Shavuot 5779-2019: Torah – the Greatest of All Gifts

Jews get uncomfortable when hearing concepts like loving G-d. Somehow, it seems like something one would expect to hear in Church, but never in a synagogue. On the other hand, Jews seem quite comfortable uttering remarks linking G-d to cruelty. “How could a loving G-d allow a Holocaust? Where was He when my sister got cancer? Where was He when my son got so depressed that he attempted suicide; how could He allow it to happen?” Statements like this are relatively common in the life of a rabbi but why is it that so many Jews seem to encounter the G-d in sad and unfortunate situations but not during the good times or especially the times when their lives are filled with goodness? A person might have gorgeous children, a successful marriage, a great job, perfect health and many other blessings but even if someone had only one of these blessings, it would still be a cause to give thanks to G-d. Why is this such a challenge? Many people see it as their right; “I worked hard; I take care of my health…” However, they should give that statement serious consideration because many people who have done everything right in life end up with a debilitating illness, a dysfunctional child or spouse, or some other challenge they didn’t sign up for. Goodness is taken for granted; only when one’s perceived needs are not met, then (s)he brings G-d into the picture. This phenomenon is not only common, it is also ironic because that the very Nation credited with bringing monotheism into the world are the ones for whom G-d remains an abstract theological concept rather than a loving Being Who desires a relationship and can be accessed 24/7-no synagogue necessary.  Chovos Halevavos, the 11th century masterpiece of Jewish thought and individual character development, writes that service of the Almighty is the direct result of appreciation. One who receives a favor from someone else cannot refuse to return that favor. Granted, if the original favor was minimal and the reprisal request was major, then (s)he may refuse, but if the original favor was enormous, the receiver cannot decline to reciprocate.Imagine a woman, Stacy, who owns a Maserati and will not let anyone drive it. A good friend of hers, Megan, begs her to let her drive it, just once, but Stacy adamantly refuses, stating that she would never let anyone in the world get behind that wheel. She explains that the car is too precious and means too much to her to risk someone damaging it. Megan is upset but accepts her friend’s decision as being final.Imagine Megan’s shock when, a few days later, she sees Jen driving Stacy’s car; not only for a few minutes but for an entire day! Furious, she reconsiders her best friend’s loyalty and confronts Stacy, who explains that Jen actually gifted her the car and therefore could not refuse to let her use it.Similarly, says Chovos Halevavos, if people realized how many favors the Almighty does for us, we could not possibly deny G-d the things He requests. How can we not give tzedakah (charity) as commanded when G-d has given us the myriad of opportunities that have enabled us to possess the money we have? We sometimes complain that we are too tired to go to shul or class or engage in something Jewish, but who gives us the strength to do all the things we want to do? Therefore, concludes Chovos Halevavos, appreciation is the foundation of our service.Although we have been and continue to be beneficiaries of many wonderful things, the greatest present of all G-d’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. This favor obligates us, more than any nation in the world, not to forget Him and to seriously consider the values and messages contained in the Torah, an instruction book for good living. Tomorrow night is Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah. Even one who doesn’t observe it or adhere to its timeless lessons and practices, surely realizes that it is the Torah that has kept the Jewish people together for thousands of years. This festival should be observed with a unique sense of joy-the joy one feels when receiving a beneficial gift.May we all appreciate the Torah – the greatest gift of all – always, and may that appreciation lead to wonderful thoughts and deeds on our lives.                                                              Chag Samayach