Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB”M pointed out a difficulty in the Torah’s text about the festival we call Shavuot or ‘Weeks’:
It is well known that although we refer to Shavuot in our prayers as “Zeman Matan Toratenu” (the time of our receiving the Torah), the Torah itself associates Shavuot only with the barley harvest, and not with any historical event. (See Shemot 23, Shemot 34, Vayikra 23, Bamidbar 28 and Devarim 16.) Is there any connection between the agricultural holiday of “Chag Ha-katzir” (the festival of harvest) and the spiritual commemoration of “Zeman Matan Toratenu?” Although it is possible that the linkage is arbitrary – the Torah happened to have been given in the same season as the beginning of harvest – it seems much more likely that the two are connected.
That’s exactly how his opinion appears on the VBM website. This is a translation from the Rosh Yeshiva’s remarks, and I have a couple of edits. It’s not the ‘time of our receiving the Torah’. I think a better translation would be: the time of the giving of our Torah. I believe that these are critical differences. Yes, our ancestors at Mt Sinai received the Torah, but that generation, every generation and, yes, every Jew must decide for themselves whether or not to ‘receive’ it. This holiday commemorates both God giving the Torah and the Jews of the desert accepting it. But it’s a question for us: Will we accept it?
Next, ‘hakatzir’ is translated as ‘the harvest’. Again, I prefer ‘reaping’. What’s the difference? ‘Harvest’ implies the conclusion of the process. ‘Reaping’, on the other hand, means the hard work of selecting and cutting the produce which has ripened. It’s hard work both physically and cognitively. The ‘harvest’ at Sukkot time, is really only hard physical labor. Everything is coming into the barns before the rains, no decisions needed.
Rav Aharon is teaching us that Shavuot is a challenge. We have to recognize the right stuff and then gather and embrace it. The Torah by its agricultural reference is guiding us in our appreciation and commitment to Torah, which is, indeed, comparable to a force of nature. We find God in two places: Torah and nature.
Psalm 19 teaches us the same concept. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that according to the customs of the Vilna Gaon, Psalm 19 is the Shir Shel Yom for Shavuot.
This poem is divided into two parts. The first teaches that God can be apprehended in the forces of nature, if you search there. It’s like reaping, the proper effort produces the proper result. God hides in plain sight.
The second half of the poem divides Torah into six areas of endeavor. Each one produces its own benefit. It’s written like a chart or an Excel spreadsheet.
Verse 8 presents the first two areas: Torah of God and EIDUT (Testimonies) of God. They are, respectively, perfect (TEMIMA) and faithful (NE’EMANA), and the first restores life, while the second gives wisdom to the fool. These two Divine gifts clearly are in the realm of cognition and wisdom. According to the Malbim, Torah represents fundamental information to produce belief, EIDUT, on the other hand, are the stories and supporting information.
Verse 9 presents the next area of Divine knowledge: Orders of God (P’KUDEI) and commandments (MITZVOT). These are ‘straight’ or ‘upright’ (YASHARIM) and ‘unblemished’ (BARA). They provide ‘heartfelt joy’ and ‘light to one’s eyes’. This verse describes the areas of mitzvot performed, in the first case to help other humans and in the second, precepts whose performance will bring understanding about our role on earth, and meaning to our lives, like Shabbat and holidays.
Verse 10 presents a brace of precepts which are less clearly defined: Reverence for God (YIR’AH) and judgments of God (MISHPATIM). These are ‘pure’ (T’HORA) and ‘true’. They provide a sense of connection to the Infinite and a sense of justice. These two areas demand obedience, because we don’t always or, even, often understand them (CHUKIM), because, just like in nature, there are always mysteries to be unraveled. Often, the discovery of one answer leads to more questions and enigmas.
The poet continues his praise of the various areas of Torah endeavor, telling us that they are more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey. They have both objective and subjective value. And our singer ends with a two-part prayer: first save us from bad influences (including ourselves, sometimes), and, please, accept our efforts in this crucial area.
But let’s go back to Rav Aharon, who explains that our acceptance of Torah is a challenging enterprise. He compares it to a convert’s acceptance of the yoke of Torah.
The challenge is contained in the name of this festival. It’s a reaping, not a harvest. We still have to put effort into the product before it’s complete. That’s the seasonal connection to the holiday of Shavuot. Accept the job, knowing full well that there’s a long hot summer of work before the satisfaction of the Sukkot, the fall season and the final in-gathering.
I think that’s why the singer in Psalm 19 refers to God by two almost contradictory names as we end the poem. God is my Rock (TZURI), who is stable and unmovable. However, I also address my Redeemer (GOALI) who moves me to the proper place, when necessary. To do the job of accepting and fulfilling Torah I need two things from God: the unwavering support of a Rock and the safety of a Redeemer to save me from mistakes and guide me to where I need to be in order to go forward.
At Mt Sinai and on Shavuot, God does both: gives stability, but with appropriate flexibility. I hope we can do the same for others who may need us. Chag Sameach!
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