Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Walk Article-Shavuot



Rabbi David Walk


            There is a custom to stay up all night on Shavuot in anticipation of the revelation of the Torah in the morning.  The logic of this particular practice seems weaker to me every year.  By about three AM I have a lot of difficulty rationalizing my absence from a comfy bed.  However the continued popularity of this custom for the last 500 years shows that it strikes a resonant chord in our national soul.  So, what is the appeal of this persistent custom?  I believe that there is a desire to recapture the Mt. Sinai experience.  Remember on Pesach our Seder recreates the exodus and sitting in the Sukkah during Sukkot recalls the years in the desert, therefore we have established this practice to help us relive that morning at Sinai.  Now we must ask, what is the essence of that experience? 

            There seems to be a difference of opinion about the nature of the event at Mt. Sinai.  We have two different quotes in the Mishneh about this event.  In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) it says that Moshe received the Torah from Mt. Sinai.  This makes the event sound very earthly and this worldly.  However, in tractate Sanhedrin (which discusses courts and trials) it includes one who says that Moshe didn't get the Torah from heaven amongst those who won't have a portion in the World to Come.  This makes the Torah and that event sound like an otherworldly affair, maybe akin to the last scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  So, it does seem that there is an argument about this very basic question.  I believe that this is a very important and fundamental discussion within the Torah world.  Do we view the Torah and its reception as a glimpse into theophany and the nature of the heavenly, or do we think of this experience as an intellectual event and a recognition that the Torah is more God's anthropology than our theology?

            I, obviously, can't resolve this issue.  This debate will continue as long as scholars deliberate on the basic nature of Torah, in other words, forever.  But that won't prevent me from taking sides on this issue.  For me the mystical and the esoteric approach is more about metaphor and symbolism than about reality.  So, I would like to think that the happening at the foot of Mt. Sinai was more of an intellectual event.  People's minds were being expanded and challenged by truths and ideas being presented by Divine decree.  The epiphany was in our brain as much as in our souls.  With this in mind we can ponder a famous question about the event.  In chapter 19 of Exodus Moshe reports to the Jews that if they listen to God's words and guard the Divine covenant then they will be God's nation and most treasured possession.  In verse eight appears the Jews' response:  And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do. And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.  This inspiring answer is the prelude to the great revelation at Sinai.  God makes an offer and the Jews can't refuse.  However after the recital of the Ten Commandments, the assembled throng declares something else:  Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people. Again they all responded, "We will do everything the Lord has commanded. We will obey (Exodus 24:7)."  This is the famous phrase na'aseh v'nishma.  Why the change?  What idea is being added?

            Our Sages over the years have made a big deal of this second declaration.  In the Talmud (Shabbat 86a) we have God asking who revealed this secret of the angels to the Jewish people.  But what did it add to our understanding of the experience at Sinai?  The basic approach to this issue is that we have totally committed ourselves to God.  We promise to accept both the yoke of heaven and the yoke of mitzvoth.  But Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB"M presented a more comprehensive approach.  He explained that three elements had occurred between the first declaration and the second to change the format of their commitment.  First of all they heard and experienced the epiphany at Sinai.  There was both fear and attraction to the awesome reality of revelation.  Secondly, Moshe taught the laws in the Torah reading of Mishpatim.  These are heavy duty laws which required serious Torah study.  The philosophy of accepting God is now about understanding the ox which gores or returning a lost article.  And, finally, Rav Lichtenstein points out that these laws mold an assembly of people into a Torah society.  We build our communities and ourselves on a foundation of divine laws.  Rav Aharon concludes, 'These three factors, on the personal and national levels, provided the impetus for the transition from the first stage, accepting the Torah, to the second stage, sacrifice.'

            I'd like to add another dimension.  The word nishma means 'we will listen', but it can also mean 'we will understand'.  The big change was a commitment to Torah and its study.  The Jews, I believe, saw the events at Sinai as a major step in their maturation as a people.  In their transition from a slave nation they were seeing for the first time the responsibilities of a free people.  This included a serious commitment to Torah study.  Slaves are basically robots; free men are required to study, to think, to decide.  This became apparent to them at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

            Now we can go back to that custom of staying up all night.  The purpose of this sleep deprivation is to renew our devotion to the Torah and its study.  We pulled history's first 'all nighter' to show that we are worthy of accepting the Torah.  This requires a double dedication to do what the Torah demands, but also to study and try to understand this allegiance to God's communiqué.  Staying up without serious Torah study just misses the point.  Chag Sameach.