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,” or 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.’

These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.

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 if they agree.

Mamlechet kohanim v’goy Kadosh.”

What does “mamlechet kohanim,” or 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,” 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 mutual choosing.

“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. *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 four 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 respect owed to parents, our earthly creators, ought to be no less than the respect owed to the Creator of heaven and earth.

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. After all, “coveting” is a very hidden psychological aspect rather than the earlier acts. It would seem that coveting generally is a psychological aspect that perhaps precedes acts such as murder, stealing, adultery, and bearing false witness.

Again, the Rabbis of the Talmud share a story that illustrates how coveting will lead you to all the other sins. And yet, we have this order, perhaps to warn us that in the end, the behaviour is more important than the potential thought leading to that behaviour. And, they explain that the principle that enjoins man from coveting is perhaps a guide to a refinement of character, which will enable a person to avoid these sins, these human inclinations to murder, steal and so on.

Why do we read the Book of Ruth?

The next speaker discussed The Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795.

Naomi’s husband and two sons have all died. She, therefore, recommends to her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, that they return to their countrymen. Naomi explains that she is destitute and has no more sons for them to marry. Orpah does so, but Ruth insists on staying with Naomi, saying:

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth ch 1: v.16–17)

The story continues with what happens upon their return.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, oil on canvas, 1828; National Gallery, London.

Ruth goes out to the fields to collect grain during the harvest as per Torah custom for providing for the poor – leket, shichecha and paya *6. She encounters Boaz, the owner of the field. Although he is much older than Ruth, with Naomis’ directives, Ruth and Boaz are married, fulfilling the biblical law of “yibum,” levirate marriage *7. This results in the birth of Obed, the father of Jesse, who gives birth to David, anointed as King David, the progenitor of the Kingship line and the Messiah to be, in Israel.

The short Book of Ruth reminds us of Torah laws, written, oral, and rabbinic, including caring for the weak, the widow and the orphan, and caring for the legacy of the deceased through marriage. It is a reminder of how the Torah affects Jewish life and history throughout the ages.

The Holiday of Shavuot is hence the culmination of the Jewish people’s devotion to G-d and His Torah and an annual reenactment of the eternal loving marriage between G-d and Israel in good times and bad. In this sense, it goes to the essence of what it means to be a Jew.

 

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.
  4. These thoughts are based on a recent zoom teaching about Shavuot by Rabbi Asher Jacobsen of the Chevra Synagogue in Montreal
  5. Rabbi Eliyahu Gateno, Kollel Torah Mitzion, Montreal
  6. leket, shichecha, pay, (Heb. לֶקֶט, שִׁכְחָה, וּפֵאָה; ” leket, gleanings, Shichecha, forgotten produce, and paya. the corners of the field” – Talmudic designation of three portions of the harvest which the farmer was enjoined to leave for the benefit of the poor and the stranger. Pe’ah (“corners”) and leket (“gleanings”) are enjoined in Leviticus 19:9–10, while shikhḥah (“forgotten produce”) and leket, in Deuteronomy 24:19–21  Encyclopedia.com.
  7. Yibum is the marriage between a widow whose husband died without offspring (the yevamah) and the brother or relative of the deceased (the yavam or levir: Deuteronomy 25:5–6) to maintain the genealogical line of the dead. Encyclopedia.com.

 

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