Shavuot | Journey To Sinai
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Sometimes one phrase can capture the essence of something. That, of course, is the great skill of marketing. Great marketers know how to sum up the essence of a product in a catch phrase or a product name. On a deeper level, this is why names are important. They capture the essence of a thing.
We are approaching the festival of Shavuot. What does the name, “Shavuot”, mean? Where does it originate? How does it capture the essence of the festival?
We know that, as with everything named in the Torah, the names of the festivals reflect their essence. So Pesach, Passover, refers to the way we were miraculously brought forth from Egypt, G-d passing over the houses of the Jews in Egypt, saving us from the hands of our oppressors, and bringing us to freedom. Succot refers to the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah – the booths we lived in, under G-d’s protection, in the desert. The same applies to Rosh Hashanah – the New Year, and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. All of these names reflect the essence of the festival.
Shavuot is the festival which celebrates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. On the 6th of Sivan in the year 2448, exactly 3328 years ago, and exactly fifty days after we’d left Egypt, we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah from G-d. The question is, how does the name “Shavuot” capture this essence ?
Literally translated, Shavuot means “weeks”. It relates to a mitzvah which we are fulfilling at the moment – the counting of the Omer. This is the 49 days – seven weeks – we count between Pesach and Shavuot, corresponding with the period between leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah. (We count both the days and the weeks – for example, on day 10, we say “Today is ten days, which are one week and three days, of the Omer”.) The night of the 50th day is Shavuot, which we don’t count.
Why is the festival itself named “Weeks”? One idea I came across a few years ago is that it is to emphasise the preparation and the journey towards accepting the Torah, rather than the destination. Incorporating Torah into our lives is a journey, an ongoing process.
We see this idea alluded to in the name given to Torah law. It’s called “halachah” – literally, “walking”. And indeed there are many phrases in the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), that refer to this idea of “walking” in the commandments. Just two weeks ago, at the beginning of parshat Bechukatai, we read, “Im Bechukotai Teileichu…”, “If you will walk in My statutes..”. The Torah is telling us the importance of walking, of journeying; that the journey is more important than the destination. But what kind of journey are we talking about?
Certainly it’s a journey of self-improvement and personal development and growth. In the language of our Sages, angels are referred to as Omdim, “those who stand”, while human beings are called M’halchim (“those who walk”). The reason is that angels are static. They are already perfect, and therefore have nowhere to go, nowhere to walk. Human beings on the other hand are imperfect but dynamic. Nothing stays the same. Life changes all the time. We ourselves are in constant flux. And our calling and challenge in life is to be dynamically improving rather than dynamically regressing; to ensure that the changes we undergo and undertake are always for the good.
The point is, we have to keep on moving and improving and progressing, and never be stuck in the same place. Halachah, walking, is a journey towards a destination, and that destination is Mount Sinai. And it’s a destination we never arrive at. Believing we’ve arrived breeds arrogance and complacency; a sense of self-satisfaction and a feeling that we have nothing left to improve. On the contrary, there is always room to improve. That is what makes life exciting – the fact that it’s dynamic and we can continue to grow.
This concept of constant growth applies to all of Judaism, and all of the commandments that we fulfill. But it applies specifically, and in a more profound way, to the mitzvah of Torah study. That’s the major theme of Shavuot. We received the Torah – its contents and its ideas – and we have to delve into those ideas through Torah study.
The conventional wisdom is that the root of the Hebrew word “Torah” is Hora’ah, which means instruction, guidance or teaching. And indeed, the Torah is a book of instructions; a set of practical and philosophical guidelines on how to live life, and how to relate to the world around us.
Rav Yaakov Tzvi Meklenburg, one of the great Chumash commentators from Germany in the 19th century, has a more novel interpretation. In his book, Haketav VehaKabbalah he says the root of the word “Torah” originates from the verse in the Book of Barmidbar (Numbers). When the Jewish people in the desert reach the edge of the land of Israel, Moshe sends spies to spy out the land. The phrase the Torah uses here is Latur et Ha’aretz – “to explore the land”. Rav Meklenburg points out that “Latur” (“explore”) is spelled out using the same letters as the word, “Torah”. He explains that this concept lies at the root of Torah. To learn Torah is to investigate it; to delve into, explore and discover its mysteries. The journey of Torah, says Rav Meklenburg, is a journey of understanding the universe from G-d’s perspective. It is the process of uncovering and unravelling all of the deep meaning and deep wisdom hidden within.
Rav Meklenburg connects this idea to the word “chok” – a Torah statute. Different Hebrew words refer to different types of commandments. Certain commandments we refer to as “Mitzvot”, others we refer to as “Chukkot” (the plural of “chok”). Rav Meklenburg explains there are three inter-related ways to understand the word “chok” – it can mean “inside”, “investigate”, or “dig a hole” (in the ground). Says Rav Meklenburg, the common denominator with all three understandings of the word for a Torah statute, is the idea of delving into something – digging, uncovering, going beneath the surface, not looking at things superficially.
