The year was 1935, and the Spanish government was making elaborate plans to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s birth – seemingly a great honour and proud moment for Jews everywhere.
Yet, while many Jews around the world welcomed the initiative and prepared celebrations of their own, some had reservations. These concerns were addressed to the leading Torah sage of the time, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky. Here is his extraordinary response:
“We do not need to commemorate the Rambam’s birth, for he lives on wherever teachers and students discuss his words; his teachings upon which we meditate every day are his eternal remembrance. This has been an everyday occurrence for many generations – the wellsprings have not ceased to this day.”
Stamps and statues. Plaques and paintings. Buildings and bridges. Google Doodles. These are the traditional ways we commemorate the great people of the past. And the 1935 Spanish government sought to celebrate the legacy of the great Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, in much the same way. But we Jews aren’t in the habit of memorialising our leaders and teachers. Rav Chaim Ozer’s objection was based on the fact that we live with the Rambam – with his writings and teachings – every day. His philosophical ideas and halachic rulings form part of our collective Jewish consciousness. To commemorate an 800-year anniversary is to live in the past – Torah is about living in the here and now. The Rambam is not a historical relic; he is a figure of the present.
What, then, is our approach to history? Jewish history is rich and replete with important events. The Torah is filled with mitzvot that are a remembrance of the past. Our holy days, the chaggim, 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 be rooted in both the present and the past.
This vignette about the Rambam provides a window into understanding the Torah’s approach to history. We do more than remember the fact that the Exodus from Egypt took place – we relive that liberation. The Rambam himself codifies – based on the Talmud – that a person is obliged in every generation to see themselves as if they had personally gone out of Egypt. And it’s not just once a year. We live by the Exodus daily – by its messages of faith in G-d, of the importance of freedom and of resisting tyranny, and of dedicating that freedom to something greater than ourselves.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, quoting from the writings of our sages, says Jewish time is not linear, but cyclical; that every year, when, for example, Pesach comes around, it’s not that we are remembering an event that happened in the distant past, but rather we experience the same spiritual energy that was unleashed in the world at the time of the original Pesach.
Similarly, when we keep Shabbat each week, we commemorate the anniversary of the creation of the world. But we also re-experience what it means that G-d is our Creator, that we owe Him everything, and that the world is constantly being renewed and refreshed by G-d’s pulsating energy into the molecules of the universe. We re-experience the same energy that G-d unleashed into the world on the seventh day of creation – the energy of rest and rejuvenation and returning to source that was introduced on the very first Shabbat of human history.
This same principle applies to every one of the events that are recorded in the Torah, and that we are called on to remember. We are not merely remembering; we are reliving and re-integrating the experiences, and making them part of our daily lives – tangible and relevant in every way.
Arguably, no festival embodies this idea quite like Shavuot, which is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah exactly 3 330 years ago. The Kli Yakar points out that when the Torah calls on us to celebrate the festival of Shavuot, it does so without mentioning it is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at all. We infer that Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah from the date on which the festival takes place (the 6th of Sivan), but there’s no explicit mention of it. Why would the defining dimension of Shavuot not be directly stated by the Torah?
He answers that the Torah did not want us to fixate on one day as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, to relate to this day as a memory of the distant past.
Our relationship with the Torah is immediate and visceral. We receive it – we incorporate it into our lives – each and every day. When the Jewish people are approaching Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the verse says, “In the third month of the children of Israel leaving the land of Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.” Rashi notes that it says “this day” and not “that day”. “That day” would imply an event in the past, “this day” implies that it’s happening today. Right now. Let us stop for a moment now and realise that at this moment in time we are actively receiving the Torah from G-d.
The Shema speaks about “these words that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 6:6). Rashi, on that verse says, that “today” means that the words of Torah should always feel as new and fresh to us as the day they were given. This is not some ancient, dusty manuscript stored away 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, every moment of every day.
The Talmud cites the verse in Proverbs which compares our relationship with the Torah to a suckling infant with its mother; the more we draw out of it, the more life-giving nutrients are produced. The Torah is an endless reservoir of spiritual sustenance; no matter how deep you go, you can always go deeper. A small child, for example, can learn the first verse of the Book of Bereishit: “In the beginning G-d created Heaven and Earth”, and understand it in a very basic way. And the greatest Torah sage of the generation can learn that same verse with all of its nuances and mystical meanings in a much deeper way. In each case, it’s the same Torah being learnt. But there’s always something new in it.
There’s a unique offering which was brought in the Temple on Shavuot – two loaves of bread, made from the newly ripened first grains of the wheat harvest. The Torah calls this offering the Mincha Chadasha – the “new offering”. Why this focus on newness? By now, the reason should be clear. Shavuot is a celebration of freshness and renewal. It’s a celebration of renewed inspiration and renewed challenge. It’s a celebration of Torah, today.
We must live life dynamically, not statically. We do not remain in frozen perfection like the angels; we struggle constantly to become better people. We do not remain set in what we know and what we’ve experienced; we must always search in Torah for new knowledge and fresh inspiration. This is the way G-d wants us to live – and He sets the example. As we say in the morning prayer service, G-d “renews the works of creation in His goodness, at every moment of the day, always”.
And just as G-d recreates the world from afresh, moment by moment, every single day, we should be recreating our own personal world on a similar basis, always looking for renewed inspiration, receiving the Torah into our lives that is as fresh as the day it was given.
Shavuot is a great place to start.