The giving of the Torah is based on its having been given in exile.
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?
The Ramban (Nahmanides) maintains that diaspora Jews observe general laws like the Sabbath and tefillin only in order not to forget them before they return to Israel because, he maintains, genuine fulfillment of the biblical laws can only be accomplished there.
Also, the first Shavuot fell on Friday, the 50th day, whereas the revelation was not until one day later, Shabbat, the second day of the festival celebrated in the diaspora. After all, Mount Sinai is not within the land. The giving of the Torah is based on its having been given in exile.
Why? I believe the Torah — certainly the Seven Noahide Laws of morality and even the Ten Commandments — is meant for the entire world. Doesn’t Maimonides exhort us to teach every human to keep the Noahide Laws and insist that eventually “everyone will return to the true religion”?
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. Torah must affect and transform the entire planet.
Torah must welcome every gentile into its protective tent. Abraham must realize his destiny as a father of a multitude of nations, and every convert must be seen as another Abraham and welcomed into the family.
As Boaz replies to Ruth when she asks why he has shown her, “a stranger,” so many kindnesses: “You left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have gone with a nation which you did not know yesterday or the day before …”
Finally, there 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 world of God from Jerusalem.”
As Isaiah teaches: “For My house must be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.