People of Law
Vachai bahem (Vayikra 18:5) – V’Lo sheyamot bahem / And you shall live by them (Leviticus 18:5) – And you shall not die by them.
Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Yoma 85a
Lo yamush sefer Torah hazeh mipicha. V’hagitah bo yomam valylah. / This book of the Law (Torah) shall never depart from your mouth. And you will expound upon it day and night.
Sefer Yehoshuah (Joshua) 1:5
Torah-Ohr / The law (Torah) is light.
For in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government
A government of laws, and not of men.
John Adams, from an essay in the Boston Gazette 1774
Very soon we will have the opportunity to celebrate Shavuot. As a child going to Hebrew school, Shavuot was always the “lost holiday.” It usually arrived late in the school year, baseball season was in full force, and the teachers had little to talk about it, as Shavuot couldn’t compare with the rich customs and traditions of Pesach, the awesomeness of the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or the fun of the sukkah on Sukkot. The message of the holiday of the giving of the Torah was often lost, as the holiday was confused with Simchat Torah, the holiday of the rejoicing of the Torah that Sukkot segues into. For many of us today, Shavuot remains the “lost holiday,” one that has little appeal except to those who remember that it’s traditional to enjoy cheesecake on this holiday.
This is unfortunate, as Shavuot in some ways can be seen as the most profound of all of our Holy Days. Shavuot began as a harvest festival. For seven weeks following Pesach, our ancestors brought small sheaves of grain as offerings to the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), culminating in the festival of Shavuot, “The Feast of Weeks.” As Jewish civilization evolved throughout history, we became less of an agrarian people and literacy and learning became widespread. Shavuot took on a new meaning. It was interpreted that the Torah was given to Israel seven weeks following the Exodus from Egypt. We were now the people of the Torah, the people of the law.
As Israel traveled through its many stages, we initially went from a people composed of loosely affiliated related tribes, who would band together under a popular leader know as a shofet, or judge, to a people ruled by a king. However, even in those days, the Torah—the law of God—ruled supreme (or at least as they understood it at that time). Later in our history there were no longer kings, and the Torah now directly ruled through the rabbis who learned and expounded on it. Where ancient Torah law seemed to not reach, the rabbis created rabbinical laws that attached themselves to verses in the Torah for support.
We were a people ruled by law, not the arbitrary whims of a human being. We bequeathed this perspective to Western civilization, where it most beautifully took root and blossomed in the United States of America.
America was founded on the concept of natural law. The founders believed, as did the early scribes of the Torah, that our rights and responsibilities came from God, not as a favor or gift from man. Those concepts were then redacted in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. America is a nation of law. Actually, the USA isn’t truly a “democracy” but a constitutional republic. We can elect our leaders and representatives, but they are bound to the constraints placed upon them by the constitution—just as in ancient Israel, where a king was constrained by the law of the Torah.
Please join me for a special class on the night of Shavuot, Saturday night, May 19, at 8:00 PM. We will be discussing the similarities and differences of American and Jewish law. Of course cheesecake and other goodies will be served!
May you receive the Torah in joyousness,
[The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Bellerose Jewish Center.]