IT'S A DATE
Rabbi David Walk
This may come as a news flash to most traditional women, but, according to the Torah, the holiday which requires the most preparation is Shavuot. I wouldn't have the nerve to make such an announcement to a female audience during the month between Purim and Pesach. Even men (whose preparation for Jewish holidays is tepid at best) seem to work harder getting ready for Sukkot than for Shavuot. Rabbis (gender TBD) find that the High Holidays need the greatest effort to get ready for them. However, the Torah instituted a 49 day run up to Shavuot, and the original event had an intensive three day sacred purification process, called the Three Days of Limitations. What makes this Biblical reality even more ironic is that we don't even know either the date of Shavuot or exactly what happened that day. The Torah never gives this holiday our famous designation of the Time of our Receiving the Torah. The verses just refer to this holiday as the Holiday of Weeks or of the First Fruits. Why this double message? Work hard to get to ready, but it's not clear exactly what you're getting ready for.
First let's deal with that First Fruits moniker. The Netivot Shalom (Reb Shalom Noach Barzovsky of Slonim, 1911-2000) says that we emphasize the first fruits because that was the individual Jew's service on that day. The Torah doesn't identify the festival with the revelation at Mount Sinai, because all the initiative for that phenomenon came from on high. We were passive, maybe even reluctant. So, according to the Rebbe, we are stressing our activities, rather than God's. Now, this could lead to frustration on our part, because we don't bring the first fruits any more since we've lost the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Rebbe solves that problem by suggesting that the symbolism of the First Fruit offering should remind us about annual renewal. There are the First Fruits offered every year, and we can be new and fresh every year as well. We should make this the endeavor of the seven weeks of preparation for Shavuot. We should almost feel like potential converts to Judaism, like Ruth, preparing for the immanent conversion on Shavuot. Remember conversion isn't about knowing specific things. It's about commitment. That's what we renew each year.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, when noting the agricultural aspect of Shavuot, discussed the fact that the Torah also refers to Shavuot as the Holiday of Katzir (reaping, Exodus 23:16). He wanted to know if the katzir feature of Shavuot can teach us something about the Torah giving character of the feast, which is not specified in the Torah. Obviously the answer is yes; otherwise I wouldn't allow this question to have appeared in my article. But what is the connection? We compare katzir (reaping) with asif (in-gathering, which occurs at Sukkot). What's the difference? Rav Lichtenstein explains that katzir is the very beginning of the grain's humanly controlled processes. It still must go through many stages, like threshing, winnowing, milling, kneading and baking, until it can be actually consumed by us. Similarly, the transmission of Torah at Mount Sinai was the beginning of a long process through which we can make these laws applicable to our lives. According to Rav Aharon, the experience at Mount Sinai was more of a challenge than a gift. Would we study this material with an eye towards making it the basis for our behavior patterns, or not? It was an unfinished gift, not just quotable sound bytes. Therefore we don't emphasize that it was given. The Torah by using the name katzir stresses the fact that it's an eternal work in progress.
Rav Lichtenstein's long time colleague, Rav Yehuda Amital OB"M, has a different take on this problem. He is concerned by the fact that the Torah never explicitly states that the Torah was given on Shavuot. He quotes the Maharal M'Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Lowe, 1520-1609), who explains that Jewish holidays require us to be happy. However, receiving the Torah may not be cause for the casual observer to be happy, because it may appear to be a new form of slavery. Just look at all those rules. It was the Rabbis many generations later who declared that our happiness on this festival derives from our appreciation of this great treasure. Without coercion and prompting we independently realized our joy for the Torah.
Now we can look at a famous Talmudic story in a new way. In Tractate Shabbat (88a) it says that God held Mount Sinai over the Jews heads as a threat to accept the Torah or else. The story continues to explain that the Jews finally accepted the Torah voluntarily over seven centuries later, at the time of Purim. In the Megillah (9:23) it says that they fulfilled and accepted the Torah; the Talmud adds that which they had already accepted. Although there are many ways of interpreting that passage, in light of our discussion, perhaps we can discern a novel approach. Maybe, the Jews didn't accept the Torah at Mount Sinai; maybe they accepted God. Until Purim mitzva performance only reflected our allegiance to God, but from Purim on we had a new commitment to every precept of the Torah as well. Again, we have a reason for not mentioning the acceptance at Mount Sinai in the Torah. It took a long time for the Jews to really see the Torah as their own.
So, making Shavuot into a day when we celebrate our acceptance of the Torah required enormous preparation, more than seven centuries worth. This explains why it was the Sages who finally understood that this was the proper day for celebrating our acceptance of the Torah, because only in retrospect did we understand this process which began on that morning at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
Oh, and why didn't the Torah ever specify the date of that event? Because we can accept the Torah as our heritage, guide and mentor every day. It just takes our annual commemoration of Shavuot to remind us of that significant fact. Chag Sameach!
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