Shavuot: What is it and Why Does it Matter

An All-Night Festival of Learning?

I am not a rabbi or a Hebrew scholar. My Jewish learning came from growing up in a traditional Jewish home, attending Jewish after-school classes after a full day at a Protestant public school in Montreal. My Jewish education was supplemented by a Jewish religious-zionist summer camp, Moshava, and Sabbath synagogue youth programs sponsored by Bnei Akiva. Today, I continue my Jewish learning by attending Torah classes, reading, travelling, listening to podcasts, and being active with my local synagogue. In addition, zoom has offered me an unparalleled opportunity to study the Torah during the pandemic with world-class rabbis and scholars, one of the few positive outcomes of this vicious scourge.

The rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud refer to Shuvaot as “zman matan toratenu,” the time of the giving of our Torah. This drama of the Ten Commandments is spelled out in Exodus (Ch.20, v.1-17).

Our sages have also asked why did God choose to give the Torah to the Israelites in the desert wilderness. The answer of the Rabbis may surprise you. They say it is to advise all people that the Torah is not the exclusive property of the Israelites: Given in the ownerless desert, the Torah too is available to “anyone who wants to receive it” – it is accessible to anyone who seeks it.

In his recent video, my nephew, Rabbi Yair Silverman, explores this topic.

What is the connection of the Ten Commandments to the rest of the Torah?

The Ten Commandments are known in Hebrew as “aseret hadibrot,” the Ten Statements, supposedly coming directly from the mouth of the Jewish God at Mount Sinai exactly fifty days after the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian oppression. The word “commandments” would apply more to the six hundred and thirteen “dinim and hukim” – laws and injunctions – prescribed by this Jewish god that the Israelites agreed to remember – zachor -and to rigorously observe -shamor. These rules are meant to cover all of man’s social, economic, intimate and spiritual relationships, initially prescribed for the Jewish people. Still, many have also become part of the world’s heritage. These Ten Statements can be compared to the American Constitution or Bill of Rights. The Torah is then the sourcebook for the six hundred and thirteen commandments derived from the book’s text. Let’s see how this works.

Here is one of the 613 laws of the Torah:

“You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures. You shall have accurate scales and weights.” (Leviticus Chapter 19, v. 35- 36)

This injunction warns citizens to avoid fraud and deceit in the marketplace. It would seem to be connected to the eighth commandment, “not to bear false witness against your neighbour,” and the ninth commandment, “not to steal.”  Our current Canadian society tries to monitor and enforce honesty in the marketplace through our civil and criminal courts. Indeed, we are reminded of the eighth commandment every time a court officer asks a person to swear on the bible and “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Unfortunately, few appreciate where these ideas and rules originate.

Here is another Torah injunction regarding the treatment of workers and their wages.

“Do not withhold the workers’ wage with you until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)
“Do not extort the impoverished wage from among your kin or the strangers that reside in your land and within your gates. Each day you shall pay him his wage—the sun shall not rise upon it—for he is poor, and he has staked his life for it.” (Deuteronomy Ch.24 V.14-15)

This, too, seems to echo the eighth and ninth principle, “You shall not steal -#8, or bear false witness -#9.”

These principles are also internally connected. For instance, the tenth commandment, “Not to covet your neighbour’s wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, donkey, or anything else that is your neighbour’s,”  may lead you to engage in murder(6), adultery (7) theft (9), or deceit (9).

Not only Individuals but also groups and nations can be vulnerable to ideas that will lead them down the primrose path to deceit, theft, adultery and murder. This is best exemplified by the Nazi ideology that coveted the assets and talents of Jews, the lands and slave labour of the Slavs, Ukrainians and Russians. In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that the Aryan German citizens were disadvantaged by the success of German Jewish citizens living amongst them. In reality, Jews contributed their intellectual and financial strengths to the German state and any state they inhabited without asking for anything other than to be accepted and respected as equal citizens. This sad story is brilliantly portrayed in Amos Elon’s book, The Pity of it all: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933, which shares the intimate stories of the individuals who inhabited this period. A powerful and tragic read!

What about the First Five Commandments? How do we understand them in our day? Can these requests about how to relate to the Divinity speak to us today?

First Statement, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” Why does God worry about this? Does He have self-doubts?

Second Statement, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” Why is this important?

The third Statement, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” What is the danger here?

To understand these commandments, we must understand the historical context of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai.

