Frederick L. Klein

Shavuot: The Day Remembered that We Forgot

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Everyone knows how important it is to remember the important events of a friend or family member.  Miss a birthday or anniversary and you might never hear the end of it!  Why is this true?  Through the appointment of times, we establish a narrative of meaning for our lives; we remember that certain people or events are important to our understanding of ourselves and our own story.  We remember the details, and the place. Marking time recognizes this fact.

If this is true on an interpersonal level, it should also be especially true on a national level.  Consider for example, the Exodus from Egypt.  Not only do we commemorate this annually with the Passover seder, but we are enjoined to mention this formative event twice a day in the recitation of the shema.  There are many other commandments as well which are associated with the commemoration of the Exodus:  tefillin, redemption of the first born, and shabbat are only a few.

While the Torah does not directly associate Shavuot with the day of the giving of the Torah, still in Deuteronomy we are commanded to remember the moment of revelation.

But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.  And make them known to your children and to your children’s children: The day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb [Sinai] when the Lord said to me, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live on earth and may so teach their children.” (4:9-10)

Nachmanides, the 13th century commentator, counts this as one of the 613 Biblical mitzvot “[When one does the mitzvot] they are enjoined to remember from where they come. One should not forget the moment of revelation… and they should be taught from one generation to the next.” (Nachmanides’ commentary on the Torah, ibid.)

However, upon further inspection, it appears that Nachmanides is the exception.  No other compiler of the 613 mitzvot includes the memory of revelation as a commandment.  Furthermore, when the rabbis legislate memorialization, they generally mandate that discreet things should be done.  For example, one remembers the Exodus through mentioning it in the shema every day.  One remembers the sanctity of Shabbat through the recitation of the kiddish on wine every Friday night.  There is no act legislated by the rabbis on Shavuot to remember the revelation at Sinai.  Even Nachmanides himself does not formulate any ritual or act in which one memorializes the event.  (Cheesecake and learning all night are customs, not laws.) Maybe this is the reason why Nachmanides formulated the commandment as simply a negative commandment- do not forget revelation.

If revelation is so significant for Jewish history, it is even more shocking to consider the place of revelation- Sinai- is not known.  The mountain’s identification has been the subject of scholars, but not Jewish memory. There are no mass pilgrimages to Sinai akin to Muslims going on Haj to the Kaaba. It is almost remarkable that the place where we gained our purpose as a people has been forgotten.

This curiosity extends to the time of Sinai as well, as the Torah never identifies the day of Shavuot with the day of revelation.  There is a dispute in tractate Shabbat about when the Torah is given! “Our Rabbis taught: On the sixth day of the month  [of Sivan]  the Ten Commandments were given to Israel. R. Jose maintained: On the seventh thereof.” (Shabbat 86b). In that Talmudic passage the rabbis recreate the chronology of the events proceeding revelation in Exodus 19 and cannot come to a unanimous agreement as to the date.  The most important formative date on the Jewish calendar is a matter of dispute!  In essence, on what is the anniversary we have forgotten both the place and the date, and seem to have no rituals!  However, perhaps these omissions are purposely by design.

Let’s consider the place of Sinai, the mountain of God, found in an uninhabited wilderness devoid of people and civilization.  Mount Sinai is the dialectical opposite of another mountain, Mount Zion.  If the location of the former mountain is lost to history, the latter certainly is not. That mountain, upon which the Temple will stand, will be a mountain amongst the people, in the very midst of Jerusalem.  Unlike the deserted Mount Sinai, upon which only Moses could go up and the people must distance themselves, in the messianic age all people will go up to Jerusalem, ‘for from Zion will come forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem’ (Micah 4:2).   In the Sinai experience people leave their human abode to approach a world which is other, a world untamed by human forces, a world unclaimed.  Conversely, Zion- the house of God, resides in the very middle of a people, a country.   It is a decidedly public place with throngs of people making pilgrimages.  Thus, while the initial revelation comes from an unnamed location that transcends conventional notions of space, the continued relationship occurs in the midst of the people.  Both mountains, both places, are instructive in shaping a spiritual personality.

