“A Shadow Holiday” Shavuot 5778

The Torah discusses the holidays in five different locations. Each description is slightly different from the others and something can be learned from each one of them. The fifth discussion of the holiday of Shavuot, however, seems to add very little to what we already know. Specifically, we learn that Shavuot is celebrated fifty days after Pesach, that we must bring sacrifices with us when we visit the Beit haMikdash[1] on Shavuot, and that we must rejoice on the holiday. The only innovation appears in the very last verse [Devarim 16:12]: “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and you shall keep and perform these statutes”. The word “statutes” is the translation of the word “chukim”. A “chok” is a commandment that defies logic. It is the kind of commandment that arouses the scorn of the Nations of the World[2]. Commandments that fall under the rubric of “statutes” include kashrut, sha’atnez, and the red heifer. This begs a question: to which Shavuot-related “statute” is the Torah referring? Which statutes, if any, pertain only to Shavuot?

The Ramban suggests that the entire holiday of Shavuot is one big statute. As understanding the Ramban requires a crash-course in Kabbalah, we will give this one a miss for now. The Abarbanel offers a more prosaic answer. The world in the time of the Beit HaMikdash was very different from the world we know today, where ultra-long-haul aircraft connect nearly any two points on the globe[3]. Weeks were required to travel from Babylonia, where most of world Jewry lived, to Jerusalem. Imagine that you are a farmer living in Pumbedita, a large Jewish town in central Babylonia, near modern-day Fallujah, Iraq. You have just returned from Pesach in Jerusalem, completing the 1000 kilometre trip in record time: two weeks and five days. Suddenly it dawns on you that in less than two weeks you must turn around and return to Jerusalem for Shavuot. I can hear the farmers grumbling: “They call it the ‘Festival of the Harvest’?! When am I supposed to have time to do any harvesting?!” According to the Abarbanel, the requirement to visit the Beit haMikdash on Shavuot is the statute to which the Torah is referring. The greatest difficulty with the explanation of the Abarbanel is that in modern times the world has contracted to the point that this problem is no longer relevant. Visiting Israel twice in two months might be expensive, it might be tiring, it might cause DVT, but it is very much in the realm of the possible. And so we must continue our search for a Shavuot-related statute that is relevant in the twenty-first century.

The Ba’al haRokeach proposes a truly innovative explanation[4]. Any child will declare that Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Indeed, Shavuot prayers refer to the holiday as “Z’man matan Torateinu” – “the season of the giving of the Torah”. There are two difficulties with this declaration: [1] The Torah never associates Shavuot with the giving of the Torah. It always refers to Shavuot either in agricultural terms (the “Festival of the Harvest”) or in relation to Pesach (the “Holiday of Weeks” that follows Pesach by seven weeks). [2] The Torah does not clearly record the date on which Hashem gave the Torah at Sinai. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [86b] uses some Talmudic acrobatics to set the date as the sixth of Sivan, the day upon which we celebrate Shavuot, and yet convincing arguments can be made that the Torah was actually given on the seventh day of Sivan. The Ba’al haRokeach proposes that the statutes that we are commanded to keep on the holiday of Shavuot are actually all of the laws of the Torah. In other words, the Torah is quietly alluding to the fact that it was given on Shavuot.

Why is the giving of the Torah at Sinai shrouded in so much secrecy? Not only is the date on which the Torah was given unclear, the location is also clouded by uncertainty. There is no clear archaeological evidence for any such occurrence. Some researchers assert that the Torah was given on Jebel Musa, about fifty kilometres west of modern-day Dahab in the Sinai Peninsula. Others identify Mount Sinai with Mount Karkom in the western Negev Desert in Israel. Some even suggest that Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia[5]. Why doesn’t the Torah divulge this critical information?

Rav Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem, asks why the Torah was not given in Jerusalem. Doesn’t the prophet Isaiah [2:3] tell us that “Out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem”? Rav Sprecher answers that “The Torah was given in [the desert], a space and place accessible to all humanity. The purpose of the Revelation at Sinai was to turn a world without Torah, which by definition is a barren desert, into a blooming and productive place for human existence.” Giving the Torah in Jerusalem would have sent the wrong message: that the Torah was created for a certain place, and by extension, for a certain time.

Long ago, I was taught that whenever it seems that Torah and Science clash, we must remember that the Torah is not a book of history or a book of science, but, rather, it is a book of law. The Torah is a rulebook that teaches us how to live our lives according to Hashem’s will. It turns out that the Torah is far more than just “a book” of any kind. Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writing in the Tanya, teaches that the Torah is the shadow of Hashem’s will in our corporeal world. Let me try to explain: Every person casts a shadow. A person’s shadow can give only limited data about the person who casts the shadow. A shadow can tell us something about the person’s height and perhaps his weight, but it cannot tell us anything about the colour of his eyes or his hair, or the identity of his favourite football team. In the same way, the Torah can give us insight into Hashem’s infinite desires and His plans only in ways that can be represented and understood in our finite world. Make no mistake: While we represent the Torah as a rulebook, the Torah is not a rulebook. And because we see only the shadows of the rules and not the rules themselves, certain rules – statutes – appear to us to be counter-intuitive. In actuality, however, every single word of the Torah is a statute. The fact that some of the mitzvot make more sense to us than others is because they happen to cast a shadow in ways that are easier for us to comprehend.

Place and time are concepts that are relevant only in our 4-dimensional world. Hashem, as an infinite being, is beyond place and time. Not only is Hashem not bound by place and time – He is infinite and eternal – Hashem cannot be described by place and by time. While we can see the shadow of Hashem at coordinates (x,y,z) and at time (t), while we can say that on the 6th of Sivan in the year 2248 at 10:16 AM, Hashem appeared to man at coordinates [35.8978° N, 5.4122° W], we cannot say that the Torah was given on that date and at that location. We see Hashem the way He appears, not the way He is. For this reason, the Torah could not have been “given” in Jerusalem or in any other well-defined location. It had to be given in an anonymous barren “desert”.

Recall that the Torah commands us first to “remember that we were slaves in Egypt” and only then to “keep and perform these statutes”. Only by completely subjugating ourselves to Hashem, only by being fully aware of our physical limitations, can we begin to appreciate the essence of a holiday that celebrates the casting of the ultimate shadow.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] A Jew must visit the Beit HaMikdash three times a year: on Pesach, on Shavuot, and on Sukkot.

[2] See Rashi on Bemidbar [19:2].

[3] Today’s longest regularly scheduled flight connects Doha and Auckland. The flight covers 14,535 [km] and takes about 18 hours. The distance between two points on opposite sides of the earth is 20,037 [km]. That flight would take about 25 hours and would be flown only by convicted felons.

[4] Rabbi Elazar of Worms, also known as the “Ba’al HaRokeach”, lived in the 12th century. He was a famous halachic arbiter, but he also wrote a relatively obscure commentary on the Torah. The Netziv of Volozhn, who lived 700 years after the Ba’al HaRokeach, offers an explanation nearly identical to that of the Ba’al HaRokeach. As the Netziv’s commentary is far more ubiquitous, many incorrectly attribute the innovation of the Ba’al HaRokeach to the Netziv.

[5] We mentioned this in our shiur for Parashat Shelach 5769.