The Egyptian Pharoh was not just worshiped as a King. He had the authority of a God similar to autocrats of our time, such as the Soviet-era Stalin or the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. They both have many giant statues of themselves erected in the public square. And woe to you if you criticize or dishonour their name. Vladimir Putin also seems to have taken a page from their playbook.

The Israelite Divinity, by contrast, is asking the Israelites not to build statues or pictures but to follow the rules designed to safeguard society by protecting the unsuspecting and the vulnerable.

In the desert of Sinai, this Jewish God is asking the Israelites to accept the dictates of an “invisible” God, one who introduces himself as “the creator of all that exists on earth under our sky” and the One “who saw and heard their pain and managed to remove them from the oppressive conditions of Egyptian servitude.”

But as I wrote in my recent blog, Matzah Passover and Freedom:

“The road to freedom and redemption is long and winding and does not end when the Jews leave Egypt. It is only the beginning – the freedom from oppression”.

True freedom can only come from an ordered society imbued with love and care for one another, and the Torah offers us a blueprint for this. As Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks has noted:

“Freedom is not won by merely overthrowing a tyrannical ruler or an oppressive regime. That is usually only the prelude to a new tyranny, a new oppression. The faces change, but not the script. True freedom requires the rule of law and justice and a judicial system in which the rights of some are not secured by the denial of rights to others.” *1

But before God’s laws can be accepted, his authority must be established in the people’s eyes. This is done using the familiar Egyptian language and rituals of divine authority. So, this God asks the Israelites to accord him the same reverence they previously were offering the Pharoh-God, but this time, it is not for God’s benefit but to improve the lives of the Israelites themselves. The Torah text repeatedly emphasizes that these statutes are meant not to benefit the Divinity but to improve the lives of the Israelites and all future generations who would follow the Torah precepts.

The Jewish God differentiates himself from the Pharoh-God of Egypt by asking his subjects not to build statues to honour him but to follow specific ideas and to love and care for each other, whether family member, compatriot or a stranger.

The fourth Statement advises:

Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God. You shall not do any manner of work—you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your cattle, and your stranger within your gates. For six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath Day and hallowed it.”

Does an infinite God require rest? This, too, seems only to benefit man. The institution of the Sabbath is God’s greatest gift to humanity, a guarantee of equality of value for all peoples and animals.  Many scientific studies have validated the human need for regular rest and rejuvenation. The Torah demands it as a civil right for all, and woe to him who neglects this important rule.

The fifth Statement is

“Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee”:

How does this fit here? It turns out that parents are God’s first deputies, the ones most responsible for passing on civilizational ideas from generation to generation. Hence, respecting and honouring parents is as crucial as reverencing this particular God.

 

How do Jews celebrate this Jewish holiday today?

Armed with tea or coffee this weekend, many Jews will settle for their annual all-night Torah studies session, which has become the traditional way to celebrate Shavuot in many communities worldwide.

It is said that the study of the Torah is as deep and as vast as the ocean. But, when a cheeky Roman soldier asked Rabbi Akiva in the 1st century AD whether the soldier could be taught all of the Torah while he stood on one leg, the Rabbi replied: “Yes. Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you. The rest is commentary.”

The Baal Shem Tov, leader of the Hassidic movement in the 17th century, taught that Torah precepts and God’s concern for us could be experienced not only through academic study but also through good food, drink, and laughter, song and dance.

The Torah has served as a guiding light and a constitution for the Jewish people through good times and bad. It is designed to prescribe freedom, joy, and prosperity for all who grasp it with its many parables and six hundred and thirteen injunctions or mitzvot.

At the Passover seder meal, we are called “to see ourselves as having personally escaped from the slavery of Egypt.” On Shavuot night, we are each asked to appreciate and personally receive the Torah, the embodiment of the Jewish peoples’ heritage.

We are fortunate and privileged to live in a time when Torah study is accessible to all, if not live in person, at least through the internet.

I wish you all a joyous Shavuot celebration. May your festivities be filled with engagement with Torah, good food and friends on Shavuot and throughout the year!

Hag shavuot sameach,
Have a joyous Shavuot.

 

Footnotes:

*1 Passover Has Lessons For Those Fighting Freedom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

2 thoughts on “Shavuot: What is it and Why Does it Matter

  1. The lessons of the Torah and your call for the study of Torah on Shavuot is carefully put together and compelling.
    Dr. Gita Arian Baack,
    Ottawa

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