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Rabbi Rafi RankBy the CyberRav—Rabbi Rafi Rank

For some, Torah was given at Sinai, complete and intact, but that myth is crumbling as people begin to think of truth or Torah as a matter which has its own history and distinctive evolution.  We can be proud of the fact that the Jewish people, more than any other people, gave the world monotheism.  But what should bring us even greater joy is the value we have placed on study throughout the ages.  The life of the mind, a life in which truth is pursued daily and falsehoods discarded routinely, is the only life worth living.

The advances of the Jewish people in the areas of the arts, the sciences and literature are well-documented.  Many have pondered this over-representation of Jews as Nobel Laureates or people operating at the top of their fields.  Some have looked to genetics to explain this extraordinary phenomenon.  But genetics alone renders an incomplete and unsatisfying picture.  Genetics may predispose people to certain interests or talents, but if the motivation is lacking, if the value placed on creative thinking and exploration absent, then genetic predisposition is irrelevant.

Shavuot, which begins Thursday evening, May 28, is a festival celebrating the life of the mind.  Of course, that’s not exactly how we describe it.  We describe it aszeman matan Torahteinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.  But what is Torah?  Some say it is the Five Books of Moses, some the Bible, others say it is all of the rabbinic teachings, and some go so far as to claim it is the totality of truth, wherever it is found.  I like that last definition of Torah best.  There is nothing more thrilling than to discover a truth at a sports stadium, on vacation, in the deepest of a depression, or in the warmth of a friendship that has been renewed.  The word of God is too great for any one single book, Torah included.  But the word of God is inaudible to the untrained, out-of-shape ear.

I get a little nervous when as a community, the value placed on sports eclipses the value of study.  I am as fascinated as anyone else with the ability of athletes to hit a baseball out of the park, slam a basketball through a hoop, or shoot a puck into a net.  But those skills, those talents are not the ones that find cures for disease, or stablsize an economy, or bring peace to parties in conflict.  There is a priority here and for the Jewish people that priority rests squarely with an overwhelming bias toward exercising the mind over the body.

No festival emphasizes this priority more than Shavuot.  Its sanctity overrides the many other responsibilities we have at work, at school and at play.  We gather together in synagogue as if we were all of Moses’ people gathered at the foot of Sinai.  Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like to stand there, until I realize that we all do.  The truths of life bombard us daily as sure as the rays of the sun, but we have to be open to the lessons they impart.  Let’s get ready for Shavuot and at one and the same time, prepare for a lifetime of learning and growing. 

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