The year was 1935 and the Spanish government was making elaborate plans to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Rambam's birth. Apparently, a moment of honor and great pride for Jews around the world.
Although many of them welcomed the initiative and prepared their own celebrations, some others were wary. These concerns were addressed to the leading Torah scholar of the time, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky. This was his extraordinary response:
“We do not need to commemorate the anniversary of the Rambam, as he lives wherever his words are discussed by teachers and students. His teachings which we meditate everyday are his eternal memory. This has been an everyday occurrence for many generations. Its source has not ceased to this day."
We usually commemorate births and deaths of heroes or loved ones with the desire not to forget them. To keep their memory alive, we erect monuments, plaques, buildings, bridges, paint pictures and name parks after those we want to remember.
In many cases, these constructions help us remember the park, the building or the area in which those statues were erected, but not always. I would say most of the time we do not remember the person. In general, people do not remember the life or the legacy of the person they tried to immortalize.
Rabbi Grodzinsky was very correct. Those of us who study Rambam remember his teachings and the semblance of his personality in everyday life. That is the reason for the greatest success of the People of Israel. That was and still is exactly the reason why Jews who did not study a single Torah page still know that the Torah exists and that it sustained our people for more than 2000 years.
Jewish history is rich and full of important events. The Torah is full of mitzvot that are a memory of the past. Our holy days, the Chagim, are linked to historical events and yet there is tension between the past and the present. The Torah is very much about how we live life today. It seems to have its roots both in the present and in the past. Those mitzvot that seem to be from the past help us improve our world day by day TODAY. From each one of our Chaguim we extract a custom, a law or a teaching that surprises us every year, if we seek to approach its meaning from the heart and have the ability to achieve changes in our lives and in our relationship with our fellow men.
We do more than remember the fact of the Exodus from Egypt; rather we revive that liberation and the value of our freedom and the transmission of the importance of respecting it in ourselves and in others. We must live the Exodus daily, for its messages of faith in God, the importance of freedom and resisting tyranny and dedicating that freedom to something greater than ourselves.
Similarly, when we keep Shabbat each week, we not only commemorate the creation of the world. We also experience once again what it means that God is our Creator. We owe Him everything. The world is constantly renewed and refreshed by God's pulsing energy in the molecules of the universe. We re-experience the same energy that God released into the world on the seventh day of creation: the energy of rest and rejuvenation, back to the source that was introduced on the first Shabbat in human history.
This same principle applies to each of the events that are recorded in the Torah and must be remembered. We are not simply remembering; we are reliving and reintegrating experiences. Making them part of our daily life, tangible and relevant in every way.
That is the importance of what we are going to repeat this year as we conclude the first Shabbat of the month of June with Chag haShavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.
The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator on the biblical text, points out that, when the Torah asks us to celebrate the festival of Shavuot, it does so without mentioning that it is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. We infer that Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah from the date Chag occurs (6th of Sivan), but it is not explicitly mentioned. Why would this concept not be made clear and straightforward?
One answer could be precisely that the Torah did not want us to look at this day as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, to relate to it as a memory of the distant past.
Our relationship with Torah is immediate and visceral. We receive it and we incorporate it into our lives every day. When the Jewish people approach Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the verse says: "In the third month after the departure of the Bnei Israel from the land of Egypt, on this day they came to the desert of Sinai." Rashi points out that it says "this day" and not "that day". "That day"
would imply an event in the past, "this day" implies that it is happening today. Right now. Let us stop for a moment now and understand that we are actively receiving Torah from Kadosh Baruch Hu right now.
Our relationship with Torah is immediate and visceral. We receive it and we incorporate it into our lives every day. When the Jewish people approach Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the verse says: "In the third month after the departure of the Bnei Israel from the land of Egypt, on this day they came to the desert of Sinai." Rashi points out that it says "this day" and not "that day". "That day" would imply an event in the past, "this day" implies that it is happening today. Right now. Let us stop for a moment now and understand that we are actively receiving Torah from Kadosh Baruch Hu right now.
The Shema speaks of "these words that I command you today" (Deuteronomy 6:6). Rashi in that verse says that "today" means that the words of the Torah should always feel as new and fresh to us as the day they were given. This is not some dusty old manuscript kept in a museum somewhere. This is a living Torah, a Torat Chaim. It gives us our mission and purpose; direction and guidance on how to live and why to live and what our ideals are. It is something of immediate relevance in every moment of every day.
Chag Matan Torah tells us about the giving of the Torah.We are reaching the end of the Count of the Omer, the one that each day compels us to raise a step in preparation to RECEIVE the Torah. If in all these days you have not thought about it, I invite you to do so. Renew the millennial commitment and seek to renew the message of Torah in you by searching for it and discussing it and arguing together. I invite you to make it yours in your personal way of understanding it, to get to know it, to savor it, to deepen it, to discuss it together.
In principle, on Sunday, June 5 at 8:30 a.m. at our Tikkun Shavuot Breakfast, before the Shacharit Tfilah and the Chag reading in which we will stand up straight, as Moshe asks us in Devarim 29, feeling present and upright at the moment of the Delivery of the Torah, ready to RECEIVE it.