Rav Meklenburg makes these comments on the opening words of parshat Bechukatai, mentioned above: “Im Bechukotai Teileichu…”, “If you will walk in My statutes [Chukkim]..”. He quotes Talmudic sources stating that this refers not only to the study of Torah in general but specifically to the study of the Oral Torah. We know that when G-d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai, He gave it to us in two parts – the written text as well as an oral tradition that accompanies it. And that oral tradition delves beneath the text. The text cannot be understood on its own. It has a certain base level of meaning, which the oral tradition explores and deepens, both from a legal, and also a philosophical and ideological point of view. Anyone who has studied the great Talmudic tractate of Bava Kamma, which deals with the laws of damages and all kinds of other civil issues, and then looks at the verses in parshat Mishpatim (in the Book of Exodus) upon which these laws are based, will understand this. The laws of damages as set out in the Chumash are just a scratch of the surface. And this is just one example.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in explaining the relationship between the written and the oral Torah, says the Written Torah is like the shorthand notes you’d take in a lecture. The full meaning and significance of the lecture extends far beyond what you’ve written down in a few cryptic lines and symbols. Similarly, he says, the Written Torah is just a very terse distillation of the essence of the Torah’s framework; it merely hints at the totality of what the Torah is about. The Oral Torah – which is now encapsulated in all the various writings of the Talmud and its commentaries – is the real depth and the full understanding of what the written Torah is about. And of course, they cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin, together constituting the entire system.
In summary, Rav Meklenburg says that this dimension of digging beneath the surface is alluded to in the opening line of parshat Bechukotai – which the Talmud says refers to putting effort into the study of Torah, and specifically the Oral Torah. This process of delving into the Torah uncovers the real meaning that lies beneath the surface, which he says relates to the study of Torah in its totality – both written and the oral from the language of Latur et Ha’aretz, “to spy out/explore the land”.
In other words, according to Rav Meklenburg, studying Torah is the process of uncovering its secrets, of delving beneath the surface. And there are endless layers of meaning because this is the wisdom of G-d. And if it’s the wisdom of G-d, it must of necessity be infinite. What this means is that Torah can never be conquered. There’s no end, and there’s not even a beginning – which is why the very first letter of the Torah is a Bet (the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet) rather than an Aleph (the first letter). This is also why every tractate of the Talmud starts on page two. Torah study is a process – an ongoing, never-ending one.
This is the theme of Shavuot – our journey towards Mount Sinai. Our focus on the journey rather than the destination. A journey of continual growth and development.
What is the great engine and driver for positive change within a Jew? It is the new insight and new understanding acquired through Torah study. When we delve into Torah, we start to see the world from G-d’s perspective, accessing teachings and wisdom that pertain to every aspect of creation. As we mentioned, there’s no end to it – we can uncover secret after secret, unwrap layer after layer, and that is what makes it exciting. Once we conquer something, we put it in our back pocket, and it becomes boring, no longer relevant or stimulating. Excitement in life comes from mystique; from the unknowable and the unattainable. With the Torah, no matter what we have learned, there is always more to learn, a new step to conquer. And that’s why Shavuot – the festival of the giving of the Torah – is named for the journey not the destination.
However, while we don’t focus on the destination and instead emphasise the journey, we still need to know what we’re striving for. What is the ultimate goal of this journey towards Mount Sinai, towards Torah?
Broadly speaking, the goal is to live a life in accordance with the principles, instructions and teachings of the Torah. But beyond these practicalities, philosophically, that goal – that destination we are headed towards – is freedom.
The Torah tells us that the sound of the Shofar was heard at Mount Sinai to herald the giving of the Torah. What is the significance of this? We know that besides the Omer, there is another mitzvah that involves counting to 49 – the 49 years leading up to the fiftieth year – the Yovel or “Jubilee” year. And in the same way we count forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuot, which add up to seven weeks, we also break up the 49 years of the Jubilee count into seven seven-year cycles. Every seventh year becomes the “Sabbatical” year. After seven Sabbatical years, we arrive at the 50th year, the Jubilee year – a clear parallel to Shavuot.
This idea – that the 50-year Jubilee cycle in the land of Israel models the fifty days from Pesach to Shavuot is formulated by one of our great commentators, the Kli Yakar. He points out that just as the giving of the Torah is heralded with the sounding of the shofar, so too is the start of the Jubilee year. In the case of the latter, the shofar is a call for freedom throughout the land, with all slaves set free, and the land itself returned to its ancestral owners. And in the same way that the sounding of the shofar on the 50th year in the land of Israel proclaims a year of freedom, the sounding of the shofar on the 50th day after leaving Egypt proclaims a day of freedom – the freedom of the Torah. And that’s exactly what the Talmud says – “there is no person as free as one who is involved in the study of Torah.”
