Avivah Zornberg, in her book, “The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,” turns to poetry to explain something of what revelation means to us as Jews:
Those who are called on to respond to God’s voice are most shaken by what is revealed within themselves. Czeslaw Milosz reflects on the experience of writing poetry:
“In the very essence of poetry, there is something indecent:
A thing is brought forth that we didn’t know we had in us,
So we blink our eyes, as a tiger had sprung out and stood in the light lashing his tail.”
The holiday of Shavuot, during which we commemorate the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, is a moment to acknowledge the revelation that somehow manages to come both from beyond us and within us. If Torah were just a book, were just words originating at some point in the ancient Near East, it could not have endured these many millennia – or maybe, it would have endured as an object of historical interest alone. But Torah at its best and truest is “a thing … brought forth that we didn’t know we had in us,” something that not only instructs us from without, but helps us discover better, more interesting and more alive parts within ourselves.
It’s this deepest form of Torah that motivates me every year to stay up all night (or, at least later into the night than I normally manage to stay up.) studying at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the all-night Torah-study events that often feature diverse teachers and topics throughout the evening hours, alongside coffee and cheesecake. For some people (myself included), we can find that in the texts and teachings of our tradition … and as a rabbi, part of my work is to help people find it there, too!
At the same time, some of the deepest Torah I’ve ever encountered came from the words and lived experiences of people who trusted me enough to be vulnerable and honest with me, to share both their deepest struggles, their most joyous experiences, and their hard-won wisdom. This is the Torah that continues to reverberate across time and space, beyond whatever happened at Mt. Sinai three millennia ago and into our present moment.
Shavuot celebrates the revelation of Torah in all its forms – from the Five Books, and their commentaries, and the commentaries on their commentaries, all the way to the moment of connection I may get to share with someone at kiddush, or at a hospital bedside, or in a discussion group. So whether you’re staying up all night studying or not, celebrate the moments of wisdom you’ve received … and celebrate whatever those moments have awoken within you, like a tiger springing out and lashing his tail.
Rabbi Alex Braver is rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus.