Shavuot 5780: Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning
Shavuot (Exodus 19:1 - 20:23 )
GOOD MORNING! If there was ever a contest for a Jewish holiday that didn’t get the proper respect it deserved, the upcoming holiday of Shavuot certainly would be prominently featured. This “Rodney Dangerfield” of Jewish holidays is actually one of the most significant days on the Jewish calendar, for it commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. This is the anniversary and celebration of the day the Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments as they were camped by Mt. Sinai 3,332 years ago.
This year, the holiday of Shavuot begins on Thursday evening, May 28th. In Israel, Shavuot is a one day holiday and in the diaspora it’s celebrated for two days. Shavuot has the same holiness as the more well-known holidays of Pesach and Sukkot, and is marked by festive holiday meals and, in normal years, all night Torah study sessions in the synagogue followed by holiday prayer services including Yizkor (memorial service for relatives who passed) on Saturday, May 30th.
(If, for whatever reason, you are unable to go to shul you can arrange to have someone participate in the Yizkor service on your behalf by going to http://getkaddish.com/yizkor/).
Seeing as Shavuot is the commemoration of such a special occasion, why is it so unknown to many people? (I still remember when I was pursuing my MBA here in South Florida in the 1990’s, I had difficult time trying to explain to the dean of the business school why I couldn’t take a final in a class that fell out on the holiday. He looked at me and said, “If this is such an important holiday, then why isn’t it on my calendar as a Jewish holiday?” I really didn’t know what to tell him except that under no circumstances was I going to be in class. It didn’t help that my professor was also Jewish and he hadn’t heard of the holiday either – I believe “Shavu-what?” was my professor’s response.)
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that Shavuot is lesser known is that there are no specific mitzvot associated with the day. On all other holidays, there are things that we do that give the holiday a unique identity: Blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana, fasting on Yom Kippur, shaking the lulav and etrog and eating in outdoor temporary structures on Sukkot, and eating only matzah but no bread on Pesach. All of these acts give each holiday a special identity. Yet we don’t have any specific mitzvah associated with Shavuot. Why not?
According to our tradition, upon learning that they were going to receive the Torah, the Jewish people asked that G-d Himself speak to them. Accordingly, the first two of the Ten Commandments were spoken by G-d, and thus He introduced Himself to the Jewish nation. That is why the first of the Ten Commandments reads, “I am Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of Egypt…” (Exodus 20:2).
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, who lived approximately eight hundred years ago, asked a fascinating question in his landmark work on Jewish philosophy known as the Kuzari: Why does G-d merely introduce Himself as the one who took the Jewish people out of Egypt? A far more impressive accomplishment (and a compelling reason to accept His dominion and law) is that He is the creator of the world!
The reason that G-d introduced Himself as the one who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and not as the creator of the world is because G-d was not trying to express his power and impressive resume as a reason to follow his law. Rather, He was conveying to the Jewish people that He loves and cares for them and that is why He took them out of Egypt.
Similarly, giving them the Torah was an act of a love relationship. Following the Torah as a guide for their lives would lead them to have better and more meaningful lives. This is why the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is described by our sages as a marriage between G-d and the Jewish people. This is also why, according to our sages, the Jewish people demanded to hear G-d’s voice. A relationship is about communication.
In Jewish law, any contractual relationship may be cemented without either party verbalizing a commitment; as long as there is a meeting of the minds, there is no need for either party to utter a word. But marriage is different. In order for a marriage to take effect, a verbal statement must be made. A marriage relationship transcends contractual and fiscal obligations.
The reason for this is that marriage is an emotional bond between two people and a union of their respective essences. Hearing another party’s voice is a means of getting to know them and an indispensable requirement for forming an emotional bond – think about how you feel when you hear a loved one’s voice after a long absence. This is why speech is a crucial criterion for a marriage ceremony and why marriage is the only partnership in Jewish law that requires a speech communication to be valid (“You are hereby betrothed to me”).
Because this holiday is about celebrating the marriage relationship with the Almighty there are no specific obligations commandments (mitzvot) on this holiday. Shavuot does not commemorate the fact that we became God’s servants and assumed the obligation to observe His commandments. Rather, we celebrate the fact that Hashem chose to establish an even more expansive relationship with us, not only defining us as His servants but elevating us to the status of His betrothed, as it were. This bond transcends ritual laws and observances, and therefore it would not be fitting to celebrate it with a specific ritual.
This holiday isn’t about what we have to do for God, it’s about reveling in our relationship. In fact, the Talmud writes that everyone is in agreement that the holiday of Shavuos is to be celebrated by eating and drinking. This is the party celebrating the union of God and his nation, with the Torah as the vehicle for the betrothal.
Most importantly, as Shavuot is the celebration of the Jewish people receiving the Torah, it is a time of rededication and commitment to learning Torah.
On Shavuot, there is a custom to stay up all night learning Torah. During less turbulent times, virtually every synagogue and yeshiva has scheduled learning throughout the night, ending with the praying of Shacharit – the morning service. The reason: the morning the Jewish people were to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai, they overslept. We now can rectify the tendency to give in to our desires by demonstrating our resolve through learning the whole night. This is also a meaningful experience you can share with your children.
Torah is the life blood of the Jewish people. But one cannot love what he does not know, and without knowledge there is no commitment. Thus our enemies have always known that when we Jews stop learning Torah assimilation is not far behind and is, in fact, inevitable.
A Jew is commanded to learn Torah every day and to teach it to his children. If a Jew wants his family to be Jewish and his children to marry other Jews, then he must integrate a Torah study program into his life and implement the teachings into his home and his being. You can tell your children anything, but only if they see their parents learning and doing mitzvot, will they inherit the love for being Jewish. Remember: a parent only owes his child three things – example, example, example.
How can we utilize this opportunity to grow and strengthen our self-identity as Jews? Just as a baby crawls, then toddles and then walks, likewise with the mitzvot (commandments). A person should undertake one more mitzvah, do it well, and then build on it.
Here are a few suggestions for some mitzvot that you might enjoy taking on:
- Read the Torah! The Almighty gave it to all of us as a gift. It is the instruction book for living – how to be happy, choose the right spouse, make your marriage work, raise your children with values, get more joy out of life (I highly recommend The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan).
- Another terrific source of ancient Torah wisdom that has been distilled by our sages thousands of years ago is Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, which you can read a few pages of a day. It's basically concentrated wisdom about life.
- Commit to taking some Torah classes! Today it is easier than ever as there is a wealth of free Torah classes available online. A good friend of Rabbi Packouz, Rabbi Asher Resnick, has an excellent site called www.jewishclarity.com. You can also find a wealth of Torah content on www.aish.com.
For fans of the Torah and Jewish philosophy thoughts that I share with you here in the Shabbat Shalom Fax, you can find the source of much of my material at www.rabbizweig.com – a site dedicated to my father’s classes. There are literally thousands of classes on just about every topic, and there is something for all those who wish to study – beginners, those with some Jewish educational background, and those with advanced Jewish knowledge.
There is plenty of free content available and I would be happy to provide additional free credits to readers of the Shabbat Shalom Fax of Life. Write to me at RabbiZweig@shabbatshalom.com and put in the subject line “free credits.” If you tell me a little about yourself, I will be sure to point you in the right direction as to classes that may interest you.
So please, take the opportunity of this holiday to reflect upon the importance of Torah study to the many generations that preceded us and why it is crucial to the survival of succeeding generations as proud Jews. Make a commitment to make Torah study an indispensable part of your day. We all must do our part to ensure the continuity of the bond between G-d and His betrothed – the Jewish people.
Shavuot – 1st Day Exodus 19:1 – 20:23
(Yizkor is said on Friday in Israel!)
Shavuot begins Thursday evening, May 28. The Torah reading on Friday begins with the arrival at Mt. Sinai, the Almighty's proposal of a covenant with the Jewish people, the Jewish people's three day preparation for receiving the Torah, Moshe ascending the mountain, and the Almighty giving the 10 Commandments.
Shavuot – 2nd Day Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17
(Yizkor is said on Shabbat outside of Israel!)
The Torah portion starts with the explanation of the Second Tithe, which was to be eaten in Jerusalem, the tithe for the Levite, the remission of loans every 7th year (the Shmitah year), the commandment to be warm-hearted and open-handed to the poor, the laws of a Jewish bondsman, and concludes with the three Pilgrimage Festivals when every Jew was commanded to ascend to Jerusalem for Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot — and that they should come with offerings.
(or go to http://www.aish.com/sh/c/)
Miami 7:48 – Guatemala 6:09 – Hong Kong 6:45
Honolulu 6:50 – Johannesburg 5:05 – Los Angeles 7:39
London 8:50 – Melbourne 4:52 – Mexico City 7:52
New York 8:01 – Singapore 6:49 – Toronto 8:32
A single hour in the day, steadily given to the study of an interesting subject, brings unexpected accumulations of knowledge.
— William Ellery Channing