Bible Commentary: Joy to the world

Painting of the Ten Commandments by Phillipe de Champagne

Bible Commentary: Joy to the world


Why was the Torah given in a desert, outside the Land of Israel?

What is the relationship between the giving of the Torah and the festival of first fruits in the Temple – the two names for Shavuot? And why was our Torah given in the desert, outside the Holy Land? Would it not have been more fitting to reveal it in Israel, especially since so many of its laws refer to the land (like tithes, the leaving of the corner of the fields for the poor and the sabbatical years)?

I believe that the answer is the same I have given as to why the biblical portion which presents the Decalogue (Exodus 18-20) – Jethro – is named for a Midianite priest.

Our mission, our very raison d’etre, is “to perfect the world in the Kingship of God” – to inspire not only the Jews but also the gentiles to declare (along with Jethro): ‘Blessed is the Lord who has saved you from the hand of Egypt…

Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other powers, because the very object which they used sinfully [the Nile River, used as a repository for drowned Hebrew male babies] was turned against them [when it became transformed into blood]” (Exodus 18:10, 11). The world must recognize a God who detests – and ultimately vanquishes – injustice and enslavement.

The biblical message is even more striking because our sacred text juxtaposes two types of gentiles: In Exodus 17 we meet Amalek, the terrorist who strikes at the weak, the aged and the infirm, and we are commanded to “remember” to extirpate this enemy of civilization from the world (Exodus 17:8-16; cf. Deut. 25:17-19). At the beginning of Exodus 18, however, we meet another type of gentile, one from whom we have much to learn. It is this latter type of gentile for whom the Holy Temple will eventually open its gates; Jethro and his kindred spirits will flock to Jerusalem to hear the Word of God, and will beat their swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2, Micah 4).

We do not insist that gentiles convert to Judaism; it is sufficient that they abide by the Seven Noahide Laws of ethical conduct – the essential morality of the Decalogue. Hence the prophet Micah declares that in the Temple at the end of days, “Everyone will call upon his God, and we shall call upon the Lord our God forever” (ibid.).

Our Torah – certainly the Seven Noahide Laws of morality, even the Ten Commandments and perhaps all 613 commandments – is meant for the entire world. Doesn’t Maimonides exhort us to teach every human to keep the Noahide Laws (Laws of Kings 8,10), and insist that eventually “everyone will return to the true religion”? (Laws of Kings 12). Hence, our Torah was given in exile because we must bring its life-giving waters even to the desert, and turn even the farthest corner of the exile into an outpost of Torah.

Finally, this too is the connection between Shavuot and the festival of first fruits in the Temple. The major function of the Temple is to have all the nations flock to it to learn Torah, “For from Zion shall go forth Torah, and the Word of God from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). As Isaiah teaches: “For My house must be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).

Today, when Islamic fundamentalism threatens to engulf the world with its fanatical call for jihad against all non- Muslims, no message is more crucial than this biblical teaching of religious pluralism and world peace.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.