Shavuot commemorates receiving and accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
What is our relationship to the event? Do we get an opportunity to receive and accept the Torah as well? How do we do that?
In this lesson, we will address these issues by analyzing a photograph by Zion Ozeri and studying texts related. At the end, you will express your thoughts on what it means to receive and accept the Torah by choosing one of the suggested creative activities.
Analyzing the Photograph
Look carefully at the photograph below. What do you see?
Answer the questions below the photograph.
Summer Camp, Tumwater, Washington, 2002
Image copyright Zion Ozeri and used with the permission of the photographer. You can see more of his amazing images here.
  • What is your first impression when you look at the photograph?
  • Describe the people in the photograph. What are they doing?
  • If you were there, what sounds do you think you would be hearing?
  • Why are they holding their little fingers in the air?
  • Describe the surroundings. Where do you think they are?
  • What objects do you see in the photograph?
  • What is the focal point of the photograph?
  • Write three adjectives to describe the photograph.
  • Why do you think the photographer, Zion Ozeri, took this photograph? What message do you think he was trying to convey?
  • Write a caption for the photograph.
Lifting the Torah
During the Torah service, the Torah is lifted to allow everyone to see inside. According to Ashkenazi tradition, the Torah is lifted after it has been read. In Sephardi tradition, the Torah is lifted before it is read. In either case, the Torah is opened and lifted.
The verse below is said aloud by the congregation when the Torah is lifted. The congregation in the photograph is the campers at a summer camp in Washington State.
Read the text and answer the questions below.
וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר־שָׂם מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
This is the Teaching that Moses set before the Israelites:
  • Why do you think the Torah is lifted?
  • Why do you think it is important for people to see the words in the Torah?
  • Why do you think the above verse is said when the Torah is lifted? What is the message?
  • Does this verse connect to receiving and accepting the Torah? How?
  • What do you do when the Torah is lifted? Do you do what the campers in the photograph are doing?
  • What other rituals do you do to express your love for the Torah?
But I Wasn't There
The generation that left Egypt stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Read the text below which describes the event and answer the questions below.
וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת׃ כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם׃
And not with you alone do I contract this covenant and this oath, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.
  • Who is speaking in the verses above? (To read the verses in the full context, click on the chapter and verse.)
  • According to the verses, who is party to God's covenant? Which people are included?
The medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, explains the words "not with you alone" in the following comment.
ולא אתכם לבדכם. רק עמכם ועם הבאים אחריכם שהם בניכם ובני בניכם:
Not with you alone but rather, with you, and with those who shall come after you: your children, and your children’s children.
What problem does the text raise? What might a person who wasn't standing at Mt. Sinai say about this?
Abravanel, a Spanish bible commentator who was expelled from Spain in 1492, asked the following question, "Who gave the generation of the wilderness which stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai the power of obligating all those who would arise after them to accept the implications of their statement 'we shall do and hearken!'
He answered by saying that just as a child has to pay the parent's debts after their death, so too do the future generations (us) have to fulfill the obligation made by the generation who stood at Sinai.
  • Do you agree with Abravanel's answer?
  • How would you answer the question?
  • If we were to agree with Abravanel's opinion, would we need to accept the Torah ourselves or was it already done for us?
  • Would there be a reason that we would want to receive and accept the Torah ourselves even though we were included in the original covenant?
  • What Shavuot customs help us to experience the moment that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai?
Accepting the Torah
The Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot, tells the story of a person who accepts the Torah. Read the verse from Ruth and answer the questions below. (To read the verse in context, click on the chapter and verse.)
וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רוּת֙ אַל־תִּפְגְּעִי־בִ֔י לְעָזְבֵ֖ךְ לָשׁ֣וּב מֵאַחֲרָ֑יִךְ כִּ֠י אֶל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי׃
But Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
  • What is the connection between Ruth and the generation who stood at Mt. Sinai?
  • What do Ruth's words mean to you? What can you learn from them?
  • Why do you think we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot?
  • What do you or your family do to affirm your acceptance of the Torah?
  • What can you do to make it feel as if you were standing at Sinai with the generation of the desert?
Back to the Photograph
Thinking about the texts that you have studied and the questions that you have considered, what new insights do you have into the photograph? How does the photograph relate to the idea of receiving and accepting the Torah?
Putting it All Together
Choose one of the following activities:
  • Take a photograph that expresses what receiving and accepting the Torah means to you.
  • Write a journal entry for one of the people in the photograph.
  • Prepare your own shiur (Torah lesson) based on the photograph. Make a Sefaria source sheet to accompany the shiur. Give the shiur at a Shavuot meal or Tikkun Leil Shavuot or share your work with the Sefaria community by making the source sheet public.