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Shavuot: Why Isn't "Torah Day" Actually In the Torah?
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At the cusp of entering the land of Canaan, at Jericho, we would finally leave no man’s land and come into possession of land of our own. As the walls of the city came tumbling down, we had the experience of being reunited with land that was particularly our own, our own ancestral land to which we, as a nation, were deeply connected from generations past, from the time of our own ancestors. The event that would give it to us would be a Yovel-type event. After seven times seven circuits around the city, the land would be demarcated, as Sinai had been, back in the desert. And once again, we would hear the blast of the Yovel Shofar, as we had heard it at Sinai.
With that blast of the Shofar, the era of life in the desert came to an end. Seemingly, we had left the intimate cocoon of God’s direct embrace; we were no longer fed from the Manna of Heavenly fields. We would have our very own land, now. Terrestrial land. Land that you could touch and feel and farm and it would provide for you. Land that you could build upon – that you could make permanent homes for yourself upon.
Except that, even as this was the case, a taste of the desert would remain with us. Because, remember, Jericho was a Yovel event – and, as a Yovel, event, it carries a distinct message:
Ki li ha’aretz…
The land, at the end of the day, is Mine. It belongs to God. It is not really something that can be owned by people. Yes, people relate to the land deeply. Land provides for us. Gives us shelter, gives us food. But it gives us that, as a parent would give a child these things. A child doesn’t really own a parent. We don’t really own the land. It is too sacred and special to be owned.
And to symbolize that, just as Sinai was set off limits and demarcated as “God space”, so would Jericho be. God proclaims that Jericho, this first bit of the conquest of Canaan, is not to be built up again by people. The spoils from the conquest of Jericho are not to be enjoyed by people. This little bit of land needs to actually be set apart from human consumption as a way of embedding in our consciousness that this entire body of land that we are getting – the Land of Canaan as a whole – although it will provide for us, although it will nourish us… we don’t really own it. It is too sacred for that. If anything, a parent possesses a child; a child doesn’t possess a parent. If anything, our land is owned by God, its parent. The child of the land – us, the people of Israel – as much as we get from the land, we can never really be its masters.
Every Fifty Years…
To help remind us of these truths about our connection to God and to the land, the Almighty ordains two observances that will recur perennially, as the years unfold.
One of these is the Yovel year, brought to us courtesy of a Shofar blast. This blast of a physical Shofar, produced by a human being, recalls for us the blast of a Heavenly Shofar we heard at Sinai. It signifies God’s Presence in the world – like it did at Sinai – and when God is present, we become aware of the realities about people and land. These two beings, these children of God, are too precious for us to really own. When God is present, the convention that we humans made up – the convention of private land ownership, the convention of human slavery – all that dissipates in the presence of the Master of the Universe. Land and People are free. We can never really own either. I can rent a land’s crops for a number of years; I can rent a person’s labor – but the idea that I can really own either; that either can be reduced to a mere economic asset controlled by me; that idea is a farce. In the Yovel Shofar’s call of the fiftieth year, we hear an echo of the Shofar at Sinai, and the message of each is the same: The Master of the Universe is present in the world, and He is claiming His children as His own: Ki Li Ha’aretz.
And Every Year…
But this truth is so important that it is not something we should remind ourselves of only every fifty years. God ordains another observance, too – a yearly observance – to help us live these truths. A Yovel-like holiday:
Look at how Shavuot lines up with Yovel:
When it comes to Yovel, God first asks us to count seven years – and then experience the neutrality of no-man’s land that is the Shmittah year. After that, God asks us to count seven times seven years – Sheva Shabbatot – and then experience the homecoming, the freedom, that is Yovel.
And now look at Shavuot. God first asks us to count the seven days of Pesach, days on which we remember exiting the land of slavery and heading into the desert, into no man’s land. After that, God asks us to count seven times seven days – Sheva Shavuot – and then to re-experience the homecoming, the freedom, that was Sinai – the event that transpired forty nine days after we exited Egypt.
