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Shavuot and Soulsearching


Summarized by Gedalyah Berger


I. The Joy of Receiving the Torah

The Bible nowhere connects the holiday of Shavuot, "chag ha-katzir" - the festival of harvest, with matan Torah (the giving of the Torah). It was left to Chazal, to mankind, to figure out the chronology and make the connection between the fiftieth day of the Omer and the giving of the Torah.

This is puzzling, since the Torah enjoins us to remember the experience of the Sinai revelation (Deut. 4:19-20; see Ramban Sefer Ha-mitzvot, mitzvot she-shakhach otan ha-rav, lo ta'aseh #2), and clearly places it at approximately the time of Shavuot (Exodus, beginning of ch. 19). Why, then, does the Torah not explicitly associate the holiday of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah?

The answer, says the Maharal, lies in the fact that Shavuot is, of course, a chag - a holiday on which we celebrate and rejoice. An explicit association of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah would constitute a commandment to rejoice about our having received the Torah. But such happiness can not be legislated - it must originate with us. While the salvation from slavery commemorated by Pesach and the God-given protection of Sukkot, "ba-sukkot hoshavti" (Lev. 23:43), are to every person obvious grounds for joy, receiving the Torah might not appear to the casual observer as a reason to rejoice. Thus, it was left to the Jewish people, as a community and as individuals, to reach this conclusion on our own; to appreciate and celebrate the privilege of matan Torah. The Sages, then, and not the Bible, stamped chag ha-Shavuot as "zeman matan Toratenu" - the time of the giving of our Torah.

Thus, on a communal level, the nation of Israel independently realized the joy of Torah. However, it still remains for each of us to reach this goal individually. It is often said that there is a bit of Shavuot in Yom Kippur, because the second tablets were given on Yom Kippur. Now, we can say the reverse as well; that there is a bit of Yom Kippur in Shavuot, being that a cheshbon ha-nefesh (soul searching) is necessary on Shavuot to see if we have succeeded in genuinely rejoicing in receiving the Torah.

II. But Didn't God Coerce Us into Receiving the Torah?

"'Va-yityatzvu be-tachtit ha-har' - 'They stood at the bottom of the mountain' (Ex. 19:17) - Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches that God placed the mountain over them like a cask (kafa aleihem et ha-har ke-gigit) and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, fine, and if not, there you will be buried.'" [Shabbat 88a]

Isn't a joyous celebration of matan Torah a bit out of place if, alongside our enthusiastic voluntary acceptance of the Torah with "na'aseh ve-nishma" - "we will obey and we will hear" (Ex. 24:7), there was a strong element of coercion? According to the gemara quoted above, God forced us to accept the Torah. It should be noted that this is not really much of a problem if we understand the gemara as Tosafot do. They understand God's holding the mountain over them like a cask as being only "insurance;" they explain that really at the time, benei Yisrael were completely ready to accept the Torah. However, God was, as it were, worried that they would back out from fear of "ha-eish ha-gedola" - the raging fire of ma'amad Har Sinai. The Maharal, though, disagrees strongly, and sees the coercion as a central element of matan Torah.

We turn again to the Maharal for an explanation. The truth is that the Torah really was not given exactly on the fiftieth day of the Omer, i.e. the holiday of Shavuot. There is a Tannaitic dispute [Shabbat 86-87] whether the Torah was given on the sixth or the seventh of Sivan (50th and 51st days of the Omer, respectively). In the end, Rabbi Yossi's opinion, that matan Torah was on the seventh, is accepted. Rabbi Yossi's position is based on the assumption that "yom echad hosif Moshe mi-da'ato;" that although God told Moshe to have the people prepare for two days before matan Torah, Moshe decided on his own to add a third day, thus pushing off the revelation of Mount Sinai from the fiftieth of the Omer to the fifty-first.

So, what actually happened on the fiftieth? On that day, God was ready to give us the Torah, and would have, had Moshe not pushed it off. In other words, on that day God considered us spiritually fit for the revelation of His Presence and the receiving of His Torah. It is this that we celebrate on Shavuot. On the fiftieth day of the Omer, we focus not on the giving of the Torah per se, but rather on our worthiness of it in the eyes of God. This, in and of itself, is a monumental achievement. Thus, "kafa aleihem et ha-har ke-gigit," along with the actual acceptance of the Torah, is somewhat beside the point.

This approach once again highlights the "Yom Kippur" aspect of Shavuot; are we ourselves indeed spiritually prepared for acceptance of the Torah? If ma'amad Har Sinai were scheduled for today, would God be willing to personally present us, you and me, with His sacred Torah?

(This sicha was originally delivered on Shavuot night, 5755.)




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