How do we define freedom? There is a verse in the Torah – also in parshat Bechukotai in fact – that ends: Vaoleich etchem komemiyut, “…I led you upright”. The verse is referring to the great blessings that G-d will bestow on us for following the commandments, and to a time of great redemption for the Jewish people. There is, in fact, another reference to this time of redemption and blessing in our bensching, where we say: “vyolichenu komemiyut lartzeinu” – “G-d will lead us upright [during the redemption] to the land of Israel”. Targum Onkelos – the ancient Talmudic translation of the Chumash – explains that in this context, “komemiyut” (“upright”) means “free”. From this comment, we can also infer the reverse – that “free” means “upright”.
How do we understand this connection between freedom and uprightness? And how does the Torah bring us to this state? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this verse, writes: “G-d raised us up forever more and made us independent and free; at least gave us the guidance to remain upright in everything and against everything. The whole effect of keeping the Torah in granting human dignity and sovereignty, the forces of sensuality, of nature, of social power is summarised in this word, ‘komemiyut’.”
Rabbi Hirsch explains that “uprightness” refers to the dignity of the soul and its sovereignty over the body. Animals generally crouch, but human beings stand upright. That uprightness is a symbol of kingship; of the sovereignty of the soul, the intellect, the mind and the spirit over the physical body. And that uprightness that is a state of being – that dignity of living an elevated existence – is symbolised by a physical elevation – komemiyut. To sum up, the freedom that we are talking about is the freedom that the Torah gives a person to walk upright in the world, with the dignity of leading an elevated life.
The Maharal of Prague writes that the upright posture of the human being represents Malchut – the kingship of being a human being. But he also points out that our kingship comes from G-d. The verse itself indicates this. “I [Hashem] led you upright”. In other words, our sovereignty, independence, dignity and elevation comes to us only through G-d and through Torah – the mandate that He gave us. Torah is our route to freedom, hence “there is no person as free as one who is involved in the study of Torah.”
The Maharal says that the human spine embodies this dichotomy – that we are free but only by virtue of the One we serve. The interesting thing about the spine is that it enables the person not just to stand upright but to bow as well. Indeed, the key to our remaining upright is our willingness and ability to bow before G-d. It is only through acknowledging G-d’s Sovereignty that we merit our own.
And when we make space for G-d, we make space for others as well.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) lists ten daily miracles that took place in the days of the First Temple. One of these miracles was that when people stood in the courtyard and bowed – even during times when it was most full such as Yom Kippur – they stood cramped, but when they bowed down there was always space. The miracle obviously stems from the fact that when you bow down you take up more space that when you are standing.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner in his commentary on Pirkei Avot explains the deep symbolism of this miracle. When we stand haughty and arrogant then there is no space, it’s cramped. But when we bow in humble submission before G-d, there is space for everybody. Humility is the key. To live in a state of constant competition with others is not freedom. To interact in a kind and gentle way and ensure there is space in the world for everybody – that’s true freedom.
Related to this, another of the ten miracles that happened during the First Temple era is that when huge numbers of people came up to Jerusalem for the pilgrim festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Succot), nobody ever claimed there was no place to stay the night. On this, Rav Chaim Volozhiner says that normally the way a person views the world is that they are in competition with others. Take the fight to earn a living. A person will think I am in competition with that person to earn a living, whatever he earns – especially if you are a direct competitor – he is taking my parnossa. He is taking my sustenance away from me. But he said if we bow in humble submission before G-d and we realise that everything comes from G-d, we realise that no one can take anything away from us. Only G-d can. And if we don’t have something it’s because G-d doesn’t want us to have it. And then we can accept it, we don’t have to be in conflict with people.
Again we see that acknowledging G-d enables us to interact more gently and more peaceably with others. When we realise that everything comes from G-d, we open up space; we don’t have to cramp people, we don’t have to compete with them, we don’t have to push them aside.
To sum up, this journey to Mount Sinai is the journey of attaining freedom. We have seen that freedom is about walking upright, and at the same time bowing humbly before G-d in recognition that our sovereignty and dignity comes from Him. And by humbly living in accordance with Hashem’s will, we not only live the life for which we were created – we also make space for the people around us.
Bowing humbly before G-d bring us to a philosophical and emotional realisation that there is enough space for everybody in the world, because we acknowledge that everything is in His control. We realise that we don’t have to fight one another – that we can all live with equal freedom and equal dignity – and we find peace with our inner essence from which, and for which, we were created.
That’s the journey that we are on. The journey of Shavuot, the journey of the weeks. We are always on that journey. And as we celebrate this Yom Tov, let’s do so with an awareness that we are celebrating the journey, and let’s rededicate ourselves to travel on that journey of personal growth and self-improvement and seeing things from a different perspective – and so achieve that ultimate freedom that G-d intended for us.