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Shavuot: Why Isn't "Torah Day" Actually In the Torah?
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The holiday of Shavuot it is on its way; what is this holiday all about?
Well, as it turns out, the answer to that question isn’t as simple as it might seem.
Most of us know this day as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. We stay up, many of us, all through the night, learning Torah, in honor of that incredible, momentous event that we actually read about in the synagogue in the morning, the story of the Revelation of the Torah, it’s almost like the Israelites themselves encamped around that mountain long ago, waiting to hear the Ten Commandments. This focus on the Sinai experience, I think it really defines Shavuot for most of us. As we are used to saying in our prayers, it’s zman matan torateinu, this is the time of the Giving of the Torah.
But there is one problem with all this. All of this stuff, that focus, it comes to us from later, rabbinic sources in our tradition.
In the Torah’s own descriptions of the holiday of Shavuot – and there are several scattered throughout the Torah – exactly none of those descriptions describe Shavuot as meant to commemorate the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. There just seems to be no mention of that, at all, in the Bible itself.
And, by the way, you would expect to see something like that in the biblical text. I mean, after all, the text, when it ordains the holiday of Pesach, say, it’s not shy about telling you why you are supposed to celebrate Pesach. We do it to remember the Exodus from Egypt, you know. The same goes for Sukkot. We do it to remember the protection God provided us in the desert, after we left Egypt. So you would expect to hear a pretty straightforward verse somewhere telling you about how happy we are that we got the Torah, and how we are supposed to remember that each year by celebrating this newly-minted holiday, Shavuot. But we don’t hear that.
What does the Torah tell us about this holiday? It tells us about all sorts of other stuff. In particular, we hear that Shavuot is a chag hakatzir, a harvest holiday. We hear that it is a yom habikkurim, a day on which first fruits are brought – in particular, a day on which we bring a special offering, two loaves of bread, the shtei halechem, from the new crop of wheat.
And we hear about some other things. The Torah tells us that on Shavuot, we should be happy. We should rejoice together with poor and dispossessed peoples – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ. Right after that, it tells us Vezacharta ki eved hayita bemitzrayim (Deuteronomy 16:12) – you should remember that you were slaves in Egypt, because somehow, the Shavuot holiday is meant to make us remember our experience as slaves in Egypt. But throughout all of this, the text seems to neglect to tell us what seems like the most important part: The part about commemorating the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. I mean, why are we staying up all night anyway?
So we are a little confused here. It almost seems like there is a Biblical Shavuot, and a Rabbinic Shavuot. The Biblical Shavuot seems to be some kind of harvest festival, a day on which we give first fruit, and are supposed to be happy and rejoice with the less fortunate, a day to remember we were once slaves in Egypt. I mean, there are some gaps here, I guess, in how this all fits together – exactly why we are supposed to be happy, doesn’t really get spelled out; exactly how the holiday is meant to help us understand we were once slaves doesn’t really get spelled out – but basically, you know, that’s what the holiday is like. But that whole picture of Shavuot seems very different than the “rabbinic Shavuot”, the one that celebrates the Giving of the Torah, the one where we stay up all night, we read the Ten Commandments.
So, what happened here? Did the rabbis get it wrong somehow? Did they not bother reading the Biblical description of the holiday? And what are we, you know, regular, ordinary people, supposed to do with Shavuot? Are we supposed to happily learn all night, and ignore what seems to be the Biblical version of the holiday; pretend we don’t know that Sinai seems curiously absent from the Torah’s own description of Shavuot?
Or maybe – you know, let’s just go out on a limb and be heretical for a moment here – maybe we should just discard this “rabbinic” version of the holiday and go back to what we think is a purer understanding of the day. Maybe we should just go back and celebrate the Biblical Shavuot, or what we think the Biblical Shavuot is. But... where would that even leave us? Everybody else in shul is learning all night, and you, you’re doing what? You don’t have a farm. You don’t have a harvest. You can’t bring first fruits. The closest you come to living an agricultural life is the name of your suburban development – Owings Mills; Thayer’s Fields – it’s named after the farmland that was destroyed by the developers when they came to build the houses in your white-picket-fence gated community. So who are you kidding? How exactly are you supposed to connect with the Biblical version of the day, you rabbinic-rejecting purist?
I want to suggest to you that there really aren’t two Shavuot holidays, a Biblical one and a rabbinic one; there is a singular, unitary Shavuot – a Shavuot that melds the two visions seamlessly. Astonishingly, I think, it is that Shavuot, the unified one, which is truly relevant to us throughout time, even in a more urban, less agricultural, age. To focus on either the rabbinic or what appears to us to be the Biblical Shavuot is to celebrate an incomplete holiday. The rabbis, I want to suggest to you, they weren’t crazy, and they weren’t willfully ignoring the Biblical text. On the contrary, they were reading it quite carefully indeed.
What did they know that you and I don’t yet know?
That’s what we need to figure out.
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