From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
HABAKKUK: DAY OF JUSTICE
He sang about justice. And he wrote poetry, with big mythic themes. But he insisted on realism. Because he knew: change is hard.
Habakkuk’s book has no date and time stamp. So we don’t know when he lived. And thus, we don’t know exactly which injustices he protests.
Still, scholars have found some clues. Babylonia was on the move. A greedy empire with a brutal army. And emperors who enjoyed deploying it. To enrich themselves, and to show their power.
Plenty of injustice there.
But maybe Habakkuk wasn’t only talking about Babylonia. Maybe he left out the time stamp on purpose. Because current events helped him see a pattern. One that repeats in different times and places.
Poor people build a life, says Habakkuk, but the rich trample it. Corrupt leaders rule through crime. Yet, they use law to protect themselves. Still, anger against them simmers. And it will explode.
How long, O LORD, shall I cry out and you not listen? (1:2) Though the fig tree does not bud…I wait calmly for the day of distress (3:16-17).
When that day comes, God will battle on the waters.
Habakkuk means: the day will be like a new Exodus. The sea will part and then the slaves will escape. But the waters will flow back, and the oppressors will drown.
He also means: the day will be like a new Creation. As fierce as the original one, when God first subdued the mighty sea monsters.
Is your anger against Neharim [the water beast]? Your rage against Yam [the sea monster]? Loud roars the deep! You will make your steeds tread the sea, stirring the mighty waters! (3:8, 15).
God will carry a spear. Because creation begins with conflict. But the spear will flash in brilliance (3:11). Because in this new world, we will see that every day is good.
Habakkuk’s words have no time stamp.
Wendy’s comment: This is commentary on the Haftarah for Second Day Shavuot
Ruth’s Torah Matters Now
BY RABBI AMY KALMANOFSKY
Like every Jewish holiday, Shavuot has seasonal and historical components. It celebrates the gifts of Torah and of the spring harvest. Both bounties manifest God’s glory, sustain Israel, and are captured masterfully by our liturgy.
On the first day of Shavuot, we read Exodus 19-20, which describes the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the ten commandments. On the second day, we have the tradition of reading the book of Ruth. Ruth captures both the Torah and harvest themes of the holiday. Set during the barley harvest, the book plays with the tropes of emptiness and fullness and tells a story that carries humans and the land from a state of infertility to fertility. Also, the Rabbis understood Ruth’s pledge to follow Naomi and accept her people and God to be a statement of faith and an act of religious conversion. By committing to Naomi, Ruth the Moabite accepts God’s Torah (Ruth Rabbah 2:22), as Israel did at Sinai.
I have always loved the book of Ruth. I love it for its literary craft and elegance. I also love it for its peculiarities—the fact that God is not an active character in the book and that humans—particularly female humans—take center stage. I love it for presenting a hero who, as a female Moabite, is as Other as anyone can be in the Torah’s universe.
I have always loved Ruth, but this year, I read Ruth in the context of Shavuot and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I love it even more. In my reading, Ruth offers a profound Torah that speaks to us now. It is the Torah that comes from human relationships. It is the Torah of human connectedness.
Of all the books in the Bible, Ruth is the most human. God does not speak or act in the book and is mentioned only in passing. Human dialogue is central in Ruth more than in any other biblical book. At its heart, Ruth is a story about human relationships, and more importantly, about human relatedness. Its story shows how when human beings commit to and are kind to one another, bounty ensues.
The most famous moment of human connectedness is Ruth’s declaration to Naomi that wherever Naomi goes, Ruth will follow, and that Naomi’s people and God will both be Ruth’s, too (Ruth 1:16-17).
This certainly is a powerful moment of human commitment and connection. But there are many more in this remarkable book that each provide unique inspiration.
There is the moment when Naomi first leaves Moab with her two widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, and demands that they return to their mothers. Distraught, they both weep and refuse to leave Naomi’s side (Ruth 1:8-10).
There is the moment when Naomi again begs Ruth and Orpah to return home to start over again with new husbands. This time, weeping and heartbroken, Orpah kisses her mother-in-law farewell and heads home while Ruth clings to Naomi (Ruth 1:14).
There is the moment when Boaz finds Ruth gleaning in his field and insists that she continue to do so, promising her protection (Ruth 2:8-9) and insisting that she eat and drink among his harvesters (Ruth 2:14).
There is the moment when Ruth returns to Naomi after gleaning in Boaz’s field and offers her what she has gleaned as well as a portion of the food that was offered to her (Ruth 2:17-18).
There is the moment when Boaz withholds himself from Ruth in order to approach a more appropriate kinsman to marry her yet promises to marry her should the kinsman refuse (Ruth 3:11-13).
There is the moment that Boaz negotiates with the kinsman on Ruth’s behalf (Ruth 4.3-6).
There is the moment when the townspeople witness Boaz’s commitment to Ruth and welcome her into his house as if she were one of the biblical foremothers Rachel, Leah, or Tamar (Ruth 4:11-12).
There is the moment when the women of Bethlehem bless Naomi and declare Ruth to be better to her than seven sons (Ruth 4:15).
There is the moment when Naomi places Ruth’s child to her breast and fully accepts the child and his mother into her family (Ruth 4:16-17).
There are many other moments of human connectedness that are the substance of Ruth’s Torah. These moments reveal how human acts of kindness, loyalty, and love bring blessings. From these acts, great bounty is reaped.
This Torah, Ruth’s Torah, is so evident and vital now during the pandemic. In this strange reality of “virtual” or “remote” connection (a reality that I’m currently living as I write), we value human connectedness even more and long for a world when we can be together and, most importantly, a world where we can cling like Ruth to those we love and do myriad acts of kindness.
When that moment comes and we can return to the world rich with human connection, we will live out Ruth’s Torah fully and reap great bounty from it.
From Rabbi Yoel Glick
Like a Desert
Why was the Torah given in the desert of Sinai? Whoever does not make himself ownerless and abandoned like a desert, cannot acquire the wisdom of the Torah. — Numbers Raba 1:7
A desert is a place of desolation and emptiness. Very little moves or makes a sound. If we want to receive the word of God, we need to enter into our inner desert. We need to find the place of stillness and emptiness inside us where the living God dwells.
We are told that when the prophet Elijah went to seek God on Mount Sinai, he sat down in a cave and began to mediate. As he sat in deep contemplation, “a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.” — Kings I 19:11–12
The knowledge of God is not like any other knowledge. God is not found through a multitude of words, or by bombastic proclamations of faith, or in great expressions of emotion. To find God we need to seek in the depth of inner silence, in the vast stillness that is within.
The Baal Shem taught that there are two kinds of davening — two types of prayer. Sometimes we fling our limbs in all directions as we pray, like a person who is drowning and calling out for help. And sometime we pray without moving a limb, in total stillness, where even the slightest sound or movement can break our inner connection. ¹
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that this is the meaning of the phrase in Song of Songs 5:2, “I am asleep, but my heart is awake.” This verse refers to a spiritual state where our senses are asleep and we have no body consciousness, while our “heart” soars into the vast expanses of the heavens; awake within the infinite Ocean of God. ²
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “The Torah was given to Moshe on a parchment of white fire and written in black fire and signed in fire and bound in fire, and in the process of writing the quill wiped against his hair and from there Moses got the radiance on his face. — Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus, Torah portion Yitro, Ch. 19
We find a beautiful explanation of this midrash in the words of the Indian saint, Sri Ramana Maharshi:
“There is a [movie] screen. On that screen first a figure appears. Before that figure on the same screen other pictures appear and the first figure goes on watching the other pictures. If you are the screen and know yourself to be the screen, is it necessary not to see the first figure and the subsequent pictures? When you don’t know the screen, you think the figure and pictures to be real. But when you know the screen, and realise it is the only reality on which as substratum the shadows of the figure and pictures have been cast, you know these to be mere shadows. You may see the shadows, knowing them to be such and knowing yourself to be the screen, which is the basis for them all.”
“Brahman [God] or the Self is like the screen and the world is like the pictures on it. You can see the picture only so long as there is a screen.” ³
“The Torah was given to Moshe on a parchment of white fire and written in black fire.” According to Sri Ramana, then, the white fire is God, the screen of Pure Consciousness; the substratum of all that exists. In order to receive the black fire which is the wisdom of the Torah, we need to discover the white fire within us, the tablet upon which the black fire is engraved.
How do we accomplish this goal?
Sri Ramana Maharshi once again provides us with the answer. In one of his teachings, Sri Ramana compares the mind of the average person to a room full of junk:
“These people are like a man who fills all the rooms of his house chockfull of unnecessary junk and then complains that there is no room for keeping his body in it.
In the same way, they fill the mind with all sorts of impressions and then say there is no room for the Self [God] in it. If all the false ideas and impressions are swept away and thrown out what remains is a feeling of plenty and that is the Self itself.” ⁴
The reason we cannot find God is because our mind is full of endless thoughts and desires. If we can learn to empty the mind, then God’s Living Presence will immediately appear.
There are forty-nine days between the holyday of Passover and the holyday of Shavuot — seven times seven weeks. This period is called the Omer. The Omer is a time of preparation. During the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we strive to still the mind, to stop the whirlwind of constant thought and desires, so that we can perceive the presence of God within.
In the teaching of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the experience of yichud — Divine communion and inner revelation — is followed by a period of ibbur or gestation. This period is a time for integrating our spiritual revelation. It is an opportunity for solitude and reflection where we solidify the place of stillness inside us. Then we are ready to be “born” into the world of activity and experience without losing our link with God.
Sri Ramakrishna compared this inner work to the process of making butter.
“To get butter from milk, you must let it set into curd in a secluded spot: if it is too much disturbed, milk won’t turn into curd. Next, you must put aside all other duties, sit in a quiet spot, and churn the curd. Only then do you get butter.
Further, by meditating on God in solitude the mind acquires knowledge, dispassion, and devotion. But the very same mind goes downward if it dwells in the world…
The world is water and the mind milk. If you pour milk into water they become one; you cannot find the pure milk any more. But turn the milk into curd and churn it into butter. Then, when that butter is placed in water, it will float. So, practise spiritual disciplines in solitude and obtain the butter of knowledge and love. Even if you keep that butter in the water of the world the two will not mix. The butter will float.” ⁵
First, we need to build a place of calm and tranquility inside us. Then we can enter into the world, while holding on to the inner stillness, interacting with others from our spiritual sanctuary.
This is the manner in which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived in the world. The Talmud Tractate Yoma 28B tells us that the Forefathers and Mothers all kept the mitzvot (commandments] before the Torah was even given. They were so attuned with their Divine essence that they naturally fulfilled God’s Will without instruction or commandments. This is the kind of relationship we are meant to have with the Torah. The Torah was intended to be a natural extension of the revelation.
“Vekol ha’am roim et hakolot” — And all the people saw the thundering (Ex 20:14). The Baal Shem Tov asks: how is it possible to see thundering? Thundering is something that is heard and not seen. He then goes on to answer his own question: The revelation at Sinai, he explains, transcended all the normal five physical senses. The Children of Israel experienced the events on the mountain through a whole other spiritual sense, through the higher consciousness of the Self. ⁶
In the Talmud, whenever the rabbis want to make a point, they preface their words with the phrase, Tah Shma — “come and hear.” This phrase is an invitation for us to come and listen to their teaching and to understand its logic. In the Book of the Zohar, however, when the rabbis want to convey a new teaching, they start with the phrase Tah Chazi — “come and see.” When we are dealing with inner wisdom, it is not enough for us to simply understand the words; the teaching has to become a tangible reality. The words need to come alive. And the only way that this can happen is through spiritual experience, through “seeing” with our inner eye.
In the blessing that proceeds the shema (the central prayer of Judaism), we recite the words “vehair eiynainu beToratecha” — enlighten our eyes with your Torah. These words are a heartfelt prayer asking God to illuminate our consciousness, to fill our eyes with His Divine sight. The Idras section of the Zohar describes the nature of this Divine sight, using a phrase taken from Psalm 121:4. “The Guardian of Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” God’s all-seeing Eye, the Zohar tells us, is constantly looking out over the world. He observes everything that is happening on all of the myriad planes of the manifest universe. The Divine gaze pierces through all the veils of material reality to see into the hearts of men and angels.
