Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, then the dean of American rosh yeshivos, once found himself seated on a flight next to Yerucham Meshel, the secretary-general of the Histadrut. Throughout the flight, Reb Yaakov's son and granddaughter kept coming to speak to him and to ask him whether there was anything they could do for him.
Near the end of the flight, Meshel expressed his amazement at the warmth of Reb Yaakov's relationship with his offspring. He confessed that he only rarely saw his children and his grandchildren almost never.
Reb Yaakov explained to him that the difference in their relationships to their children and grandchildren was a natural outgrowth of their differing worldviews. "You believe in a Darwinian universe of random, purposeless events. In your children's eyes, you are just one generation closer to the apes than they are."
"But for us, the central event in human history was the moment when the Jewish people stood at Sinai and heard G-d speak. The generations immediately after the Revelation lived in awe of their parents as people to whom G-d spoke. . . My children and grandchildren honor me as one who had contact with spiritual giants beyond their conprehension, and therefore attribute to me a wisdom and spirtiual sensitivity they lack."
Tonight Jews all over the world celebrate that Revelation. We attempt to reconnect on Shavuos to the same spiritual energy that our ancestors experienced over 3,000 years ago -- the ever present voice from Sinai.
At Sinai, we became a people by virtue of our receipt of the Law. Both in our own eyes and in the eyes of those who hate us, we are defined as the people of the Law. Paul saw in Christianity a release from the "curse of the Law." And Martin Luther described the Law as designed to drive people to despair and into the bosom of the church.
No religion has so many rules governing every aspect of life: rules about which shoe to put on first in the morning, about how and what to eat, detailed laws of proper and improper speech. We recite blessings upon rising in the morning and before going to sleep at night, blessings before and after eating, even blessings after going to the bathroom.
To many Jews today the myriad details of Jewish observance seem incomprehensible, even absurd. Why do we need so many mitzvos? Don't they turn people into mindless automatons? they ask. Without at least some partial answers to those questions, we cannot join ourselves to the giving of the Law at Sinai.
Man, in Jewish thought, is born imperfect, and his task in life is to perfect himself. When God said, "Let us create man," writes one of the great medieval commentators, he was addressing man. You and I together are necessary to create you, He told Adam.
The perfection for which we are always striving but never attain encompasses thought, word, and action. Of the three, the last is most easily controlled and our quest begins there.
Through the discipline of mitzvos, we experience ourselves as human beings capable of choice. Every time we confront a mitzvah, we simultaneously confront our yetzer hara, the urge to say no and to assert our independence. Judaism demands that we become aware of the choice involved in everything we do. We don't teach our children, "Pork, yuch!" but rather that pork is the most succulent of meats.
Sometimes we win the struggle, sometimes we lose. And when we begin to win consistently on one level, we find ourselves confronted with new challenges higher up the ladder. If, for instance, we stop trying to win popularity by always having a juicy piece of gossip ready for consumption, we next confront the even harder challenge of not using our spouses to ventilate our negative feelings about others.
At one level, the discipline of mitzvos is a form of spiritual gymnasium. One does not enter the gym and start benchpressing 200 pounds. Only through endless repetitions at much smaller weights does one reach that level.
Similarly, only by accustoming ourselves to conquer our small desires can we hope to prevail when confronted larger challenges later on. A child whining in a supermarket checkout line for his mother to buy him a certain candy who falls silent when told that the candy is not kosher has a better chance of saying no to bigger temptations later in life. No guarantees; just a better chance.
But the mitzvos do much more than simply provide self-discipline. They make us constantly aware of G-d's presence. Every time we stop to make a blessing, every time we ask ourselves whether this word or this food is permitted we are made aware of the One Who spoke and the world came into being.
The Hebrew word mitzvah, commandment, derives from a root signifying joinder or connection. The mitzvos connect us to G-d.
Mitzvah, of course, also implies a commander and a commanded. Every time we perform a mitzvah, we are forced to admit that the world did not begin with us and is more than our playground. A perfect G-d, Who was complete unto Himself, did not bring the world into existence for His own amusement and to see what a mess we could make. He created the world with a purpose - a purpose which depends entirely on man, and particularly the Jewish people, fulfilling our tasks.
Rather than feeling the mitzvos as a burden, the observant Jew cannot imagine life without them. They reinforce every moment that view that life has purpose and that everything we do is meaningful. To use the modern jargon, they empower us.
For a Jew, there is no such thing as standing still: At any given moment, we are either ascending the ladder towards perfection or descending. Time, for us, is not something to be killed. Every moment is a priceless opportunity. Kill time and you kill yourself.
The ubiquity of the Law distinguishes Judaism from every other religion. Indeed Judaism is not properly speaking a religion at all. Rather it is an all-encompassing way of life. It recognizes no separate realms of the mundane and sacred. Everything we do is equally before G-d.
May we all merit to reconnect this Shavuos to the giving of the Law. Hag Sameach.