Shavuot- Yes, the Torah is For Us
The Mishna in Pirkeh Abot (3:14) teaches, "Man is precious, in that he was created in the image [of G-d]… Yisrael are precious, in that they were called children of the Almighty… Yisrael are precious in that they were given a beloved vessel [the Torah]…"
For each of these three statements, the Mishna brings a verse to prove the point being made. The statement that people are created in G-d’s image is supported by the verse, "for He made man in the image of G-d" (Bereshit 9:6). The statement that Am Yisrael are G-d’s children is supported from the verse, "You are children of Hashem your G-d" (Devarim 14:1). And the statement that we have been given a "beloved utensil" is supported with the verse in Mishleh (4:2), "For I have given you good teaching; do not abandon My Torah."
The Netivot Shalom (Rav Shalom Noach Berezovsky of Slonim, 1911-2000) raised the simple question of why this Mishna is included in Pirkeh Avot, which is a collection of practical ethical and religious teachings. The Mishnayot in Pirkeh Abot give us instructions and guidance for living our lives as Torah Jews. For what purpose are we told in Pirkeh Avot that we are "precious" both because we are human beings and because we are members of Am Yisrael?
The answer, the Netivot Shalom explains, is that this Mishna seeks to bolster our self-esteem, and reassure us that we are "precious" in the eyes of G-d. One of the common obstacles to religious commitment is shame and a lack of self-worth. Many people look at themselves, their behavior and their lives and conclude that G-d has no interest in them, that the sanctity of the Torah has no relevance to them. The Mishna therefore comes along and assures us that no matter who we are and what we have done, we are "Habib" – "precious," both because we are human beings endowed with the divine image, and because we, as Jews, are princes, the children of the King of the world.
The Netivot Shalom explains on this basis why the Mishna chose specifically the three verses it cited.
The verse, "for He made man in the image of G-d" actually appears in the context of the prohibition of murder. G-d warns that one who murders another person will himself be killed, because every person is endowed with the image of G-d. The Mishna chose this verse, the Netivot Shalom explains, because this verse makes it absolutely clear that every human being, for all time, has the image of G-d within him, and it can never be lost. If a person murders somebody else, he is liable to the death penalty regardless of who the victim was – because all people have a sacred spark within their souls, no matter what mistakes they have made.
The second verse cited by the Mishna – "You are children of Hashem your G-d" – introduces the prohibition against self-mutilation in response to personal tragedy ("Lo Titgodedu"). The Mishna could have cited an earlier verse to prove that Am Yisrael are Hashem’s children – G-d’s message to Pharaoh, "Yisrael is My firstborn son" (Shemot 4:22). It didn’t cite that verse, the Netivot Shalom writes, because one might have then assumed that only in those times, when G-d brought Beneh Yisrael from Egypt, we had the status of His beloved children. And so the Mishna cited the verse, "You are children of Hashem your G-d" which introduces a command which is eternally binding. This verse demonstrates that for all time, and under all circumstances, we are the Almighty’s beloved children.
Finally, the Mishna proves that we are precious by virtue of our having been given the priceless gift of the Torah, citing the verse, "For I have given you good teaching; do not abandon My Torah." This verse speaks to each and every person, in each and every era, assuring him that the Torah has been given to him, it is relevant to him, and it is binding upon him.
Each morning, we recite a special Beracha – "Birkat Ha’Torah" – thanking Hashem for giving us the Torah. This Beracha concludes, "Baruch Ata Hashem Noten He’Torah" – "Blessed are You, Hashem, who gives the Torah." This Beracha is formulated in the present tense – "who gives the Torah" – because the Torah is given to us anew, each and every day, no matter what situation we are in, and no matter what spiritual level we are on.
This is something to reflect upon as we prepare for Shabuot, when we celebrate Matan Torah. It is a mistake to think that Matan Torah was relevant only to previous generations, when Jews lived on a higher level, when they did not have the distractions and temptations that we face in our time. This is incorrect. We must remind ourselves that the Torah is for us – yes, even us. Let us not belittle ourselves. As the Mishna teaches us, we are G-d’s beloved children, eternally. He wants us to serve Him and to build a relationship with Him to the best of our ability, no matter what we have done in the past.
The Gemara relates that when the Romans entered the Bet Ha’mikdash, just before they set the building ablaze, they entered the Kodesh Ha’kodashim – the most sacred chamber, where the Aron was kept – and they saw the two Kerubim (cherubs) on top of the Aron embracing one another. This symbolized G-d’s embracing the Jewish People. Even at that moment, when G-d was angry at His nation and destroyed the Mikdash, He showed us how much He loves us. G-d’s love for us is eternal and unconditional, and so our commitment to Torah must be eternal and unconditional.
Yes, the Torah is for us, on whatever level we are on, because no matter what, Hashem wants us to have this most precious of all gifts – the sacred Torah.