The Story of Shavuot: The First Rules for a Free People

For reading to, or with, younger children

At the end of the Passover story "The Greatest Escape", we left the Israelites celebrating their escape from slavery in Egypt. What happened next? Where did they go?

Torah teaches us that they headed east toward Canaan where their ancestors had lived before they went to Egypt. During their long journey home through the desert, the Israelites learned to be careful with their water and food supplies. Moses learned to share his huge leadership job with other people. Most importantly, all the people had to learn how to live in freedom since they were no longer slaves.

When people are slaves, their masters tell them what do all the time. A slave has no choice, but a free person can choose what to do and when to do it.

So, what did the Israelites have to learn? Being free is not as easy as you may think. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do whatever you want, whenever you want? If you think about it long enough, you’ll agree: It's not that simple. If everybody does whatever they want, whenever they want, it gets crazy and chaotic pretty quickly.

How do we keep the chaos away? Good manners and, sometimes, even rules!

After 49 days of walking through the desert towards Canaan, the Israelites came to the base of a large mountain called Mt. Sinai. God called for Moses to climb the mountain and tell everyone else that a very important message was coming in three days. The message would be clear enough for all the people to hear, not a private conversation between God and Moses. Moses came back down and told everyone to get ready for the big event.

On the third day, the Israelites awoke to loud thunder and lighting, and a loud horn was blaring. When they looked to the mountain, they saw smoke and fire rising from it. By the time Moses assembled everyone at the bottom, the ground was shaking. Moses told everybody to stand where they were.

Out of the smoke and fire came a voice, which proclaimed 10 rules for living together. Some of them might sound familiar, like “Honor your parents,” “Do not lie,” and “Do not steal.” Today, these rules are known as the Ten Commandments.

Everyone present at Mt. Sinai promised to follow these rules and to teach them to their children and their children’s children, and so on and so on. We still teach these rules today!

Each year, we retell this story during the spring holiday of Shavuot, which happens 49 days after Passover.