This is the nature of the sight of Pure Being, the sight of Boundless Consciousness; the vision of the white fire that underlies all that exists. It is the vision of the vast expanses of the desert; of an emptiness which is full of God.
This Shavuot, be at synagogue, be at a festive meal with family and friends, and be at an all-night tikkun or study session; but also take some time to be in the desert — to be in the place of silence and stillness where the Eternal God dwells.
Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Amud Hatefilah #70 and 139
Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Torah portion Lech lecha
Devaraja Mudliar, Day by day with Bhagavan, p. 168 and 238
Suri Nagama, letters from Sri Ramanashram, p. 241–2
‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, as translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 82
Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Torah portion Yitro #55
Lessons From the Book of Ruth
BY RABBI ISMAR SCHORSCH
Sharing our possessions is not a disposition that comes naturally. Whatever else parents do, they need to referee often, fairly and good-naturedly, a task usually spared the grandparents. As the unkind quip goes: the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they share a common enemy.
It is precisely this innate aversion to deny ourselves that prompts the Torah to legislate this week a series of charitable acts that are quite unnatural, slightly utopian and utterly unenforceable. The setting is an agricultural society, but the intent is universal: to alleviate the plight of the hungry. At harvest time the Torah enjoins us to share the land’s bounty with the poor and the stranger in our midst. We should not cut the edges of our fields or pick our vineyards bare, and the gleanings of both are to be left lying where they fall. In all, four separate injunctions inspired by compassion not to take wholly for ourselves what is rightfully ours, what indeed we have painstakingly labored to produce by the sweat of our brows (Leviticus 19:9-10). The Mishnah specifies that while there is no upward limit to the mitzvah of pe’ah (the unharvested edge), there is a floor: no less than one-sixtieth of the crop may be given (M Pe’ah 1:1-2).
The nobility of the legislation speaks for itself. At the peak of our possessiveness, we are asked for a bit of self-transcendence. And as we settle for a little less, the beneficiaries of our largess are spared the loss of their dignity and anonymity. They are not forced to beg outright. The arrangement permits them to assuage their need demurely. The well-to-do have a responsibility to assist the vulnerable. No society can long endure if the gap between rich and poor runs amok. To address that injustice, the Torah institutionalizes the exercise of good deeds. Of the select laws to be taught to a prospective convert to Judaism, Maimonides, in his incomparable code of Jewish law, singles out these agrarian stipulations (hilkhot issure bi’ah 14:2). The choice is consistent with his conception of what it takes to be a Jew: relating to others considerately. Cruelty or indifference do violence to the value system of Judaism (hilkhot matanot aniyim 10:2).
The passage ends resoundingly with, “I the Lord am your God” ( 19:10 ). Leviticus offers no justification for such lofty behavior, as if none would be sufficient to inspire it. The concluding declaration intimates that we ought to diminish our gain solely because God demands it of us. The ultimate ground for morality is neither reason nor fear but simply God’s will. In contrast, Deuteronomy, with its greater humanistic tendency, tries to anchor its amplification of these same charitable measures in the experience of Egyptian slavery. To be sure, God is the source of the commandments but we are primed to perform them because of the deprivation endured by our ancestors in Egypt. Suffering has endowed us with a capacity to identify with the fate of the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 24:19-22). Our humanity springs from a keen awareness of what it means to be inhuman.
The Book of Ruth, the second of the Tanakh’s five scrolls to be read on Shavu’ot, turns on at least one of these mandated forms of charity. The time of year is early spring, “the beginning of the barley harvest ” (Ruth 1:22 ). Both Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law, have returned to Israel from Moab widowed and forlorn. To provide some food for their bare table, Ruth announces: “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness” (2:2). The narrative posits that the practice of leaving the gleanings for the poor was part of the social fabric of ancient Israel. “As luck would have it.” (2:3), she alights on the fields of Boaz, a relative of her deceased father-in-law, who is apprised of the selfless devotion that Ruth has shown to Naomi in abandoning her native land of Moab and attaching herself to Naomi’s people and God. This unalloyed goodness inspires Boaz not only to shower her with grain, but to also take her as his wife in accordance with the regulations of a levirate marriage. He further buys back all the property once owned by Naomi’s late husband and two sons and names the son born to him and Ruth after her former husband to perpetuate his name. The ultimate reward of these decent people is that their child became the grandfather of none other than King David.
To read the heartwarming story of Ruth on Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, projects a dramatic instance of revelation in action. At least in the cases of a childless widow and gleanings for the poor, its laws defined local practice. Beyond that, the gentle lesson of Ruth is that decency can soften emptiness with purpose and death with fertility. By aiding others, we improve the quality of their lives and ours. To be holy means to do with less for ourselves so that those in need might have a bit more. As in the other scrolls in Scripture, God’s presence in Ruth recedes into the background. Good people are God’s agents, who by doing what does not come naturally to most of us turn the divine word into human reality.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
From the book, The Month of Sivan: The Art of Receiving
On the festival of Matan Torah, all our Chidushim / new insights and Seichel / intelligence for the entire year are given in potential. That is, on Shavuos a person receives all of that year’s understanding of Torah as a Klal / general ‘download’. All the Chidushim encoded in this Klal are what he will reveal during the coming year, as the Sefas Emes writes (Shavuos,Tav/Reish/Lamed/Hei). Said another way, we each receive a hidden Nevuah / prophecy on Shavuos, which is the Cheilek / part of Torah wisdom that we will understand in the coming year, and throughout the year we reveal what we had received (Derech haMelech, Shavuos).
We receive not only the wisdom of Torah, specifically, but all of the Seichel / intelligence that we will need in order to serve Hashem throughout the coming year ( Me’or Einayim,Miketz). In this way, Shavuos is the headquarters of intelligence, a time to draw down a new level of consciousness, a new Partzuf/ Divine structure, which is the Klal that will fuel our spiritual work for the entire year. Through the course of the year we need to draw this consciousness down and unpack what we received.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
רבונו של עולם — Master of the Universe
שכינה, מקור חיינו — Divine Presence, Source of our Lives:
We come before You today in celebration
And in gratitude. We come before You
Bearing the first fruits of spring harvest
Grown from this beautiful patch of earth:
Radishes and sorrel, herbs and grasses.
We come before You bearing the fruits
Of the Omer count we’ve just completed:
Lovingkindness and boundaries, balance
And foundation. We come before You bearing
The work of our hands and the devotion of our hearts
The labor of our minds and the fire of our spirits.
Infuse us with gratitude for these gifts
And remind us that they belong, as we belong,
To You. Blessed are You, Wholly One,
Giver of so many gifts to us
Which we return to You in love.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Up All Night
Torah Reading: Exodus 19:1 – 20:22
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 1:1 – 28, 3:12
As children, we think staying up all night is pretty cool. Remember the first time you vowed to stay awake for something special? In all likelihood, it ended with you falling asleep,leaving unfulfilled the desire to experience the special occasion of the night. Fast forward to college – an all-nighter took on new significance as a last ditch effort to cram for the big exam (memorizing information that many would say they forget not long after the exam is over) or put the finishing touches on an important paper (one that often made up the majority of the semester grade).
So, why as we conclude counting the omer – the 49 days marking the time between Passover and Shavuot – and having journeyed through the spiritual transformation from slavery to freedom, do we Jews insist on an all-nighter as part of the re-enactment of receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai? For that matter, how is it that Shavuot is connected to the receiving of Torah at all?
Reading the Torah itself (Leviticus 23: 9-21, Exodus 23: 16 and 34: 22), Shavuot is primarily (if not exclusively) an agricultural holiday, marking the harvest season in Israel, and therefore binding God, the Jewish people, and the uniqueness of the land. Come the rabbinic period (beginning in the second century CE), the holiday is given a radically different purpose, best characterized by the 11th century Midrash of Pesiktat Zotarta, compiled by Rabbi Toviah ben Eliezer HaGadol of Greece and Bulgaria:
“You shall declare a holy assembly on this very day” (Lev. 23:21). This refers to the fiftieth day, the day the people of Israel stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Our ancestors received the Torah fifty days after leaving the land of Egypt, and therefore the Festival of the First Fruits falls fifty days after the first day of Passover. The people of Israel are thus referred to as “the first fruit” [as in] “I found Israel [as pleasing] as grapes in the wilderness; [your fathers seemed to Me like the first fig to ripen on a fig tree…]” (Hos. 9:10). Similarly, the verse states: “As an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the others” (Song of Sol. 2:3). Just as the apple tree produces its fruit fifty days after blossoming, so the people of Israel received the Torah fifty days after leaving the land of Egypt.
No longer about an agricultural holiday, Shavuot is now about the receiving of the Torah, the counting is about the time that lapsed between the exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah, and the agricultural references to the first fruits are a metaphor for the blossoming of the people. And so, in a world where the Jewish people were not centered in Israel and the Temple no longer stood (therefore making the bringing of the sacrifices of the day impossible), the rabbis reimagine the holiday and claim it as the day to mark revelation and the receiving of Torah.
So, why is it that we stay up all night?
It’s true that the other festival holidays each have their own rituals that connect us with meaning of the day. Passover has matzah, the seder symbols, and the seder itself. On Sukkot, we sit in the sukkah and we wave the lulav and etrog. Originally, however, Shavuot had no such ritual or connection. And, what is better to recall through ritual the receiving of Torah than study thereby ‘receiving’ Torah anew. When we study, we are enlightened, and we are in receipt of some new insight, some new recitation, some new element of Torah itself.
Maybe that helps understand the recitation of Torah, but why in the middle of the night and through the night? After all, wouldn’t it be better to do so during the day, when we are more alert, more awake, when we can actually ‘see’ what we are receiving?
Another midrash, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer , Chap. 41, describes God as the groom who is waiting to wed the bride (the Jewish people). Despite the excitement and anticipation a wedding brings, however, the Jewish people was asleep, and Moses had to wake them up to meet God at Sinai for this important union, (A later text even suggests that it was God who had to wake the Jewish people… imagine, a groom having to wake a bride on their wedding day…an auspicious beginning, no doub.)
So, to make sure we don’t fall asleep waiting each year and/or worse yet, that we don’t oversleep, the custom of studying all night was born and is today one that is being reclaimed by communities in unique and creative ways.
One final perspective, one I find much more spiritually meaningful. The medieval philosopher, physician, and Jewish law authority, Maimonides, says: “Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both during the day and at night, one gains the majority of wisdom at night; therefore, [no one should] lose even one night to sleep, food and drink, conversation, and the like—rather, one should engage in the study of Torah and words of wisdom” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah Chapter 3:13).
According to this read, a person acquires most of her wisdom at night. In the wee hours of the morning, a different self emerges, uncovering the secrets we hide. Hidden truths manifest and true insight, change, and Revelation becomes possible. And, with this, we truly receive Torah anew on an annual basis. So, whether alone on an island, with a single partner, or in a community wide learning, I bless you with the capacity to study into the night. And, perhaps by morning, whether you have slept a part of the night or none of the night, the internal alarm clock will sound, reminding you it is time to hear the words of Torah today and every day.
Hag Shavuot Sameach.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
A Tale of Two Women
In this 45 minute You Tube Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discussed Ruth and Tamar
Yearning and revelation
Torah comes in many forms. There’s written Torah and oral Torah and the Torah of lived human experience.
Revelation comes in many forms, too. Maybe, like the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, you see a piece of art and realize what fades and what endures, and you come away certain that you must change your life. Maybe you’re out for a jog when you realize that the pastime you’ve been enjoying, the one that makes you happy outside of your job, is actually the thing you feel called to be doing as your paying work. Maybe you hear a piece of music and it moves you, and then the melody reverberates in your heart, opening up depths of feeling you hadn’t known you were missing.
Revelation isn’t just the things we learn, or realize, or recognize. It’s how we allow those things to change us.
The Sinai moment is our people’s quintessential experience of revelation. Some say that God’s own self was revealed to the people on that day. And midrash (Exodus Rabbah) teaches that God’s voice divided itself into 70 human languages so that everyone might understand it. Everyone who was there, regardless of age or social station, heard God’s voice in a way that they could understand. So can we.
The thing is, revelation doesn’t just flow on Shavuot. On Shavuot perhaps the cosmos is aligned in a way that might make it easier for us to receive. Everything we do on that day is designed to open us more deeply to what’s coming through. But the divine broadcast is ongoing even when it isn’t Shavuot.
Revelation happens in the body. A friend of mine who’s a massage therapist likes to say “the body is our God” — by which I think she means something like, our bodies can be conduits for revelation. Is there something happening at your workplace that ties your stomach in knots? Is there someone in your life who makes your whole being feel bubbly like champagne? Our bodies speak, if we listen.
Revelation happens in the heart. Think of the person you love most in the world, and imagine that they’re right here in front of you. That upwelling in your heart is a kind of revelation. Feelings of joy can be a revelation — especially after long periods of grief. Gratitude can be a revelation.
Revelation happens in the mind. The idea that sets your mind on fire, consuming your waking hours and maybe your sleeping ones too. The flash of insight or new understanding. The book you read that opens your horizons and changes your life. Sparking across the synaptic connections of the brain, there can be revelation.
And revelation happens in spirit. Not just in the experience of prayer that transports you, though I am always grateful for such davenen. When we open ourselves to divine flow in our lives: that’s revelation. When we seek the Presence of Havayah, the One Who Accompanies, in all things: that’s revelation.
Reb Zalman, of blessed memory, used to say that God broadcasts on all channels and we receive where we are attuned.
I’m not very good at receiving revelation in my body — I have to remind myself to pay attention to the messages my body is conveying — but I’ve made a practice of opening myself to revelation through my heart. You will know which channels are most open for you.
If revelation can flow at any time, what can we do to cultivate receptivity, to attune our psycho-spiritual antennas to that broadcast? The best tool I know for cultivating receptiveness to revelation is opening myself to yearning.
Most of the time I go through life focused on my to-do lists. As do we all. We have jobs and obligations, parents to care for or children to raise, volunteer work and board service, not to mention the laundry, the groceries, and the bills. But each Shabbat, and each festival, invites us to set all of that aside for a time. When I set weekday and workday aside, what I feel is yearning.
In many classic musicals, early in the first act there’s the “I Want” song. The protagonist opens up to the audience and sings out the deepest yearning of their heart. That’s what sets the plot in motion. That’s what sparks their changes and allows them by the end of the show to get what they were looking for. What’s your “I Want” song? What do you yearn for?
I yearn for a life more whole and more complete. I yearn for connection with the Holy One of Blessing. I yearn for divine flow into and through my life. I yearn to be seen and to be known fully, by God and by human beings. I yearn for justice. I yearn for healing. I yearn to be able to make a difference. I yearn for a world redeemed.
When I open myself to my yearning, I’m letting down the armor that protects me from disappointment. Most of the time I need that armor, at least a little bit. But I need to be willing to be vulnerable in order to talk to God. And more than that: I need to be willing to be vulnerable, to open myself to my yearning, to hear God speaking back to me.
When I open myself to my yearning, that’s when my poems come through. Like this one (another in my Texts to the Holy series):
Orange daylilies stand,
their crowd of upturned faces
gazing at the sun.
My heart knows that yearning.
Every cell in my body
calls out for you.
Night falls: my petals close.
I hug myself, bereft.
I count the hours until dawn.
I am most beautiful
when your radiance
draws forth mine.
What draws forth your radiance? What makes you shine, as Moshe shone when he came down from the mountain?
What might your yearning reveal to you about the world as you most dream it could be? And are you willing to allow yourself to be changed: by opening up to your deepest yearnings, and by letting yourself hope that they might come true?
For three glorious days
I’m with you on the mountain.
Face to face with your radiance
I remember how to shine.
I am seen. I open in places
I didn’t know had been closed.
And then it’s over. Even
in a crowd I feel alone.
I miss your voice so much
my own throat closes.
What I wouldn’t give to be
in your sweet presence again.
The Ten Utterances
What the Israelites heard at Sinai has become known as the “Ten Commandments.” But this description raises obvious problems. First, neither the Torah nor Jewish tradition calls them the Ten Commandments. The Torah calls them aseret hadevarim (Ex. 34:28), and tradition terms them aseret hadibrot, meaning “the ten utterances.” Second, there was much debate, especially between Maimonides and Nahmanides, as to whether the first verse, “I am the Lord your God …,” is a command or a preface to the commands. Third, there are not ten commandments in Judaism but 613. Why, then, these but not those?
Light has been shed on all these issues by the discovery, already mentioned, of ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties, most of which share certain features and forms. They begin with a preamble stating who is initiating the covenant. That is why the revelation opened with the words, “I am the Lord your God.” Then comes a historical review stating the background and context of the covenant, in this case, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the slave-house.”
Next come the stipulations, first in general outline, then in specific detail. That is precisely the relationship between the “ten utterances” and the detailed commands set out in later chapters and books of the Torah. The former are the general outline, the latter, the details. So the “ten utterances” are not commandments as such but an articulation of basic principles. What makes them special is that they are simple and easy to memorise. That is because in Judaism, law is not intended for judges alone. The covenant at Sinai was made by God with an entire people. Hence the need for a brief statement of basic principles that everyone could remember and recite.
Usually they are portrayed as two sets of five, the first dealing with relationships between us and God (including honouring our parents since they like God brought us into being), the second with the relations between us and our fellow humans. However, it also makes sense to see them as three groups of three.
The first three – No other gods besides Me, no graven images, and no taking of God’s name in vain – are about God, the author and authority of the laws. The first states that Divine sovereignty transcends all other loyalties (No other gods besides Me). The second tells us that God is a living force, not an abstract power (No graven images). The third states that sovereignty presupposes reverence (Do not take My name in vain).
The second three – the Sabbath, honouring parents, and the prohibition of murder – are all about the principle of the createdness of life. Shabbat is the day dedicated to seeing God as creator, and the universe as His creation. Honouring parents acknowledges our human createdness. “Thou shall not murder” restates the central principle of the Noahide covenant that murder is not just a crime against man but a sin against God in whose image we are created. So the fourth, fifth and sixth commands form the basic jurisprudential principles of Jewish life. They tell us to remember where we came from if we seek to know how to live.
The third three – against adultery, theft and bearing false witness – establish the basic institutions on which society depends. Marriage is sacred because it is the human bond closest in approximation to the covenant between us and God. The prohibition against theft establishes the integrity of property, which John Locke saw as one of the bases of a free society. Tyrants abuse property rights. The prohibition of false testimony is the precondition of justice. A just society needs more than a structure of laws, courts and enforcement agencies. It also needs basic honesty on the part of us all. There is no freedom without justice, and no justice without each of us accepting individual and collective responsibility for truth-telling
Finally comes the stand-alone prohibition against envying your neighbour’s house, wife, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else belonging to him or her. This seems odd if we think of the “ten words” as commands, but not if we think of them as the basic principles of a free society.
The greatest challenge of any society is how to contain the universal phenomenon of envy: the desire to have what belongs to someone else. Rene Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, argued that the primary driver of human violence is mimetic desire, that is, the desire to have what someone else has, which is ultimately the desire to be what someone else is. Envy can lead to breaking many of the other commands: it can move people to adultery, theft, false testimony and even murder. It led Cain to murder Abel, made Abraham and Isaac fear for their life because they were married to beautiful women, and led Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. It was envy of their neighbours that led the Israelites often to imitate their religious practices and worship their gods.
So the prohibition of envy is not odd at all. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments as a whole. Not only though do they forbid it; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commands, reminding us of God’s presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our createdness, that help us rise above envy.
We are here because God wanted us to be. We have what God wanted us to have. Why then should we seek what others have? If what matters most in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of God, why should we seek anything else merely because someone else has it? It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to other people that competition, strife, covetousness and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.
Thirty-three centuries after they were first given, the Ten Commandments remain the simplest, shortest guide to the creation of a good society.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
I. “And I will break war from the land”: Shavuot, Shmitah, the covenant, and the promise
There are just a few places in the Torah where the other animals and human beings eat alongside each other, instead of being each other’s food. In the garden of Eden, God gives the fruit trees and the green plants to the humans and animals to eat, “the wild animals in the land and the birds and everything crawling on the land in which there is a living soul” (Gen 1:29–30 – according to Rashi the humans and animals even eat the same food).
Then things go very wrong, and Noah’s family gathers food for all the animals and for themselves into the ark, where they all live peaceably for the year they spend shut in during the flood.
But that harmony is shattered the minute they emerge from the ark: “a dread and terror of you will be over all the wild animals and the birds and everything that crawls, and the fish, for I have given them into your hands. Like green plants I give them to you all to eat. Only don’t eat the soul, which is the blood.” (Gen 9:2–4) This is followed by the first covenant – not with people, but with all the creatures, a reminder that God will not forsake the other creatures even if human beings will.
It seems as though Eden is forever lost, but Abraham tempts God to try one more time, to create a world where all will again be blessed. And the vision of that world culminates at Sinai, where we are given the commandment to keep the Shmitah or Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. (See “Shmitah: The Purpose of Sinai”.)
The Torah signals to us that this is a return to Eden, because in that Shmitah year, whatever grows from the land “will be for you for eating, for your servant and for your worker and for your sojourner who lives as a stranger with you, and for your animal and for the wild animal that is in your land.” (Lev 25:6–7)
The rabbis picked up on this cue and intensified it. Not only did we have to leave our gates open in the Shmitah year so that anyone and any creature could go in to share whatever bounty grew, but we couldn’t even eat any produce in our own houses once it had stopped growing in the field, because we could only eat what the wild animals could eat.
This is the fulfillment and the purpose of the covenant of Sinai, and if we carry it out, then, Hashem (God) promises, “I will become God for you and you will become My people”. But this still isn’t the full Eden, because we could still eat the animals, and they would still be terrorized by us.
The final vision, where Eden is restored, is of course evoked by Isaiah, with the lion and the lamb lying down together. But its ultimate expression comes not in Isaiah but in Hosea. In one of the most intense and beautiful passages. Hosea gives us Hashem’s message: “I will cut for them a covenant on that day, with the wild animal of the field, and with the bird of the skies and what crawls on the land – and bow and sword and war I will break eshbor from the land, and I will make them lie down in surety.” (2:20)
This is the ultimate vision both because it is a covenant – a covenant with all creatures, recalling what comes after the flood, a covenant with the people, recalling Abraham’s covenant, and a covenant where the animals will no longer be in terror of human beings, recalling Eden. But most importantly, this new covenant that will come into being recalls the covenant of Shmitah.
Hosea’s words recall what we read last week in synagogue in B’hukotai, which continues the story in Behar of what happens in the Shmitah year: “I will set peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you tremble…I am YHVH your God who brought you out from Egypt, from being slaves, and I broke va’eshbor the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright.” (Lev 26:7, 13)
We can learn from this that the strange phrase in Hosea, “and I will break bow and sword and war from the land”, means that just as the people were freed from Egypt, so will the land be freed from human violence. For, Hosea teaches, human violence encages and enslaves the land as surely as the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. This is freedom not just for us, not just for the people, but for all creatures, not just once in seven years, but for all time.
And this is the purpose of Sinai, and the purpose of Torah: to call out liberty, d’ror, not just to Israel, not even just to human beings, but to all those living on the earth and in the land: “And you will call out liberty in the land to all that dwell in her.” (Lev 25:10) A call that we are still waiting for, a promise yet to be kept.
Only then, says Hosea, “will I betroth you to me in faith, and you will know YHVH. And I will answer the heavens, and the heavens will answer the earth…and I will say to My ‘not-people’, ‘My people are you’, and (this people) will say, ‘my God’.” (2:22–25)
From Reb Zalman
This video was posted on Kol Aleph. It features Reb Zalman reading the Book of Ruth at The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.
