maintained a connection with G-d. In order to achieve this spiritual communication and bond, they had to study to divine the unrevealed desires of G-d. Therefore their study was a means to an end.
Had they just studied and become "experts" on the supernal desires of the Creator, they might become intellectual giants, professors and doctors in spiritual matters. But without the action, the mitzvah, they would not be connected to G-d, since it was the performance of the instruction that was the purpose of the learning.
However, after G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah, there became a mitzvah in learning. Even learning that was not connected to doing became a mitzvah. This was the newness in the giving of the Torah.
But it has deeper implications. First, before the Torah was given, an object used for a mitzvah did not become holy. Since G-d really did not command anyone to take a lulav or etrog, or to put on tephilim or a talit, those objects could not be elevated into holiness. This is because the entire purpose of performing their mitzvoth was only to connect with G-d.
However since G-d gave us the Torah and He commanded us to perform mitzvoth using various objects, therefore when we do perform the mitzvoth, not only is a divine connection established, but in addition, the object is elevated into holiness.
What this means is this:
There are now two modes of study. The first is simply the amassing of information. If ones learning is to amass information to be a Rabbi or to receive another benefit such as honor, then his body, the object used in learning does not become elevated into holiness.
On the other hand, if a person studies the Torah because it is a divine command, then his body, as we mentioned being the object through which a mitzvah is performed, is elevated into holiness.
This then is that specialness of Shavuot. It commemorates the time the Jewish people entered into the canopy of holiness with G-d.
from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine