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Shavuot 5770-2010

“The Gift that Keeps on Giving”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Because of the holiday, the theme of this Torah message concerns the festival of Shavuot, rather than the weekly Torah portion, parashat Naso. For an analysis of Naso, please see our previous messages by clicking here.

As we have noted in the past, the Torah does not formally acknowledge the date of the festival of Shavuot. In parashat Emor, Leviticus 23, where the Torah lists all the holidays, Shavuot is not designated as a separate holiday but rather identified as the culmination of the counting of the Omer, the 49 days that are counted from the 2nd day of Passover until the day before Shavuot.

Leviticus 23:17 and the verses that follow, record the ritual of the two loaves of pure flour that are brought as a gift to G-d on Shavuot and of the animal sacrifices that are offered on that day. Leviticus 23:21 tells us that this day is to be a holy convocation, on which no work is permitted. No mention, however, is made about the giving of the Torah or what the day is intended to commemorate.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) suggests that the Torah calls the holiday “Shavuot,” which literally means weeks, because it is a culmination of counting seven weeks. Consequently, there is no reference to the giving of the Torah or the Ten Commandments.

We have suggested in our previous studies (Shavuot 5760-2000) that the reason that Shavuot is an “anonymous holiday” is because the giving of the Torah cannot be relegated to a single day. It is the holiday that keeps on giving. In effect, every single day of the year is a day for celebrating the giving of the Torah.

The Bible states in Exodus 19:1: “Ba’cho’desh ha’shlee’shee, l’tzayt B’nai Yisrael may’eretz Mitzrayim, bah’yom ha’zeh, bah’ooh midbar See’nai.” In the third month after the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai. Citing the old Midrash Tanchuma 7:13 and the Talmud, Berachot 63b, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) asserts that the Torah should not have written “on this day,” but “on that day” because the Torah is relating to an event that had already occurred. What then is meant by “on this day”? Rashi suggests that “on this day” is written so that the words of Torah should be regarded by every Jew as new, as if they were given today!

The Me’or Ay’na’yim (a major Chassidic commentary on the weekly Torah portions and the holidays by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, 1730-1797) asks: How is it possible that the words of Torah should be new and fresh in one’s eyes? After all, the Torah was given so long ago. How could these words possibly be fresh as on the day they were given? He suggests that every Jew is expected to be as enthusiastic as the ancient Israelites were at the time of the Torah’s giving, and declare daily, Exodus 24:7: “Nah’ah’seh v’nish’mah,”–-We will do, and we will understand! This is the essence of the Torah! This is what is meant in Deuteronomy 4:4: “But you who cling to the L-rd your G-d–-you are all alive today.” Clinging to the Al-mighty daily through His Torah is the core of Jewish life.

The Me’or Ay’na’yim further states that the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572, of Safed, considered the father of contemporary Jewish mysticism) stated that every single Jewish holiday, whether Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot, is, in effect, reenacted each year as part of the holiday ritual. On Passover, we, like the ancient Hebrews, re-experience the exodus from Egypt. On Sukkot we, like the Israelites of old, dwell in booths, and so it is with all holidays. But how do we reenact receiving the Torah on Shavuot? After all, it was already given. This, therefore, is what the rabbis mean when they say that the words of Torah should be new to the Jewish people as if it were given today. And this is what we must accept upon ourselves, not only on every Shavuot, but every single day.

It is interesting to note that there are two divergent records of Rashi’s statement. One version states that the words of Torah should be “cha’da’shim,” new, to you, as if they were given today. Another version asserts that they should be “chah’vee’vin,” beloved, upon you, as if they were given today. Although both versions sound quite similar, the differences are not insignificant. “New,” of course, implies an aura of excitement, of discovery. We have no idea what is in the gift box that we have received. It may be something that we greatly desire   or something that we could easily live without. “Chah’vee’vin,” however, implies that we have already opened the package, or that we know that gifts that we receive from a particular trusted friend are always thoughtful and deeply appreciated.

Of course, there is an upside and a downside to both. On the one hand, the fact that it is “new” means that there is an element of freshness, newness and excitement. But, we may not like the gift. Similarly, even receiving a gift from a trusted source may not be sufficiently appreciated if the giver has already showered so many gifts upon us that we take them for granted.

The great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (contemporary Israeli rabbi, b. 1937, known for his popular commentaries and translations of the Talmud and his prolific religious writings) once visited the Beginners Service that I conduct at Lincoln Square Synagogue, and addressed a few words to the participants. Rabbi Steinsaltz concluded his brief remarks with a most appropriate and meaningful blessing. The rabbi said to them, “I hope that you always remain “Beginners,” that you never become jaded, and that you always seek to explore more, and learn more, and find out more about our beautiful heritage.”

A similar message is implied by the name of the holiday Shavuot, when it is referred to as “Z’man Matan Torah’tay’nu,” the time of the giving of our Torah. The expression, “giving of our Torah” is not in the past tense, but rather the present. In fact, it is the continuous present tense. This unusual holiday appellation comes to teach that it is important to look upon the festival of Shavuot as if the clouds on Mount Sinai gather for us today and the Divine Presence is actually with us, dwelling alongside of us. We must perceive that at this very moment, the Al-mighty embraces us and speaks to us directly.

There are no people on earth who are more devoted to learning than the Jewish people. That is why Shavuot is one of the most exciting and meaningful times in a Jew’s life.

How fortunate are we, Israel, to have received the gift of Torah from the Al-mighty. Let us go and embrace it, as if we are receiving it for the very first time.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Shavuot is observed this year on Tuesday evening, May 18, and continues through Thursday night, May 20, 2010. “Chag Shavuot Samayach.”   Have a happy and festive Shavuot.