From Tikkun Magazine
Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin
Shavuot’s Revelation of Self
Revelation is the heart of Torah. “G-d spoke to you face to face,” Moshe reminds the people as he recounts the great event of Sinai in which they all took part (Deut. 5:4).
That we all took part in it is essential to the meaning of Sinai. The revelation described by the Torah was not the property of one leader alone, or of an elite group, whose report had to be taken as authoritative truth. The authority of the revelation in the Torah is rather to be vouched for by the experience and the memory of each one of the community. Just as the redemption from Egypt was unmediated—“Not by means of an angel, not by means of a seraph, not by means of an agent”; “I, G-d, I and no other”—so, too, was the revelation to which the redemption led: “There was no intermediary,” said Abraham ibn Ezra (ad loc.).
As it was at first, so it remains: the authority of the revelation is to be found within. Its authenticity emerges simultaneously with the emergence of the authenticity of the self. As interesting as all other arguments may be for Torah, this essential argument is not an argument at all. It is pre-argument—the same way that we come to know that we are who we are, that reality is as reality is, so do we intuit how the authority and authenticity of Torah is as it is.
How is the content of that revelation written down for the ages? In some ways, it is not written down, for if it is to be as immediate and present for us as our own identities, there is unfolding something new to say each moment. It is, as Moshe says later in Deuteronomy, “in your mouth and in your heart, as you do it.”
But some of it was written down, engraved in stone, as we have learned to say. And the very first word on the stone is anochi—I.
It is, as it appears in the book, as it appeared on stones, the I of G-d. But the mystics break the word down to its elemental letters, each of which can be re-expanded and then stand for a full word. ANoChY—Ana Nafshi Ketavit Yehavit—wrote My self down and gave it (Likkutei Torah 48d).
Beyond giving of law, beyond imposing an order, the root of the revelation, the root of the Torah is G-d’s giving of self.
The receiving of Torah must match the generosity and the creativity of the giving.
The Talmud teaches that there was an element of coercion at Sinai. The Torah texts speak of a sensory experience so overwhelming that “all the people saw the sounds;” another text has the people telling Moshe that they couldn’t endure this any more, “lest we die.” The Talmud amplifies this, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaching that with each utterance, the souls of the Jews departed their bodies. The revelation could only proceed, he taught, by G-d’s bringing down the dew to be used to resurrect the dead in the future.
Later mystics say that the death referred to was not real death, for the experience of Sinai was one of wholeness and oneness from every aspect. Instead, the experience of the transcendent being intimately, palpably apprehensible was so overwhelming that death was the only metaphor. They were unable to integrate and return into their identities without outside help—the vivifying dew. This re-integration was thus—no less that the overwhelming infusion of Presence that made it necessary—something from the outside, not entirely part of the substance of who Israel knew themselves to be.
The revelation was in this respect incomplete—we still experienced ourselves as undergoing it, being both taken apart and put back together by something outside ourselves. Let someone extraordinary do that, Israel said. Maybe Moshe can handle that, but no one else.
Can we really want to be taken apart? If we really mean to do it and not just talk about it, how fearsome a thing! Ken Kesey talked often about how we all would like to be a voyeur of the mystic until we find ourselves the object of our piercing vision and we see a nothingness at the core. “You want to see the books? Here are the books!” Who wants their fantasy of self shattered?
If we can blame someone or something for the shattering vision, we are off the hook. Wait until the drug wears off, wait until the experience on the mountain is over, and my old self will return.
But this is exactly what the acceptance of Torah requires. If G-d is forcing this on us, we have a good cause to wiggle out whatever way we can and hunker down somewhere comfortable. But if we actually aspire to look in the book, to partner with G-d, we will have no one and nothing else to blame. There can be no excuses. It’s all on the line.
And that is what the masters said about the giving of the book at Sinai. “I put My self out and gave it to you. Will you do the same?”
No rabbis can interfere. No philosophy professor has the last word. On Shavuot, it is all about who we really choose to be. Are we ready to know ourselves as who we are in the Book?
Sleeper with heart awake
Burning and storm-tossed
Go out, stir yourself,
And walk in the light of My countenance.
Arise, prosper, ride on,
A star has come forth for you,
And he who lay down in the pit
Shall climb to the peak of Sinai…
(from “Sleeper With Heart Awake” by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi)
Let us choose to go up.
From American Jewish World Service
Wake Up, Sleepyheads! By Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Shavuot marks the historic day of Revelation—the day when, according to tradition, God gave the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Many Jews today mark this extraordinary moment by staying up all night studying the Torah.
It makes sense to mark the anniversary of the Torah’s entry into the Jewish narrative by spending time studying it. But why at night? And why all night? Why not incorporate time to study Torah within the framework of the morning services? Or create a ritual that commemorates revelation—perhaps a sounding of the shofar along with a resounding recitation of the 10 commandments? I understand that studying is the central focus of Shavuot, but why stay up all night?
The tradition began in 1533 when Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the legal code the Shulchan Aruch, invited a few of his Kabbalistic colleagues to hold a study vigil on Shavuot night. Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, the 17th-century author of Magen Avraham, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, suggests that Caro held this all-night vigil in a nod to a midrashic tradition about the Israelites oversleeping on the morning they were scheduled to receive the Torah:
Rabbi Hakinai says: On the third month the day is twice as long as the night, and Israel slept two hours into the day, for the sleeping in the daytime in this season is sweet, and the night is short.
Although the Israelites had been preparing for revelation for days, they succumbed to sweet slumber, perhaps revealing their hesitation and fear of all that the Torah would require of them. The midrash continues, invoking the metaphor of Shavuot as a marriage between God and the Jewish people:
And Moses went into the camp of Israel, and woke Israel up from sleep. He said to them, “Wake up sleepyheads! The groom has already arrived, and is asking for the bride and is waiting for her, that he may usher her into the bridal canopy, to give you the Torah” (Pirkei DeRebbi Eliezer 41).
The Israelites had to be woken up, shaken from their slumber to embark on their new journey of pursuing a life of Torah, a life of God, a life of justice.
In response, rather than be caught sleeping, like their ancestors at the foot of Sinai, the Kabbalists established Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a process of ‘rectifying’ our forebears’ lack of vigilance. While they slept, keeping the Torah and its code of ethics waiting for them, we spend the night absorbed in learning its core messages. While they dozed through that warm summer night and on into the morning, we deprive ourselves of sleep until after daybreak. And while they had to be woken to hear God’s voice from Sinai, we wait eagerly through the night to re-enact this revelation by reading the Ten Commandments, our code of law and ethics that obligates us to build a better world.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an opportunity to correct past mistakes. It is a call to wake up, arouse our souls, rise to the
￼challenge of our imperfect world, and commit not to wait to repair its brokenness. There is much to be fixed: poverty, hunger, abuse and discrimination are just a few of the many plagues that require our alert attention.
I recently officiated at a Bat Mitzvah at which the Bat Mitzvah girl spoke about an awakening she had just experienced: during a recent trip to Manhattan, she saw, for the first time, the face of hunger and poverty in the form of a beggar, asking for money. It brought me back to the first time I stared poverty in the face as a young girl in South Africa. A man, too weak to even stand, was sitting outside a supermarket. We handed him a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. I will never forget his face. Up until I saw him, I—just like that 12-year-old girl—lived an insulated life, coddled and protected from the darkness that pervades our world. It took 12 years for that Bat Mitzvah girl’s peaceful slumber to be interrupted by the ugliness of poverty, and for her to recognize her obligation to do something about it. Fully awake now, she set on a path, in her small way, to try to fix God’s world.
Sleep is sweet. Closing our eyes is easier than being awake and recognizing that we must address the pain and destruction that diminishes our world. But sleeping can no longer be an option. We must rise up and accept our obligation to overcome injustice.
The Talmud teaches that sleep is one sixtieth of death (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b). Perhaps Chazal (the rabbis of the Talmud) is teaching that if we close our eyes to the darkness that surrounds us, we may as well be dead. To truly live, to truly be alive, is to be awake to the injustices of our society, and become vigilant about responding.
This Shavuot, may we not be caught sleeping and may we not keep “the Groom” waiting. Wake up! And commit to tikkun, to fixing poverty, hunger, abuse, discrimination—all that is broken in our world, so that we can enter the canopy and truly live a life of Torah.
From Rabbi Mishael Zion
Rabbi Mishael writes about the origins of Tikkun Leil Shavuot.
On Shavuot night, it is more important for us to “hear” the Lord speaking than it is to learn another intellectual concept or study another page of text. On Shavuot night, we want the Torah to become a “living voice” in our hearts and minds.
In fact, many of the early Hasidic masters did not even teach on Shavuot night. Instead, they spent the night in silent contemplation, preparing to receive the “Divine revelation” at dawn.
On Shavuot, we stay up all night not as a spiritual discipline but because it is in the early hours of the morning when all is calm and silent that we can hear the still, small voice of the Lord. – from Seeking the Divine Presence
From Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Posted by Reb Arthur Kurzweil on his website
« Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “Our divine soul proceeds along its own Exodus to Mt. Sinai”
“One can assume with certainty that no traces of the giving of the Torah, this earthshaking event, will be found in the rocks of Sinai or anywhere else”
Consider the idea that the giving of the Torah is not a moment that belongs to the world in its natural run.
It is, instead, a transcendental event and cannot be put within the boundaries, lists and timetables of everyday life.
Possible analogies are the mathematical concepts of irrational and transcendental numbers.
Even though one can give an approximate measure of such numbers, they cannot be defined as part of the world of ordinary numbers.
In a way, irrational and transcendental numbers pass through the field of ordinary numbers – without ever touching them.
Similarly, one may say that the giving of the Torah is not a part of the normal existence of this world.
It cannot be treated with the same terms and measurements and one can assume with certainty that no traces of this earthshaking event will be found in the rocks of Sinai or anywhere else.
Thus, because the giving of the Torah is an act that does not belong to this world, it does not have a precise time or place.
That is why the Torah was given in a desert, in what can be called “no man’s land.”
The moment does not belong to the political realm and is not a part of any historical construct.
That moment at Sinai is an event completely outside time and space, and from a different dimension altogether.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From a recent essay,”If Passover is the question, Shavuot is the answer” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler 2012
The Deliberately Forgotten Anniversary
of the Most Important Event in Jewish History
A Shavuot Teaching from Gershon…
I was reading (and enjoying) Rabbi Miriam Maron’s teaching about the 20th Day of the Hebrew month of Iyar in her most recent newsletter, how our ancestors were told to start their journey of departure from Mount Sinai on that day. It then hit me that this was very odd. I mean, the 20th of Iyar is only two weeks before Shavuot! So would it not have been nice to have hung out at Mount Sinai two more weeks so that we could have celebrated so momentous and important a commemoration as the Receiving of the Torah, and at the very exact site where it occurred? Isn’t it puzzling that the people were deliberately deprived of the opportunity to celebrate the first anniversary of this momentous collective revelatory encounter, and were instead instructed to suddenly up and move only two weeks shy of this important anniversary??!
In fact, throughout the journey that year and the ensuing year, there is no mention whatsoever of such a commemoration, no mention of stopping here or there to celebrate any anniversary regarding the Revelatory Experience at Sinai. The only anniversaries we celebrated annually were (1) Creation, by the rites of Shabbat, and (2) Liberation, by the rites of Passover. As for Revelation – nothing. Nil. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Efess. Gornit.
Worse — Shavuot, while listed in the Torah as among the three major festivals, is not even mentioned as being in any way associated with the Revelation of Sinai, only as a “festival of the cutting from the first of your labors that you seeded in the field” (Exodus 23:16 and 34:23), or a festival of “the First Fruits” (Numbers 28:26). Period. We had to invent our own association by virtue of the proximity of First Harvest to the day we received the Torah, and so we came to acknowledge Shavuot as זמן מתן תורתינוZ’mahn Matan To’ratey’nu, “Time of the Gifting of our Torah.” But the Torah herself makes no such association, and it appears quite deliberate that we were yanked out of the area of the Revelatory Encounter weeks before we could celebrate our commemoration of it, and then never encouraged to celebrate it. Almost like it never happened. All of Jewish faith, Jewish nationhood, Jewish history, hinges on this one central event, and yet we’re basically told to forget about it and move on.
It makes me wonder if we offended the great Divine Plan by eventually creating an association of Shavuot with an event we were apparently supposed to forget. I mean, we are instructed to do Shabbat to help us remember Creation; to do Passover to help us remember being freed from bondage; to do Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to help us remember new beginnings. But a ritual to help us remember the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai?! Not a peep. Instead, we’re told to go out and pick strawberries.
Obviously, there is a lesson here. A message encrypted in the story. And perhaps it goes something like this: You want to commemorate the experience of Receiving the Torah? How do you do that? How do you in the here-and-now tap into something so eventful that occurred more than 3,000 years ago? Receiving the Torah was an awesome event of Divine Revelation. And so is the blossoming of the first fruits of the trees. Like the first-century Rabbi Tanchum bar Chee’ya reminded us: revelation actually happens daily within Nature herself. For all of it is a gift from God; all of it is God revealing aspects of Itself through the myriad manifestations of Creator in Creation. “Greater is the joy of rainfall,” he taught, “than the giving of the Torah at Sinai. For the gifting of the Torah was a joyful experience for one people, Israel, whereas the gifting of rain is a joyful experience for all peoples as well as for the entire world, and for the animals and the beasts and the birds, as is written (Psalms 65:10): ‘You redeem the earth, and gift her with her desires, and enrich her greatly with the channels of your waters'” (Midrash Tehilim, Chapter 117). If we cannot experience Divine Revelation in daily life, in the here-and-now magic of Nature, of each other, then how do we suppose we can connect to a revelatory encounter that occurred more than 3,000 years ago?!
The “Torah at Sinai” event was extremely important. No doubt. But it can easily distract us from other dimensions of Torah that are pre-Sinai. Remember, the Torah does not begin its story with the revelation at Sinai. There is quite a long history prior to arriving at Sinai. In the words of the ancient rabbis: “יָפֶה שִׂיחָתָן שֶל עַבְדֵי בָּתֵּי אָבוֹת מִתּוֹרָתָן שֶל בָּנִים — More precious are the conversations of the servants of the houses of the ancestors, than the Torah of the descendants” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 60:8). Or, as the third-century Rabbi Yo’see bar Chanina taught: “Matters of Torah were revealed to Rabbi Akiva [2nd century] that had not been revealed even to Moses” (Midrash Bamid’bar Rabbah 19:4).
Smart, then, to get us moving away from the mountain just as we were nearing the anniversary of receiving the Torah. Otherwise we would have associated and centralized the experience of Divine Revelation at the site where it happened and with the precise events that surrounded it. We would have locked-in our definition of Divine Revelation with “Torah at Sinai” and locked-out our capacity to experience Divine Revelation in any other context. And so, God told Moses to get the people out of there now!! Before the anniversary of “Torah at Sinai” came around. And that they should commemorate this powerful and sacred experience by picking cherries and apricots, and by gladdening each other’s hearts with joyful connecting and mutual gifting (Talmud Bav’li, Beitzah 15b). In this way, Divine Revelation by Torah definition extends beyond the physical embodiment of the Word and ripples across the life flow of daily living.
Divine Revelation is huge. It is like the giant we know of as גליתGoliath – which happens to be Hebrew for…”Revelation”!! Revelation is huge, but don’t let it intimidate you and overwhelm you and overshadow the lover in you. Rather, grab your slingshot, as did דודDavid – Hebrew for “Lover” – and aim straight at the center of the forehead of Revelation, straight at its “Third Eye”, the place from which Revelation springs forth. Then watch it topple to the Earth. Otherwise, it will overshadow you to the point that you will feel little of your own capacity to love. You will serve God out of fear and trepidation instead of out of love; out of anxiety and tension instead of out of joy. And Revelation would have been in vain, moot, meaningless, empty. Because you would have missed the whole point of Revelation which is God choosing to become revealed to you, the deepest expression of intimacy.
The Torah herself therefore teaches us that Shavu’ot is to be celebrated by reveling in joy (Deuteronomy 16:11), joyful celebration dedicated to yourself (Numbers 29:35), and joyful celebration dedicated to God (Deuteronomy 16:8). After all, the Torah came to us “in a language of joy, not commandment” (Midrash Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah, 14:11), and”Divine Inspiration eludes an unhappy heart” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Sukkah 5:1).
This then explains the puzzling teaching by the second-century Rabbi Eliezer, that on Shavuot, one should either spend the day feasting on good food and drink, or sit and study Torah (Talmud Bav’li, Beitzah 15b). In other words, whatever makes you happy. (As long as it’s legal, of course, and you don’t hurt nobody.)
And so the people were told to up and go, so that they would retain a
sense of the intent, not the event, of the Revelation at Sinai.
From Rav Kook
This link will get you to the page of Rav Kook’s holiday teachings. If you scroll down, it will bring you to 9 teachings about Shavuot.
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Festival of Sevens 2011
A Shavu’ot Teaching from Gershon…
What a strange festival, this Shavu’ot שבועות thing coming up next week. Literally, it translates as “Sevens”. So, basically, it is a celebration of Sevens. Not one Seven, but a bunch of them.
Yes, we know the significance of the number, “7”. We have the seven phases of Creation in the Genesis story, and, of course, the seventh day of the week — the Shabbat — and during the seventh year the land rests, and then after seven times seven years we have the Jubilee, and there are seven weeks between Passover and Shavu’ot, which literally translates as “Sevens.” So that brings us back to Square One: Why Seven? In other words, what is the significance of this number that there were seven cycles or phases of Creation, or that every seventh day is Shabbat, or that there are seven colors in the rainbow, or that our ancestor Jacob had to work seven years to marry Rachel and then later bows seven times as he makes his way toward his brother Esau during their reunion? And what about the seven years it took Solomon to construct the First Temple, or the seven branches of the ancient Menorah, or the seven blessings we recite at wedding ceremonies; or that our ancestors did their rain dance around the altar with willows seven times during the festival of Sukkot, or that we begin our new year in the seventh month, and that there are seven heavens, seven earths (or underworlds), or that three sevens in a row lands you a jackpot in Reno, or that Pharaoh dreamt of seven skinny cows swallowing seven plump cows? And so on… And of course, let’s not forget Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!
So it turns out that the Hebrew word for Seven, שבע sheva, is an offspring of the Hebrew word שבע sa’vey’a – same spelling, with a change of vowels — which means Sated, as in Satiated, as in Fullness, as in Satisfied, or Complete (16th-century Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague [MaHaRaL] in Derech Chayyim, Chapter 5, folio 274). As in: “And you shall eat and sava’ta שבעת– be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The relationship between Seven and Fullness is clearly marked at the very onset of the Torah narrative in her account of Genesis, where Creation achieves completion only after seven phases of unfolding (Genesis 2:2). It is then that God declares “Enough” (Talmud Bav’li, Chagigah 12a) — implying a sense of completion, of satisfaction – at least for the time being — as in: “And Elo’heem looked at all that it had made, and behold it was all very good” (Genesis 1:31). In fact, as the Zohar points out (Tikunei Zohar, folio 104a), seven times does the Torah recount the will of God becoming manifest (ויהי כן “And it was so”) in the Creation story (Genesis, Chapter One, verses 3, 7, 9, 11, 15, 24 and 30).
Seven is then more than a number; it represents Fullness, and as such it also implies multiplicity, as in a large number (MaHaRaL in Gevurot Hashem, Chapter 46, folio 184), so that the term Seven Days of Creation can just as easily imply
billions of years, as maintained by the 13th-century Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco (Shoshan Yesod Olam).
Shavu’ot is indeed a festival of Sevens, during which we acknowledge all the ways in which we are שבעsa’vey’a– full, complete, sated. It isn’t that there’s not much more than what already makes us happy; it is more about celebrating what is in the moment, as opposed to overlooking it in anticipation of yet more to come. For example: I have a delicious-looking red apple sitting in my fruit basket on the table. It looks just fine. Perfect. Ripe. Complete. But I wonder if it could get just a tad more ripe, more red, more perfect… So I wait. A day, two days, maybe three or four, and lo and behold its color darkens to a deeper red. But of course, as I now bite into it, it has become soft, grainy, starchy, and has lost its crisp, juicy flavor and texture, because I didn’t eat it when it was complete enough; I tarried in anticipation of it becoming more than it was in the moment. I didn’t know when to declare “Enough.” Shavu’ot reminds me to seize the blessings in my life as they come to me, and not to dismiss them as insufficient, and then wait around for perhaps a later model, a better version. The new and improved i-Phone 50 will come one day, but if I wait around for it without partaking of i-Phone 4, for example, I will be without a phone altogether for at least a year.
It reminds me of an old Jewish parable:
Once there was a dog who heard that there were two weddings going on, one nearby and one a couple miles away. Salivating at the thought of meat-strewn bones and discarded fat, the dog decided to bee-line it first to the distant reception and then later he would head for the one nearby. His logic was simple and sensible: If he were to gorge himself at the nearby party, by the time he would finish gnawing and only then head all the way out to the distant one, the distant wedding reception would be all done and there would be no leftovers remaining. So, best to go first to the distant one.
Extremely proud of his decision, the dog ran first to the far-away wedding reception — but alas, it was so far away that by the time he got there, it was over and everything had been cleaned up. Hungry, he dashed back all the way to the “nearby” reception — but alas, by the time he arrived, it was all over and done, and not a scrap remained. Bottom line, he benefited from neither the one nor the other and ended up with nothing (Sefer Ben Melech V’Ha’Nazir).
In hindsight, of course, had the dog simply focused on eating, and settled for the wedding reception at hand, rather than go for both, he would have had a feast — perhaps not everything that he wanted, or that was available, but definitely a mouthful. Like the ancient rabbis put it: “Grab for a lot and you come away with nothing at all; grab but for a little, and you will at least come away with something” (Talmud Bav’li, Yoma 80a).
This is why Shavu’ot is also referred to in the Torah as the “Day of the First Fruits” (Numbers 28:26), reminding us to appreciate the first gift that comes our way, rather than let it pass by in the hope that something even better will come along. Indeed it may, but the First Fruit gift is sacred in itself, precious in its own right, and could be the most important corner stone, so to speak, upon which further blessing will become manifest. As King David put it some 3,000 years ago: “The stone which the builders have neglected, ultimately became the chief corner stone” (Psalms 118:22). Or, as the ancient rabbis put it: “Before you implore God for what you need, first thank God for what you have” (Talmud Bav’li, Berachot 30b).
It is no wonder, then, that we have this strange custom on Shavu’ot of specifically feasting on dairy products, foods derived from milk, since milk is the First Gift we experienced when we first arrived on the planet – namely, the milk of our mothers (or in some cases, Similac). Breast milk was all we needed to feel full, to complete our creation, to feel sated and happy. First Gift alone sufficed for us. And so, on Shavu’ot, which reminds us to celebrate Sevens in all of the ways in which we have been Seven’d in our lives, we feast on milk, on First Gift, on what made us feel full and sated when we first arrived, while we thank God for the first fruits blossoming in our orchards — as is.
When we celebrate Shavu’ot in this very basic, fundamental way, we are more able to celebrate as well its commemoration of the Revelation at Sinai and the beginning of the receiving of the Torah; how as a nation we suckled at God’s breast – Mount Sinai – to receive the satiating nourishment of Torah as a very potent form of First Gift. As the eleventh-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki [Rashi] taught: “It is written, ‘Her breasts will satisfy you each time’ (Proverbs 15:19)- this means that just like a suckling child will find fresh flavor each time the child nurses at the breast, so, too, will one who pores over the teachings of the Torah” (Rashi on Ecclesiastes 1:9).
The 3,000 of us who then went on to construct the Golden Calf represented those of us who were unsatisfied with what we experienced at Sinai and wanted more and more and more, unable or unwilling to recognize First Gift when they saw it. In essence, they demanded more of God than God had chosen to reveal of itself, akin to relationship partners demanding of one another for more than is comfortable for either to reveal of themselves, or to gift of themselves, ultimately leading to abuse.
On Shavu’ot we declare “Enough.” We step back from the urgency of More, and celebrate what Is. We look without judgment and measurement at all that we have striven for and all that we have attained, and celebrate their preciousness, cherish the blessing of it all, and herald them as First Gift. After all, Shavu’ot is the only festival ordained by the Torah that is essentially one day only, not two, not seven, not eight; but one. “And before the One, what can you count?” (Sefer Yetzirah 3:7), for it is about “Enoughing”, being sated with one phase at a time, one blessing at a time. And in the merit of our capacity to do this, may we build foundations thereby — corner stones — upon which further Divine Blessing may alight if so willed by the one by whose will we exist.
So, Seven. More than a lucky number.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (RUTH) 2011
Time for a different kind of harvest.
Sated with bread and beer
Boaz and his men sleep deeply
on the fragrant hay.
The floor doesn’t creak.
When Boaz wakes, his eyes
gleam with unshed tears.
He is no longer young, maybe
forty; his face is lined
as Mahlon’s never became.
Who are you? he asks
and I hear an echoing question:
who is it? what is it? who speaks?
Spread your wings over me, I reply
and his cloak billows high.
Now he clasps my foreign hand
and kisses the tips of my fingers
now skin glides against skin
and the seed of salvation grows in me
the outsider, the forbidden
we move from lack to fullness
we sweeten our own story
and as my belly swells I pray
that the day come speedily and soon
when we won’t need to distinguish
Israel from Moab
the sun’s radiance from the moon’s
Boaz’s square fingers
from my smaller olive hands
amen, amen, selah.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
One Heart: The Message of Shavuot
In the third month following the children of Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt; that same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai… And there Israel camped opposite the mountain (Exodus 19:1-2)
At all their other encampments, the verse says vayachanu (“and they camped,” in the plural); here it says vayichan (“and he camped,” in the singular). For all other encampments were in argument and dissent, whereas here they camped as one human, with one heart (Mechilta, Rashi)
Many thinkers argue that our understanding of the universe has evolved from a pluralistic view to a singular view. Earlier in history, our so-called primitive perspective measured the universe with the naked senses, resulting in a perception that the world was made up of many different parts, ruled by diverse forces.
Today, however, we have developed a far more sophisticated appreciation of the universe as one unified whole. The multitude of systems and organisms are all part of a single entity and the countless personalities of nature all fall under several unifying laws that govern all of existence. And the search for the one “unified field theory,” which will explain all phenomena, remains the defining and ultimate scientific achievement.
When exactly did this perception change? When did humankind begin to see – experience – the universe as one unified entity, instead of a composite of myriad pieces?
According to the Torah it happened over 3300 years ago today, when the nation of Israel camped opposite Mt. Sinai.
What power did Sinai have that united the people when they “camped opposite the mountain”?
The Midrash explains that at Sinai an unprecedented experience took place that would change the course of all history. Up till that point that which was “above” did not descend “below” and that which was “below” did not ascend “above.” The spiritual and sublime was divorced from the material and the mundane. Spirit and matter were two forces that could not join. Obviously, even before Sinai matter and energy were essentially one (E=MC2 was discovered, not created by Einstein), but human beings were unable to integrate them.
Sinai changed all that. It married heaven and earth, integrating the sublime and the mundane, uniting the majestic and the plain.
In one word: Fusion. Sinai achieved a total fusion of matter and spirit. It empowered mankind to renovate the very nature of existence; to transform the material into spiritual fuel. We now can take an inanimate, physical object, and convert it into sublime energy; to bring alive every fiber of our beings and every aspect of our existence. To take what would have been an ordinary experience and make it extraordinary. Instead of a fleeting moment, a transient life can become eternal, the temporary can become permanent and the mortal – immortal.
This unprecedented fusion changed not only the global landscape, but – and perhaps even more importantly – it transformed our personal experience.
The human being is a universe in microcosm. We too are comprised of two forces: Our bodies and our souls. Each of us has a “biological” voice of survival, which rest side by side a transcendental voice seeking relief. Can we integrate these two forces? Or are we condemned, at best, to a compartmentalized life: Most of the time involved in the struggle for survival, otherwise known as our physical needs, while attempting to carve out moments (or weekends) for transcendental activities, which take on many shapes, some healthy, some not so: Romance, music, art, travel, spirituality and faith. Transcendental thirst is sometimes quenched through self-destructive “waters” – various (physical or psychological) obsessions or addictions – anything to “get out of this place” of the monotonous grind.
Sinai introduced into our lives a new way of being: You do not have to segment your life into two (or more) parts. You have the power to spiritualize the material, and to fuse your body with your soul.
You do this by turning your body and your physical activities into vehicles to express and fulfill your soul’s mission. Instead of controlling and directing your spiritual life, your material life follows your soul’s desires. The driver directs the vehicle, not the other way around.
The psychological implications of personal fusion between the survival and the transcendental are as life transforming as they are astonishing. Sinai unequivocally states that you do not have to resign yourself to a life of duality.
This does not mean that there is no struggle. Our perception remains one of plurality, clutching us in its powerful grip. And, as we all know too well: The battle is fierce.
This is why we cover our eyes when we say the Shema (the most fundamental of all statements of faith): As we declare “Hashem Echod” – that G-d is one, which means that there is only ONE reality – we cover our naked eyes which deceive us into perceiving a pluralistic universe.
All moments of truth are best experienced with closed eyes; by shutting down the external stimuli of our outer senses, we can experience the pulsating sensuality of our inner senses.
And the way we perceive ourselves affects the way we perceive others and the way we understand the universe at large. In fact, it’s not just a matter of perception. The way we perceive ourselves actually affects others and the world around us. Students of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle are familiar with the scientifically proven fact that on a sub-atomic level the “observer” of phenomena is not a mere “observer,” but actually impacts the “object” he is observing.
Bizarre as it sounds (that is, bizarre to our limited faculties) this has been proven time and again in laboratories around the world.
When you think about it, it actually makes more sense that all aspects of the universe – and our lives – are connected rather than disconnected. But this is yet another demonstration how our external senses hold us hostage in their stubborn, myopic view of a fragmented universe and our lives as a series of random, disjointed experiences.
Close your eyes, listen to a gentle melody, and you will feel (for the moment at least) as one with yourself, one with others, one with the universe – seamless and whole.
When the people arrived at Sinai, they were suddenly taken by a new “music” that surrounded them. All their differences, all their disagreements dissolved in the awesome moment. They became “one human, with one heart.”
As we approach Sinai today we prepare for our own rendezvous with destiny. On Shavuot go to a local synagogue and listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments. Take your family and even newborn children. Recreate the Sinai experience. Close your eyes. Visualize heaven meeting earth and allow yourself to be absorbed by the symmetry.
Imagine invisible threads connecting you and your family to all other people; all tiny fibers in a tapestry-matrix woven together from all the cells and atoms of the universe. Let go of the world as you know it and be mesmerized by Sinai fusionism.
When you open your eyes ask yourself:
Who will be in the driver’s seat: Your body and its needs or your soul?
From Reb Sholom Brodt
PREPARING FOR SHAVUOT:
MEDITATIONS, KAVANNOT AND PRAYERS FOR LEARNING TORAH
I found some beautiful meditations for learning Torah in a sefer called U’SFARTEM LACHEM – a spiritual guide for the 49 days of the Omer counting. This sefer is based on the teachings of the Gemorah, the Zohar, the RAMA”K and the Baal Shem Tov. As is well known, the spiritual journey that we began on the night of Pessach continues through Shavuot. On Pessach night a great Divine light was revealed to us, and then it was withdrawn. With this loving light revelation Hashem drew us after Him as it revealed where we were heading – to Har Sinai to receive the Torah, to enter into an eternal covenant with Hashem and His Torah and His people. When the light was concealed we cried out from the depths of our hearts to Hashem, and we were informed that this light will be revealed and given to us at Har Sinai and that we were to use the next 49 days to ‘fix’ our vessels to receive Hashem’s revelation.
The entire period from Pessach until Shavuot is a time for ‘tikkun ha-nefesh’ and ‘tikkun hamidot’ – to ready our selves to receive the Torah. As we get a glimpse of higher and higher levels in Torah learning we must remember that there are 49 steps; each step is important and is not to be skipped over. Progressing step by step provides stability. Though I am yet far from such conscious learning and intense meditations, nevertheless I found it inspiring to just read and learn these meditations and prayers. Remember we learn to walk one step at a time.
The following is my free [and not yet edited] translation of U’sfartem Lachem, pages 25-26.
Thus is explained in the sefer Nefesh Hachayim (Gateway 4, Chap. 7):
“It is advisable that one should prepare oneself on each occasion before beginning to learn [Torah]; to make a reckoning with Hashem with a pure heart and with ‘yirat Hashem’. One should cleanse himself of his transgressions and think thoughts of Tshuvah, so that he should be able to connect and attach himself during the time of his involved study of His holy Torah, with His Speech and His Will, blessed be He.”
Being that a person may not always have a sufficiently settled mind before learning Torah, to allow him to make a true reckoning with His Master, therefore we considered it proper to provide a short list of things to remember before learning, and thereby ‘prepare oneself’.
It is good advice – as we go towards [the holiday of Shavuot] – the acceptance and the giving of the Torah, to copy these meditations and prayers, so that we can meditate on them before beginning our learning sessions, so that we may arouse our selves properly for the study of the holy Torah.
Aleph(1). [Meditate. Kavannah-intention.] The study of Torah is true attachment to Hashem yisborach.
Hashem please allow me and help me be conscious that in learning Your Torah You are allowing me to bond with You.
Beis(2). Inspire yourself to learn Torah in the way it was given – with fear, awe, shiver and perspiration – with conscious Yirat Shamayim, during the time of study.
Hashem may it be Your will that I may study Your Torah and intensely experience its life energy. May my mind and respond in fear and awe May even my body sense this intensely and respond with shiver and perspiration.
Gimmel(3). Reveal your purpose before learning by stating – “I am learning Torah, to fulfill the Mitzvah of my Creator, who commanded me to study Torah, for the sake of unification of ‘Kudsha brich Hu’ and His Shechinah.
Daled(4). [Tshuvah before learning.] I regret my evil deeds and I accept upon myself to improve myself in the future.
Hey(5). [Kavannah-intention.] I am learning for the sake of learning, guarding, keeping, doing and fulfilling the words of Your Torah.
Vav(6). [Kavannah-intention.] I will [attempt to] devote myself to learning consciously without interruption, and I will try not to look outside of the sefer.
Zayin(7). [Kavannah-intention.] I am learning to seek the truth of the Torah, to understand it well and to remember everything that I learn.
Chet(8). [Reminder.] The words of Torah learning are to be verbally expressed with our mouths and heard with our ears.
Tet(9). [Kavannah-intention.] I desire to learn out of my love for Hashem yisborach, as it says, “And you shall love Hashem your G-d…and these words…shall be upon your heart…and you shall speak them.”
Yud(10). [Meditate.] I am preparing myself to be a vessel for receiving the holiness of the Torah.
Yud-Aleph(11). [Kavannah-intention.] I am learning in the name of All of Israel – Kol Yisrael – may it be for their merit and their salvation from all manner of harm.
Yud-Beis(12). [Kavannah-intention.] I desire and accept upon myself to study with great effort and toil – for the words of the Torah are acquired only with great effort and toil.
Yud-Gimmel(13). [Kavannah-intention.] I am learning for the sake of sanctifying His Name in His world.
Yud-Daled(14). [Prayer.] I give thanks and praise to Hashem yisborach, for His great gift of opportunity to study His holy Torah at this time.
Tet-Vav(15). [Prayer.] I pray before Hashem blessed be He, that He should help me in my learning, and that He should enlighten my eyes in His holy Torah. Amen.
From Rabbi David Hartman
Shavuot and the meaning of the covenant
By DAVID HARTMAN
It’s the covenantal bond between us and God that we strive to understand.
In honor of the festival of Shavuot, I propose looking at two of our tradition’s most important narratives – the binding of Isaac, and Abraham’s argument with God regarding the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom – as a way of penetrating the meaning of our covenant with God. These narratives constitute for me the two paradigmatic approaches to Jewish consciousness and character, and illuminate the true meaning of our covenantal relationship with the divine. As much as we commemorate the giving of the Torah itself on Shavuot, it is this covenantal bond that we celebrate and strive to understand.
In the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, in Hebrew the Akeida, Isaac is not ultimately sacrificed by his father in the most literal sense. Yet the theological implications of a God who would issue such an order to his most loyal servant – and that Abraham would, in turn, seemingly eagerly obey – present us with one of the most morally and psychologically confounding episodes in the entire Bible. The Abraham of this story is a passive figure, quietly acquiescing to God’s demands, in full acceptance of his role as a finite human, incapable of questioning or deciphering God’s omniscience.
The Abraham of the Sodom narrative faces an entirely different set of circumstances. Upon considering the destruction of the city, God asks Himself, “Can I hide from Abraham that which I am about to do?” (Genesis 18:17) This is the rhetorical question of a God who has conceived of Abraham as a full partner, and to whom He considers Himself accountable. When God informs Abraham of his plan to destroy the city, Abraham responds, “What if there are 50 righteous people in the city?”
In Abraham’s final challenge to God, “Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?”
Abraham reveals himself not only as a man of faith, but as an empowered man of faith, for whom insistence on his own moral intuition is as vital as his belief in a monotheistic God.
The accounts of Sodom and the Akeida represent two very different religious anthropologies: how we relate to God is going to be determined by these two stories. Which story is constitutive of Judaism: the narrative of sacrificial self-surrender or the narrative of assertive moral challenge? These stories represent two distinct views of religion; two distinct views of living according to Halacha; two distinct views of what it means to stand before God in prayer.
The Abraham of the Akeida doesn’t utter a single syllable of protest against a God who commands him to murder his beloved son. Yet, when confronted with God’s plan for Sodom, Abraham articulates a highly developed argument. He tells God, “Far be it for You to do such a thing. To bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty so the innocent and guilty fare alike.”
The text then continues as Abraham “bargains” God down to saving the city if just ten righteous people can be found.
This is a shocking, some might say arrogant, display of temerity on Abraham’s part. Yet in the midst of his protest, Abraham remains humble; he says to God, “Here I ventured to speak to my Lord, who am I but dust and ashes.”
He seems to approach God with the attitude of someone saying, “I agree with you, God, that I’m nothing, but I can’t help but speak. God, please forgive me for being so bold…”
The most crucial part of this narrative, however, is that God allows Abraham to continue. In Abraham’s argument – and in God’s acceptance of the validity of his argument – I imagine God is saying to Abraham, “I love you for challenging me. I want to hear you challenge me more. Don’t give in too quickly.”
“Can I hide from Abraham that which I am about to do?” is one of the most powerful verses in the Torah. In posing this rhetorical question, God, as the creator of the world, gives up unilateral authority over history. In asking this question, God Himself articulates the essential model of covenantal morality: God can no longer act unilaterally. This is the covenant. And this, for me, is the paradigm for how to approach our understanding of a Jewish God.
IT’S IMPORTANT to remember that Abraham did not succeed in saving the city of Sodom. His argument with God – however theologically important – in the end, failed. What is valuable about this account, then, is Abraham’s process. God ultimately destroys Sodom because he doesn’t find enough righteous people there. That doesn’t interest me as much as the fact that Abraham felt he had the legitimacy to ask Him not to do it. And God had to respond to his demands.
There are essentially two ways to view our relationship with God: one approach says ‘I’m nothing; only in my relationship to God am I something.’ In the other approach, an individual’s relationship to God makes him or her feel enhanced, enriched, empowered. Covenantal spirituality moves us toward self-expansion. It endows us with the ability to trust our own moral intuition, our own moral sensibility, our whole spiritual hunger.
One problem in the Jewish world today is that we no longer consider this kind of language Jewish; we’ve abdicated the language of personal moral agency to secular humanists. Yet giving strength to that inner moral voice is in itself not only very deeply religious, it is also deeply rooted in the tradition. It’s not just a liberal perspective; it is fundamental to the God relationship that we not abandon our own moral integrity.
The Akeida is not constitutive of Judaism. It is a moment in a religious life, but it is just that: a moment. It is not the organizing framework for how to live. The Akeida is the moment when we come to the edge of the intelligible, when we meet suffering or tragedy. There are moments when a life of faith requires submission or silence. Sometimes even Abraham is at a loss for an adequate response to the divine will. The Akeida means we acknowledge – and allow a place for – resignation as a moment in the spiritual life. Yet the defining metaphor for us must remain the image of Abraham standing before God, not in submission but in empowerment. The Abraham that we look to must be the Abraham who is unafraid to argue with God. The measure of a human being – the very genuinesness of a human being – is his or her capacity for compassion. This is the Abraham of the covenant.
THE COVENANT has been the central motivating principle that has characterized my whole theology. The covenant is often understood as God’s promise to watch over Israel and Israel’s promise to be obedient to God’s law; that’s the final chapter in Leviticus. I propose using it in a different way. From Abraham we learn that it is the very essence of the covenant to empower us, to allow us to trust our own moral convictions – and our ability to act. The covenant tells us to stand on our own two feet and not to wait patiently for God to save us.
The covenant is about the liberation of human beings in all their power: morally – but also intellectually and creatively. For me, the true meaning and purpose of the covenant is that human beings, by entering into the reality and presence of God, access the ability to discover themselves and their abilities. It is a relational concept which implies the divine empowerment of human beings to take responsibility for all facets of life. The covenant means we follow the Talmudic precedent Lo b’shamaim hi, that the Torah is not in heaven.
That is the great achievement of the Zionist revolution. In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox, who see the State of Israel as an affront to God’s sovereignty, I claim that Zionism has brought about an enrichment of the covenant. Zionism extended the covenantal tradition of empowerment and marked the rejection of passivity as the hallmark of religious life. God’s withdrawal of his control of the world can be understood as a manifestation of divine love. God initiates Creation, Revelation, and the movement of history; He then calls upon human beings to complete the task.
The covenant that emerges from Revelation means God presents us with the normative founding moment for building an ordered moral world, and then withdraws. God steps back so that we can step forward. We might be tempted to think that this means He has abandoned human history. But God has not abandoned us; He has empowered us, by opening history to human scrutiny, rationality, and moral power. The unfolding of history is not a chronicle of divine manipulation as described in the Exodus narrative. God’s covenantal consciousness has transformed history from a divine drama to a story of human potential.
This Shavuot, as we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, we should pause to consider the covenantal relationship that Sinai represents. Understanding our relationship with the divine begins with understanding our covenant with Him: a covenant that presents us with a world that is waiting to be shaped by human initiative and action.
The writer is founding president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem,
Who Was Ruth Really?
Shavuos, the revelation on Mt. Sinai, is also the day of the passing away of King David. On that day we read the story of Ruth, his grandmother, Elimelech, a descendant of our father Judah, and a very rich Jew, was the high judge during a famine in Israel. He took his wife Naomi, and his two sons, Nahlon and Chilion, and went to Moab. There Nahlon and Chilion married the two daughters of the king of Moab, Ruth and Orpah. Then Elimelech, Mahon, and Chilion all died and the family lost all their money, so Naomi decided to go back to Israel, where the famine had already ended. Her two daughters in-law walked with her, and both of them said, “I want to go with you, but Ruth meant it, and Orpah just said it. So Orpah stayed behind, and Ruth went with Naomi.
In Israel, in former good days, the four corners of the field belonged to the poor. The law is very strong; it’s not that you cut off the corners of the field and give it to the poor, because then it is yours, and you are giving it away. You can’t cut the four comers; they don’t belong to you.It is the poor man’s field. Another law is when you gather from the field, if you forget something you are not allowed to go back. If something falls it also doesn’t belong to you. So, when Ruth and Naomi came back to Israel Ruth went to gather food, and by divine providence she went to the field of Boaz, who was actually a cousin to her husband. Boaz came to look at his field, and he saw a very, very beautiful woman; not just beautiful, in every way shining. He asked who she was, and his workers told him she was a princess of Moab who came to Israel, poor now. He said to the workers, Please make sure that a lot is forgotten, and a lot falls down, and during lunchtime, when you eat, give her some olives, some bread. The Torah says that the Moabite is not to be accepted into the congregation of Israel. Only if a Moabite converts, then after three generations he can become part of Israel. Why? It says because he did not bring you bread and water when you went into the desert.” Who was the tribe of Moab? Moab was the son of the daughter of Lot. Lot the nephew was the of Abraham. Abraham rescued Lot from Sodom by his prayers. That means Moab owed its whole existence to Abraham. Moab had a chance to pay back to the Jews what they owed them, what they owed father Abraham, by bringing them bread and water in the desert. In those days who was to bring bread and water? Only the men. In those days women wouldn’t go out of the house to bring bread end water to the desert. Suddenly, on the very day, the very instant that Ruth and Naomi crossed the border, the high court in Jerusalem started discussing the law which says a Moabite cannot come into the congregation of lsrael. They said this means the male Moabite not the female, because she cannot be accused of not bringing bread and water. This became the new law.
In former good days the law was that if someone died, leaving a wife without children, someone in the family had to marry her. The day after the court decision Boaz said, “Someone has to do somthing for this girl. Someone has to marry her.” There was one man who was a closer relative than Boaz, but that man was super-holy, and he said, “No, I couldn’t marry a girl who was converted. I know the holy court decided the woman Moabite is O.K. but I am not so sure about the holy court.” Boaz said, “O.K. then, I am next.” Boaz married her, but the very sad thing is that Boaz died the next morning. That means he was married to Ruth for only one night. The Zohar says the reason Boaz came into the world was for just that one night. Ruth had a son, Obed; Obed had a son Yeshai, and Yeshai had a son David, the king of Israel, the ancestor of Messiach.
O.K. now, who was this woman, Ruth? Our father Abraham, had two star pupils. One was Lot, his nephew, and the other was Chedorlaomer. Abraham was really giving; that was his message to the world. Suddenly his star pupil, Chedorlaomer, turns around and becomes the king of Sodom, where the law was that if you were were caught giving something to the poor you were killed. If you killed someone, you were rewarded. If you hit someone you got paid. Everything completely perverted … and Chedorlaomer became the king! A few months later the second star pupil of Abraham, Lot, took off also and became the high judge of Sodom. This was the end for Abraham. The Zohar says that after Lot left was the first time that Abraham really prayed for a son, because all the time he had thought, “I have two sons, maybe not physically my sons, but they are spiritualy my sons. After they left he realized he had to have ason who would really continue. Listen to this. Who was the real star pupil of Abraham? The real star pupil of Abraham was a little girl, the daughter of Lot. She really absorbed all of Abraham’s teaching. When her father went to Sodom she didn’t want to go along, but what could she do? After she came to Sodom the most horrible thing happened. The poor wouldn’t die in the streets anymore. The Sodomites couldn’t find who was feeding them. This went on for a long time. If you remember the story, two angels came to Abraham and one of them said, “God sends word to you: Her crying reaches Me, and I am going to destroy Sodom.” The other angel told Abraham he would have a son, Isaac. The Zohar asks what “her” crying is, who is this “she”? The answer is that day in Sodom the little girl was caught giving a piece of broad to a poor man. The Sodomites poured honey all over her and they put her on the roof, and she was eaten by the bees. This is the most painful death anyone can be subjected to.
When the time is right, God works fast. The next day Sodom was destroyed, and Abraham needs another star pupil, Isaac. Although Isaac was very holy, be was ready to die for G-d, he doesn’t compare to that girl. That girl died for giving a poor man a piece of bread. Tne Zohar Kodesh says that the soul of that girl came back to the world, and she was Ruth. So Messiach is the descendant of those two star pupiIs, Isaac, who was ready to die for G-d, and Ruth, the soul that really died for people. That’s the story.
