Shavuot, which begins tonight, is the most obscure and the most opaque of the major Jewish holidays. Its Greek name, Pentecost, doesn’t help much, since it simply means “Fiftieth,” while its Hebrew name is even less specific, as it simply means “Weeks.” (In this case, it’s seven of them.) “And you shall make a Festival of Weeks for yourself, firstfruits of reaping wheat” (Ex. 34:22).
For thousands of years, Shavuot has been associated specifically with the Giving of the Torah. The math is relatively straightforward: since we start counting the days and weeks from Passover, Shavuot inevitably falls in the first week of “the third month,” which we now call Sivan. The account of the Giving of the Torah opens with “On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt–on that very day, they came to the Desert of Sinai.”
However, this unique phrasing, “on that very day,” points us toward an even earlier event (Gen. 7:11-12):
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month–on that very day, all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
That magic number of “forty days and forty nights” recurs only at Sinai. However, beyond the textual clues, there is the actual date. There is a dispute as to whether the Ten Commandments were given on the 6th or 7th of Sivan (Talmud, Shabbat 86b), but regardless, this puts the Convocation at Sinai calendrically smack in the middle of the forty-day deluge which begins “on the seventeenth day of the second month.”
At first glance, it’s hard to see what these two events have in common: deluge and desert, destruction and instruction, revocation and revelation. However, a centuries-later event (I Samuel 12:17-19) may help shed some light on this:
“Is it not the reaping of wheat today? I will call to Lord, and He shall send thunder and rain; that you may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in Lord’s sight, in asking you a king.” So Samuel called to Lord; and Lord sent thunder and rain that day: and all the people greatly feared Lord and Samuel. And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to Lord your God, that we die not: for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask us a king.”
Threatening the Israelites with rain amid the wheat harvest because of their great wickedness, Samuel knows exactly what he is doing, referring back to the unique justification for the Flood: “And Lord saw that man’s wickedness was great in the land” (Gen. 6:5). For him, the request for a human king represents the ultimate act of defiance. After all, wasn’t the whole point of the Convocation at Sinai to eschew the rule of man and embrace the rule of God? Five verses earlier, he berates them, “You said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when Lord your God is your king!” In Samuel’s eyes, this is a revolution against revelation, an attempt to reverse what happened at Sinai, an attempted coup which he must stop. Indeed, he compels the people to echo their desperate plea to Moses at Sinai (Ex. 20:15 ; Deut. 5:21 ) to intercede with God, lest they die.
But the Giving of the Torah at Sinai is not a historical event; it is meta-historical. It is irrevocable and irreversible. Why does God tell Samuel to go along with the people’s request? The answer, of course, is the preceding book of the Bible, the Book of Judges. Though the theory of eschewing human governance is theologically enticing, the Book of Judges shows us a society in which “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was straight in his eyes” (17:6, 18:1, 21:25). Human sacrifice, rape, civil war–tribal Israel was an unending frat party. It turns out that people need a government which they can actually see, imperfect though it must necessarily be.
Indeed, Shavuot’s designated scroll, Ruth, opens “And it was in the days that the judges judged,” presenting a society where decadence and destitution exist side-by-side, and it ends with the birth of David, Samuel’s last, best legacy, a king who brings justice to the entire land. In fact, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Hagiga 2:3), Shavuot is the day when the Land of Israel sees its first peaceful transfer of power, with the death of David and the coronation of Solomon. The king is dead, long live the king.
Shavuot is a day that has its roots in uprooting, in cleaning the slate for a new world. It is a world based on the divine Word, but ultimately built by human hands.