Herzl Hefter

This Shavuot: A time of reckoning

If we look to the Torah for why we do what we do, then we must make sure that the outcomes of those actions promote peace, compassion and human perfection
'Moses Receiving the Tablets of Law,' by Chagall, 1966. (Wikimedia Commons)
'Moses Receiving the Tablets of Law,' by Chagall, 1966. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Shavuot, we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Traditionally, it has been a celebration of renewed commitment to the precepts of the Torah and its study. It is also a celebration of our becoming a nation within the context of Divine revelation. This is a very powerful story.

There is another aspect of Shavuot which is especially germane today — and it is connected to Yom Kippur. If we calculate the biblical sequence of events following Shavuot, we see that the giving of the second set of Tablets of the Law took place on Yom Kippur. It is for this reason that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik used to say that, while Shavuot was the holiday of the Written Law, Yom Kippur was the holiday of the Oral Law.

I believe that the connection between Yom Kippur and Shavuot should work in the opposite direction as well.

The primary characteristic of Yom Kippur is that it is a day of introspection and soul-searching (heshbon nefesh), a day of accounting. Shavuot should also be considered a time of heshbon nefesh, specifically regarding how our society embodies the values and precepts of the Torah as the ongoing unfolding of the revelation at Sinai. Specifically, we should pay attention to what the Torah itself says about the impact it is supposed to have in the world — and how are we doing in meeting those expectations? That is the soul-searching I propose for this Shavuot.

Note that the Torah assumes that living in accordance with its Laws will have a natural appeal to the sensibilities of nations of the world. They will readily perceive the superior value and good in the way of life that the Torah engenders:

Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ Deut 4: 6

Maimonides reiterates this in his Guide to the Perplexed III Ch. 31, 32:

…the sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, “for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day” (Deut. 6:24). Again, “which shall hear all those statutes (ḥuḳḳim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (ibid. 4:6)…to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.

Even more so, according to classic Hasidic theology, the purpose of the Torah is to bring one to Dveikut, a consciousness of cleaving to and love of God. The personal piety which the Torah is expected to engender should be readily recognizable by others. In the words of the Hasidic master, R. Simcha Bunim of Parshyscha, a person’s piety may be discerned by how devoutly they fulfill the commandment of “Love they neighbor as yourself.”

Finally, the Torah and its sages are supposed to propagate peace in the world.

This [namely the law that the Halacha must be transgressed in order to save a human life] teaches that the judgments of the Torah do not [bring] vengeance to the world, but rather bring mercy, kindness, and peace to the world. (Maimonides, Laws of the Sabbath Ch. 2.)

And of course, the well-known conclusion to a number of Talmudic tractates

Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ḥanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.”

We see from this that the ideal of a Torah-driven society is a perfection of the characteristics of the individual, middot and piety, and the creation of a society that fosters love and peace in the world.  This, to me, is a sort of Torah-dictated litmus test of how Torah-based society is doing in achieving this vision.

And, at present, the assessment isn’t very good — from the actual influence of our political leaders on how our society is perceived, both from within and without, to the peace, middot and piety engendered by our religious leaders.


  • The OECD Social Institutions & Gender Index has ranked Israel the lowest of all OECD countries in gender equality (ranking behind examples of enlightened governance such as Turkey).  This is true partially because of the inferior status which women suffer in the religious courts which govern issues of personal status.
  • Prominent religious leaders, continue to display deep-founded contempt for the healthy Zionist enterprise and the idea of an Israeli society based upon fairness and shared responsibility by vociferously opposing the conscription of Haredi men to the IDF. Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef went so far as to “threaten” mass exodus of Haredim from Israel if conscription were forced upon them.
  • It is painful to cite the outrageous, genocidal statements made by ministers in our government and supported by prominent rabbis. Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, head of a yeshiva in Jaffa said we should kill everyone in Gaza, including babies. Heritage Minister Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu called for striking the Gaza Strip with a nuclear bomb. These statements and others like them contributed to Israel being hauled before the ICC recently.
  • We see third-world style corruption in the recent reporting about the Transportation Ministry, as well as incompetence and lack of taking responsibility for the 2021 Meron disaster which claimed the lives of 45 people.

Instead of justice, fairness, piety and loving of peace we find too much corruption selfishness, worship of power and moral callousness.

The Hasidic master, R. Nahum of Chernobyl was oft to say that the Torah is akin to a mirror; a person will perceive in it according to their own character. A person of noble constitution will perceive a benevolent, gracious and humane Torah, while a crude and vulgar individual will perceive a very flawed Torah. The Torah, in other words, is not alchemy; it cannot transform base metal into gold. The therapeutic, healing and perfecting qualities to which the Torah lays claim are ‘user dependent.’

The outcome of this realization is that we who choose to live according to the Torah cannot absolve ourselves from the moral responsibility of choices or paths that we help enable. If we point to the Torah as motivating or justifying our actions, we also need to examine the consequences of those actions directly, from a Torah perspective, and without apologetic naivete.

This Shavuot, we can’t just focus on celebrating Torah, but need to take a hard, realistic look at how the Torah is embodied in our society, in practical ways, and to explore how best to rectify our society’s shortcomings, especially those which are propagated in the name of the Torah.

That is why the opportunity afforded by Shavuot to foster more of the soul-searching normally associated with Yom Kippur is so important. We see, increasingly, that our actions and approaches are not engendering the world vision set forth by the Torah.  We need to hold a mirror to ourselves and asking difficult questions such as: What is motivating our approach? Are we truly acting altruistically, l’Shem Shamayim, and not because of vested interests? And if our actions — the Torah as we live it — don’t promote peace, compassion and human perfection, shouldn’t we be seeking  another path?

About the Author
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the founder and Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el in memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem. It is a beit midrash for advanced rabbinic studies for men and women. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he learned under the tutelage of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik זצ”ל, and received smikha from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל at Yeshivat Har Etzion where he studied for ten years. Rabbi Hefter taught Yoreh De'ah to the Kollel fellows at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University and served as the head of the Bruria Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He also taught at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim in Moscow and served as Rosh Kollel of the first Torah MiZion Kollel in Cleveland, Ohio. He has written numerous articles related to modernity and Hasidic thought. His divrei Torah and online shiurim can be accessed at
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