Biblical Shavuot, Rabbinic Shavuot
It is now that we see how the Biblical and Rabbinic concepts of Shavuot really fuse into a single, seamless, whole. On the one hand, Shavuot is, as the rabbis say, an event that commemorates the Revelation at Sinai. But it commemorates that event from a certain perspective. The language of the Biblical text focuses our commemoration of that experience, so that we view it through a certain, particular lens. That lens, so to speak, is the Yovel-like quality of Sinai.
God’s radical revelation, His Presence – vibrates through our very bodies through the sound of the Shofar -- that sound, at Sinai, it set us free. It brought us back to our Parent in Heaven, allowed us to be gathered in by Him; and at that moment that we stood around Sinai, land that literally exited the terrestrial sphere and became taken over, as it were, by God – it was at that moment that we also came to understand, as clearly as never before, that: li kol ha’aretz – land is the possession of God’s, we do not really possess it. In the language that the Torah later on uses to characterize Yovel, gerim vetoshavim atem imadi, all we Israelites really are, are sojourners in God’s land.
And so, from the Biblical perspective, Shavuot – this day of commemorating revelation – it really does take on the character of an agricultural holiday. It is the holiday on which we learn how to relate to our land. It is the holiday that we gratefully experience our national homecoming to our Parent in Heaven, the Master of the Universe, and our understanding that if we come home to God, then our parent, land, it comes home to God, too.
And so the Torah tells us that Shavuot is a chag hakatzir, a harvest festival. We celebrate it during the time of our harvest. It is a time when we would otherwise be inclined to triumphantly reap land’s bounty and proclaim our sovereignty over this land that gives us wheat. Instead, though, we take pause, and ask ourselves: Who really owns this sacred resource?
Instead of hoarding the harvest, and simply stockpiling the grain in silos – Shavuot asks landowners to celebrate the harvest in a particular way. In the words of the text, on Shavuot we are to take מִסַּת נִדְבַת יָדְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּן: כַּאֲשֶׁר יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, the bounty of your hands-work [in the fields], as God has blessed you, וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, and you should rejoice in the presence of God with a great feast. And who should you invite to the feast? Your whole family: , אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ– you, your son, your daughter. After all, Shavuot is homecoming day, a day when people are gathered into their families. So you must celebrate with your families. But look at the definition of family here. Curiously, it has been expanded. Because look who else you are celebrating with: וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ – you must also rejoice in your bounty with your servant, your maidservant; with the Levite, with the ger, the sojourner, and with the widow. Who are these people? These are all people who don’t have any land. They are the dispossessed. And they are your family, too.
What are we supposed to do with these people? Listen carefully: We are not supposed to give them charity. Leftovers; handouts? No. We are to rejoice with them, celebrate with them. The point here is to include them as equals in the feast, and to let them experience the joy of the harvest the way an owner would -- the way a real stakeholder in the land would experience that joy. Indeed, the Torah even goes out of its way to tell us that, at the feast, we should serve our guests נִדְבַת יָדְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּן: כַּאֲשֶׁר יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ – food commensurate with the way God has blessed us. If we got more that year, the feast should be bigger. If we got less, the feast should be smaller. Now, you might intuitively say: Look, here’s a rich guy, he’s a landowner – let him feed them generously this once, even if it’s been a relatively lean year for him. He can afford it! But the Torah says no: Give your guests bounty as God has given you. Treat them as stakeholders. As if they were landowners, too, reaping more in good years, less in lean ones.