The Torah is a blueprint for a historical people in real time and in a real place.  We experience God in the context of the living flow of our daily lives.  However, within this experience there lies a danger.  We might become accustomed to believing we know God’s will, for God’s house- Mount Zion- is amongst the people.  As such, religion and spirituality can be coopted for our own personal or national purposes.  In essence, we might look at Torah in too familiar a fashion; we can delude ourselves into thinking we really know the will of God sufficiently, and more often than not, the will of God just happens to coincide with our own understandings of ourselves and our world.

Revelation at its core is sudden, tearing down the preconceived edifices we build around ourselves, allowing ourselves to be confronted by the voice of the ultimate Other, of God.  Revelation begins with a question mark, with mystery, with an understanding that in fact, I do not know where I am.  Once a year we are asked to remember and return to the wilderness. The midbar is a place which is untamed, ownerless, and formless, a place of discovery.   The first to journey forth into the wilderness was Moses himself, leading Jethro’s sheep; the event foreshadows a much larger herd he will lead.

[Regarding Moses’s journey to the burning bush, the Torah states] “And he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness” (Exod. 3:1). Why did he go into the wilderness? R. Johanan said: He went into the wilderness because he foresaw that Israel would be exalted through the wilderness, as it is said: Who is this that cometh up out of the wilderness? (Song 3:6). The ascent from Egypt was through the wilderness, the Torah was given in the wilderness; the manna and the quail were obtained in the wilderness; the Tabernacle, the Divine Presence, the priesthood, kingship, the well, the clouds of glory—all occurred in the wilderness. Therefore, he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness (Tanchuma Exodus 14).

All of the formative experiences of our people do not begin in the land of Israel, but in the desert. It is the wide open and silent expanses, free from the clatter and tales that we like to tell ourselves, that we are able to hear Elijiah’s kol demmamah dakah, a still, small, voice. [1]  The words midbar– wilderness, are the same letters of the word medaber– speech.  The place in which we empty ourselves, making ourselves into the formless midbar, is the same place where we will hear the speech of the Divine.

Thus, the lack of the location of Sinai is purposeful.  To locate the place, is to measure it, to define it, and ultimately to own and possess it.  To go there on pilgrimage, would transform Mount Sinai into Mount Zion.  Returning to Sinai on Shavuot is not to return to a physical place, but to return to a mindset in which we can begin to hear the voice of God speaking to us.

The ambiguity of the date of the holiday similarly underscores the day’s message. Ultimately, Shavuot is not about an anniversary of a day long past.  Revelation is not so much an event as it is a process.  It is the ability to see we are being addressed by God and entering into relationship.  Martin Buber, in his famous philosophical work I-Thou understood revelation as an act of ongoing dialogue with the Divine.  Each of us stands ready at the foot of the mountain; the challenge is will we hear the voice of God?[2]

When the Jewish people come to Sinai, the Torah recounts “In the third month of the Exodus from Egypt, on this day they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai.” (Ex. 19:1). Like the date of revelation itself, the text again is ambiguous in that it does not give the exact date when the people arrive at the foot of the mountain, although rabbinic tradition records that it was the first day of the month of Sivan, rosh chodesh.  However, the syntax is awkward.  The verse should say ‘on that day’ not ‘on this day’.  Rashi explains that the verse is to teach us that one needs to experience Torah every day as new, as if it had just been revealed.  (Rashi ibid.)   We are not experiencing revelation second hand, but through the study and discussions of our traditions we are in fact continuing a dialogue between humanity and God that began so long ago.

Therefore, Shavuot is a time not to remember an event in the past- and thus there are no rituals-  but to experience a reality that is with us today.  Through both our commitment to a dialogue with the past and our tradition, as well as finding the clearing where we can hear God’s voice within us, we are invited to be a part of a revelatory process that began long ago.  The date, place, and time of the revelation was forgotten long ago, because the reality of the event resides within the heart of the Jewish people and informs who we are and what our role is in the world every day. Sinai is the place where we gain purpose and focus, and that needs to be experienced and re-experienced every day of our lives if our Judaism is to be meaningful and vital in every generation.

(This reflection has been greatly informed by the work of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag.)

Chag Sameach

[1] See the instructive essay The Sound of Silence – Covenant & Conversation – Parshah (

[2] While Buber’s specific conclusions challenge the authority of Jewish law and texts, his insights are nonetheless critical.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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