What the Holiday of Shavuot can teach us

Shavuot occurs exactly fifty days after the Passover seder. But in modern times, this Jewish Holiday is largely glossed over, even by Jews. Everyone knows about Passover, but fewer of us appreciate Shavuot, especially in modern times.

Shavuot, or Zman Matan Torateinu, is the Holiday that celebrates the “Giving of the Torah.”

Moses and the Ten Commandments.

Moses and the Ten Commandments. Engraved by H.Martin around 1850.

We can all recall the iconic scene In the film The Ten Commandments of Moses standing at the top of Mount Sinai holding the two tablets inscribed with The Ten Commandments, while the children of Israel are assembled at the bottom.

In a nutshell, these “commandments/aseret hadibrot”, are the guiding principles of the Jewish people about to become a nation at Mount Sinai, something akin to a constitution that Moses brokers between the people assembled and G-d himself. Rabbinic commentaries refer to this experience as the “eternal marriage ceremony” between God and his people.

Shavuot is inclusive.

Everyone present is included, both young and old. The text even has the mystical phrase, “those who are here today and those who are not yet here,” implying all Jewish souls, present, past and future. I want you to imagine this scene.

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 consent of the people.

In the text of the Torah, we read about Moses going up to the mountain and, as per God’s instruction, coming down to ask the people if they are willing to receive 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 to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation but only if they consented to the terms.

What does “mamlechet kohanim/a nation of priests, signify?

The word “hieroglyph” is Greek for a pictorial writing system. “Hiero” is Greek for priests, and hieroglyph is “priestly writing” because in ancient times and even up till relatively recent times, only priests were taught to read and write.

Moses, however, is instructed to teach the Torah to the elders. And, the elders are to teach it to the children of Israel. Thus, every person in Israel is to be taught the Torah, and thereby become a “kingdom of priests, i.e. a kingdom of teachers and learners.” They are to learn the Torah laws and become “holy,” i.e. sanctified by their unique relationship to G-d which exists only due to their relationship with God via 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 wondered, however, whether receiving the Torah in the wilderness could be considered willing consent? After all, how free is your consent if given under the most vulnerable conditions in the desert with no visible alternative? And so, the contract is renewed voluntarily every year by the Jewish people on this Holiday, the Holiday of Shavuot *2

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 this holy union, giving every Jew an opportunity to renew their vows each year. *4

The only traditional activity prescribed for the Holiday is “the study of Torah.” We read the portion of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1 – 20:23) and The Book of Ruth during the morning prayer service in the synagogue, and it is customary to study Torah all through the night of the Holiday. This year, due to the pandemic and curfew, a Torah study was organized in the synagogue from 6-9 pm for 25 people who registered ahead of time.

Rabbi Eliyahu Gateno *5 spoke about the meaning of the order of the Ten Commandments, which are traditionally seen as inscribed on two tablets with five on each one.

This 1768 parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer

This 1768 parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer emulated the 1675 Ten Commandments at the Amsterdam Esnoga synagogue.

The first five appear to be about the relationship between man and God.

  1. I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt.
  2. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
  5. The fifth commandment, “Honour thy Father and thy Mother,” does not seem to fit here unless one considers that the Creator of heaven and earth is also the Creator of man and so to honour one’s parents is also to honour the Creator.

The second tablet comprising commandments 6-10 appears to be about the relations between persons.

  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, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife or his slaves or his animals or anything of thy neighbour,” appears again to be of a different order than the previous four. Coveting/envy after all is a psychological aspect very different from the previously mentioned acts of murder, stealing, adultery, and bearing false witness.

Again, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain that many of the other actions derive from the very human trait of envy of one’s neighbours’ house or wife, or employees or livelihood. Working on this aspect of human nature may enable a person to avoid the human inclinations to murder, steal and so on.

 

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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