Why? Because we and them are similar: Geirim Vetoshavim atem imadi. You are all sojourners in the land. The land is too big to really be owned. The land provides for you, but the way a parent provides for its family. So, on this holiday in which you recognize that truth – here’s what you do: Bring first fruits to God, and recognize that the land is really His. And feast and rejoice in the land’s bounty with your family – expanding that sense of family to include all God’s Children, far beyond what would seem the obvious borders of family. The poor, the widow, the orphan, your servant – these are all your family, too. On this day, on Sinai day, the Master of the Universe made a nation of slaves free and proclaimed us all members of His family, all eligible for sustenance from the fields of Heaven. So on this day, emulate that – and let them all partake in the bounty of the land that God has given us.
In so doing, vezacharta – we remember, as the verse concludes, ki eved hayita b’eretz mitzrayim, that we were slaves in the land of Egypt.
How to Relate
So, let’s take stock together. How, if at all, would this understanding of Shavuot affect how it is that we actually relate to the holiday?
We talked before about a kind of “Biblical side” of Shavuot and a “Rabbinic side” to the holiday – and we’ve now seen that those two sides of the holiday actually complement one another. Yes, as the rabbis tell us, Shavuot celebrates the Sinai experience – but the Biblical side of the holiday gives us a lens through which to view that experience. We are celebrating more than just what was given to us on that Day of Revelation. We are celebrating the fact of revelation itself. What it meant that God showed up in the world, for us to be gathered into Him like family.
In a way, this idea that revelation was a Homecoming Day is actually the foundation of the Torah itself. What we received at Sinai, the Torah -- is inconceivable without how we received it, without the homecoming experience of Revelation. The original Shavuot, at Sinai, was a day on which we humans came home to our Father in Heaven, and it was a day on which we experienced land coming home to Him as well. On the day we experienced these truths about the sanctity of people and of land, about the fact that we cannot really own either; on that day, we received the Torah. It is a torah built on those truths, a Torah that tries to help us live those truths out every day of our lives.
Indeed, without those two truths, living out the commandments of the Torah is almost a farce. If the land is mine, if it is just an asset, nothing more – then I can take for granted how it nurtures me, and the home that it provides for me. And why should I listen to anybody, like God, tell me what to do? I have what I need. And if people are mine, if my neighbor can be just an asset, that I own – if my neighbor is reducible to my economic interest; then the Torah that asks me to relate to that neighbor is a farce.
The Torah is built on the realization of the sanctity of land and people. At its deepest level, God, people and land – they are all part of my family. Once those truths are accepted, the Torah – which gives me rules by which to relate – starts to make sense.
On Shavuot, we both bring bikkurim to God, and we feast and share the land’s bounty with those less fortunate and realize that they are family, too. For many of us in the twenty first century, it is hard to relate to Shavuot the way the text of the Bible portrays it. Most of us aren’t farmers. We don’t bring bikkurim, first fruits. Leaving aside the wilting tomato plants my son planted on the side of the house, we don’t really have bounty from our personal land that we could share with the Levite, the poor and the widow. I don’t have slaves. What am I supposed to do? How is Shavuot supposed to look for me?
Well, I might not have crops, and so I don’t give bikkurim to God. But I do create things – whether I’m an artist, a CEO, a musician, or a partner in a law firm. Maybe those are my fruits. Maybe there’s a way I can take some of my talent, what I do best in life, and say to myself: Most of these fruits I use to take care of myself, my family. But how can I dedicate some of them back to God? What might He wish me to use them for?
I may not have slaves. I may not know any orphans. But I might have a housekeeper from Honduras. She’s a stranger in a land not her own. Maybe Shavuot is a time to remind ourselves of the humanity she shares with the rest of our family. Maybe, as we celebrate Shavuot with our nuclear families, Shavuot is a time to give her a gift, give her a reason to celebrate a little along with you.
The anniversary of Revelation at Sinai is a day to learn Torah, to prize Torah, but it is also a day to recognize that the Master of the Universe is present in the World – and when He is, the sacredness of people shines. We come to understand that we are all members of the family of the Most High – even those whose fortune is low, or at least lower than ours. With our gifts above and below, given in joy, we recognize that all that we have is really the bounty of the Fields of Heaven.
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