Lessons from Shavuot

Shavuot, known as Zman Matan Torateinu, occurs precisely fifty days after the Passover seder. However, in contemporary times, this Jewish celebration frequently slips unnoticed, even among Jews, in contrast to the widely recognized Passover. Shavuot tends to be underappreciated, particularly in the context of modern observance.

Shavuot commemorates the pivotal event of the “Giving of the Torah.”

Imprinted in our collective memory is the iconic portrayal in the film “The Ten Commandments,” depicting Moses atop Mount Sinai, cradling the two tablets engraved with The Ten Commandments as the congregation of Israel gathers below.

Simply put, the “commandments” or “aseret hadibrot” are the basic principles that unite the new Jewish nation at Mount Sinai. It’s as if Moses acts as a mediator, creating a constitutional agreement between the people and God. Rabbis often describe this significant event as an “eternal marriage ceremony,” symbolizing the enduring connection between God and His people.

Shavuot embraces inclusivity, welcoming all attendees regardless of age. The text even incorporates a mystical sentiment, invoking the phrase “those who are here today and those who are not yet here,” suggesting a connection to all Jewish souls across time—past, present, and future. Envision this profound scene of unity and participation.

Moses looks out and sees thousands of people.

He says to the people, “atem nitzavim hayom kulchem”.

You’re all standing here together, the leaders, the men, the women, the children, the stranger, the people who cut the trees and the people who draw water from the wells.

You’re all standing here to enter a covenant. And furthermore, the covenant between you and God is not just with you. It’s also with those who are not here today.

V’et asher einenu po imanu hayom.” (Deut. 29:13) *1

Shavuot requires the collective consent of the people. In the Torah, we encounter the account of Moses ascending the mountain and, by God’s directive, descending to inquire of the people’s willingness to accept the Torah.

“And Moses went up to God.

The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the LORD had commanded him.” (Exodus 19: 1-7)

The people were promised the opportunity to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, with the condition that they agreed to the specified terms.

What does being a “mamlechet kohanim” or a “nation of priests” signify?

The term “hieroglyph” originates from Greek and refers to a pictorial writing system. In Greek, “Hiero” means priests, and “hieroglyph” translates to “priestly writing.” This term emerged because only priests knew reading and writing in ancient times and even more recently.

Contrary to this exclusivity, Moses is given the directive to impart the teachings of the Torah not only to the priests but also to the elders. The elders, in turn, are tasked with transmitting this knowledge to the children of Israel. Consequently, every individual within Israel is to receive instruction in the Torah, transforming the entire community into a “kingdom of priests” — a collective of both teachers and learners. The emphasis lies on acquiring knowledge of Torah laws, leading to holiness. This sanctification arises from their distinctive relationship with G-d, a connection established through the covenant of the Torah.

“All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do!’

And Moses brought back the people’s words to the LORD.” (Exodus 19 v 1-8)

The Rabbis pondered how accepting the Torah in the wilderness could genuinely express willing consent. After all, the question arose: Given the vulnerable conditions in the desert, with no apparent alternatives, they wondered about the authenticity of consent. Consequently, the Jewish people renew their commitment annually on the Shavuot holiday.

All are witnesses when the mountain thunders, and they both “see and hear” the giving of the Commandments.

“All the people saw the sounds and the lightning, the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 20:15) *3

Shavuot celebrates the strong connection among the Jewish people, offering a yearly chance for everyone to renew their commitment. *4 The main tradition for this holiday is studying the Torah. During the morning prayer service in the synagogue, we read the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1 – 20:23) and The Book of Ruth. It’s also common to study the Torah all night.

Due to the ongoing pandemic and curfew restrictions this year, a special Torah study session was organized in the synagogue from 6 to 9 pm. Limited to 25 pre-registered participants, this effort aimed to maintain the valued tradition while following safety guidelines.

Rabbi Eliyahu Gateno explained the importance of how the Ten Commandments are traditionally arranged on two tablets, with five commandments on each. *5

  1. Acknowledge: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”
  2. Worship: “You shall have no other gods before me; avoid making graven images.”
  3. Reverence: “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
  4. Observe: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”
  5. The fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” may seem distinct, but considering that the Creator of the heavens and earth is also the Creator of humanity, honouring parents becomes a way of keeping the Creator.

The second tablet, encompassing commandments 6-10, addresses interpersonal relationships. It delineates moral imperatives related to the treatment of others:

  1. “Thou shalt not murder.”
  2. “Thou shalt not steal.”
  3. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
  4. “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
  5. The tenth commandment is distinct, extending beyond overt actions. It cautions against coveting, expressing a psychological aspect different from the preceding four commandments. It admonishes against desiring your neighbour’s wife, enslaved people, animals, or any possession of your neighbour.

The Rabbis of the Talmud elaborates that numerous actions stem from the inherent human tendency to envy aspects of one’s neighbours, such as their household, spouse, employees, or livelihood. Consequently, addressing and mitigating this aspect of human nature can help individuals avoid inclinations toward murder and theft.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Generations Yet Unborn Are Watching, Sunday, September 15, 2013
  2. The Shadow of the Mountain: Consent and Coercion at Sinai By Gerald Blitstein
  3. Sefaria: Seeing sound making sense of Sinai offers a collection of the many oral Torah explications over the centuries and within our own time about seeing and hearing the voices and sounds at Sinai.

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