House of Love and Prayer, San Francisco. Sivan, 5732. Reprinted from Holy Beggar’s Gazette, vol 1 no 3.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Although commonly called “Shavuot” (Festival of Weeks) because it occurs seven weeks after Passover, the early rabbis called this festival “Atzeret” (Gathering or “Getting it together”). We “get ourselves together” through the process of consciously counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. Reb Nosen teaches that this process is alluded to in the verse from Song of Songs 5:5, “I took my bitterness (literally myrrh) along with my spice.” In other words, to “get ourselves together,” which is the only way we can receive the Torah on Shavuot, we need to go through a seven week process of consciously witnessing both the positive and negative parts of ourselves. We have to become whole through recognizing and owning our “shadow” as well as our “spice.” Without this wholeness, we can’t receive new Torah, because the holy sparks of the potential for new Torah are buried in the very qelippot (shells) of the shadow. However if we are brave enough to bring the light of consciousness to the shadow, we can not only release the extremely contracted holy energy that sustains the qelippot, but also significantly expand that energy when it is released. So, this seven week experience of Sefirah (Counting the Omer), I took my bitterness along with my spice, is the very way we get to Shavuot.
Derakheha darkhey no’am ve-chol netivoteha shalom (Ways of Torah are ways of calmness and all Her pathways are Peace.)
In Hebrew the word for being whole (SHaLeM) and the word for peace (SHaLoM) have the same root. This teaches us that receiving Torah (the Ways of Peace) and achieving wholeness is basically the same thing. Indeed, the mystery here is expressed in the Zohar’s teaching: oraita kudsha berich hu ve-yisrael chad hu (Torah, the Blessed Holy One, and a whole person
are essentially one.) So if we want Torah which guides us in the Ways of Peace and we want
to know the Blessed Holy One whose name is Peace, we ourselves have to seek peace through a total integration of all our parts, bitter and spicy. That isn’t so easy, but it becomes easier when we take to Heart another secret, namely that Peace and Love are also inseparable. This is indicated by the well-known gematria: echad (one) and ahavah (love) both equal 13, teaching us that the key to wholeness and peace (which have the same root) is the power of Love. Generally, the dark places within us are refugees from Love, qualities that we hide because they are so “unlovable.” But the more they remain concealed and unloved, the more they appropriate precious energy that we need to be whole and without wholeness—no peace.
We may try to complete ourselves in myriad ways, often in the form of various cravings, but the only ultimately effective remedy is Love itself, because Love is the divine power that unites everything always. Unfortunately, the Love actually present and revealed in the world of time and space is always limited due to our current state of consciousness which is a result of tzimtzum (Divine contraction). So we suffer from the yetzer hara (negative impulse) that undermines our higher aspirations. The impulse that produces such suffering fragments us, separates us from others, and is driven by insatiable cravings that conceal the very element that could satisfy us. This condition our sages called being under the control of our hearts. For our purposes, it would probably be better to understand this as tyranny of the lower mind (in which the yetzer ha-ra is like a reckless dictator).
However, while the amount and quality of Love actually present in the world of time and space is always contracted, the Power of Love itself is unlimited. It is only that in our current state we can’t yet hold the full Power of Love. So the contracted state of actual Love is itself an expression of the unlimited Power of Love that enables us to maintain our precious existence with the potential of expanding our capacity for Love through aspiration. When we come to terms with this paradox, we can find the holy sparks in the Shadow, which contains just enough Love to exist (unless we contribute more energy to it through failing in our aspirations).
What is aspiration? Desire for the guidance of Torah and knowledge of the Holy Blessed One. But this aspiration can never succeed without expanding our capacity to Love, because Love is the very nature of Torah and Divinity Itself. Those who are successful in their aspiration are called by Rebbe Nachman (in Liqqutey MoHaRaN, 33): “Heroes of Divine Power, Maker’s of the Divine Word.” (see Psalms 103:20). One can become such a hero only through integration of the yetzer ha-ra and releasing its sparks. That is to say, such a person who is also likened to an angel, gains extraordinary power through finding the Divine Power of Love present in the shadow and not just in the “spice.” Rebbe Nachman explains that such a person is called a “Maker of the Divine Word” because through integrating the shadow, Torah is revealed in the very place where it was hidden. The Hero of Divine Power makes Torah appear.
So this conscious effort to expand the Power of Love and bring it to places of concealment is the secret of drawing new Torah into this contracted world of time and space. In our tradition, we generally divide Torah into two categories, nigleh (revealed) and nistar (concealed). Conventionally, people often think this division distinguishes the exoteric biblical and rabbinic teachings from the esoteric mystical teachings of Kabbalah. But Rebbe Nachman’s understanding is far deeper. Nigleh refers to all Torah, exoteric and esoteric alike, that we presently have. But nistar doesn’t mean already existing esoterism. It refers to the Torah of the future. Torah that hasn’t entered time and space yet, because the consciousness here is not yet high enough to “make” it. This is the limitless Torah of the Divine Mind Itself (Torah sheve- Da’ato) which is expressed as the unlimited Power of Divine Love. Through our aspiration to achieve integration by finding and releasing the greatly contracted energy of Divine Love concealed in the shadow, we can draw more of the unlimited Torah and unlimited Power of Divine Love into our expanding and evolving world of time and space. In doing so, we may be liberated from the oppressive and depressing influence of the yetzer ha-ra, as the Midrash says don’t read “charut” (engraved into the Tablets) but “cherut” (freedom from the yetzer hara ) that comes through released and enhanced sparks that “make” Torah.
Rebbe Nachman concludes that while few of us may have direct access to the ultimately hidden Torah of the Divine Mind Itself, everyone has access to some level of da’at (higher mind), a level of consciousness that reflects the Divine Mind Itself. Within that higher consciousness, whatever its present level, is the source of our aspiration. Through joining our hearts to that higher consciousness we can gain greater access to the Power of Love that can free us from the tyranny of the yetzer ha-ra and make us whole. The more of us that can thus aspire to become “Heroes of Divine Power,” the more of the Hidden Torah of the Future we can bring down now and “make” real in our world of time and space.
Keyn yehi ratzon (may it be so).
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler 2010
SHAVU’OT: A DAY OF FOOD, TORAH, AND GRASS
A Teaching from Gershon…
The festival of Shavu’ot is around the corner. It is a day that commemorates the great revelatory experience at Mount Sinai during which we received our Torah, and which inspired Cecil B. DeMille’s famous movie, The Ten Commandments. It is also a day that celebrates the blossoming of the earth’s luscious, fragrant, colorful flora. It is therefore also referred to in the Torah herself as “the festival of the cutting from the first of your labors that you seeded in the field” (Exodus 23:16 and 34:23), or the festival of “the First Fruits” (Numbers 28:26), and in fact it was once customary for every worshiper in the synagogue to be handed some sweet-smelling grass to inhale during the Shavu’ot service itself (Sh’lah Mesechet Shavu’ot, Perek Ner Mitzvah, No. 7).
So, are you ready? Do you know how to celebrate this sacred day?
Customarily, we have celebrated Shavu’ot in latter-day times by studying Torah all night long. This is really a nice practice. But surprisingly, there is little mention of this practice in the early sources. Rather, there is a great deal of emphasis on eating and drinking and being merry! Or, as the second-century Rabbi Eliezer put it: “On Yom Tov, a person ought to either eat and drink, or sit and study” (Talmud, Beitzah 15b). I don’t know about you, but I’m going to load up my fridge. I just love how uncomplicated our festivals used to be. Bring a sacrifice, pig out, and make love. And in post-Temple times, pig out and make love. And if you forgot to cook for Yom Tov and you’re living in post-Temple times, just make love. And if you don’t have anyone in your life who wishes to make love with you, or you are under-age, and you didn’t cook for Yom Tov, and you are living in post-Temple times, rent a movie. And if all of the above applies, and you don’t live near a Blockbuster, and you haven’t registered with NetFlix and you don’t have cable access or satellite, study Torah.
The Torah, our earliest source, simply states that Shavu’ot is to be celebrated by reveling in joy (Deuteronomy 16:11), joyful celebration dedicated to yourself (Numbers 29:35), or joyful celebration dedicated to God (Deuteronomy 16:8) – your choice. In fact, this applies to all of our sacred festivals (Talmud, Beitzah 15b). The only disagreement the ancient rabbis had regarding its celebration was whether you ought to choose one or the other, or whether you ought to divvy up the day with both. Rabbi Eliezer held that you ought to choose, pick one or the other and stick with it. Rabbi Yehoshua held that you ought to divide up the day with half the day’s celebration dedicated to God, and the other half to yourself.
The Talmud then recounts how once on Shavu’ot the great Rabbi Eliezer was teaching Torah all day in the study hall when suddenly several dozen folks up and left. The rabbi applauded them for making a choice and acting on it, the particular choice of this group obviously being to dedicate their celebration to themselves by hurrying home to feast. (Wow. How many of today’s rabbis would laud congregants who left in the middle of their sermons?) As Eliezer continued his lesson, a second group up and left. He paused to praise them, too, for the same reason. Then a third group left, and a fourth and a fifth. Each time, the sage stopped in mid-sentence and praised those who left for making a choice and acting on it. After a significant amount of time had passed without anyone else leaving, a sixth group suddenly rose up and began to leave, but this time Rabbi Eliezer fumed and shouted: “These ravage the study hall!” because he felt that they had chosen to dedicate their celebration to God – having spent most of the day studying Torah through his discourse — and they should therefore have remained in the study hall and stuck to it, rather than rendering it virtually empty. His disciples, who until this point had been scattered amongst the masses, now sat exposed and vulnerable before the eyes of their master, abandoned by the anonymity they had enjoyed throughout the day. Seeing the upset look on their teacher’s face, they trembled in fear of what was yet to come, of what he would now say to them. It was too late for any of them to sneak out, for they were no longer hidden amongst the hordes of the earlier groups. The rabbi peered out at them, recognizing each and every one of them as they sat scattered across the study hall far and between the hundreds of now-empty seating cushions.
Finally, the elder broke the chilling silence and, quoting from chapter 8 of the Book of Nechemiah, said: “Go to your homes, and feast yourselves on delicacies and drink sweet beverages and send gifts to those who have not been dealt rightly, for this day is holy unto our Master (God). And do not be anxious; for the celebration of God, she is the very source of your powers” (Talmud, Beitzah 15b).
Yes, it actually says “she.”
Remember what we’ve forgotten, that the Torah came to us “in a language of joy, not commandment” (Midrash Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah, 14:11). “Divine inspiration,” the ancient rabbis taught, “eludes an unhappy heart” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5:1).
Granted, some of you don’t believe in this Torah stuff altogether, nor do you believe in the event of divine revelation at Mount Sinai some 3300 years ago. But you, too, can celebrate Shavu’ot, because the idea of divine revelation is not confined to what happened to our people at Sinai. We are reminded by the first-century Rabbi Tanchum bar Chee’ya that revelation actually happens daily within Nature herself. For all of it is a gift from God; all of it is God revealing aspects of Itself through the myriad manifestations of Creator in Creation. “Greater is the joy of the revelatory experience of rainfall,” he taught, “than the experience of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. For the gifting of the Torah was a joyful experience for one people, Israel, whereas the gifting of rain is a joyful experience for all peoples as well as for the entire world, and for the animals and the beasts and the birds, as is written (Psalms 65:10): ‘You redeem the earth, and gift her with her desires, and enrich her greatly with the channels of your waters’” (Midrash Tehilim, Chapter 117).
So whether you choose to follow the ruling of Rabbi Yehoshua or that of Rabbi Eliezer, or whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or a dontgivadamnic — bottom line, celebrate Shavu’ot by just enjoying yourself. Feast on something special and bring cheer to your loved ones, your friends, family, the stranger in the street. And inhale some grass. Just don’t smoke it.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Returning Where We’ve Never Been
Wendy’s comment: We have included a link
to this nice commentary on the Book of Ruth.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
The night before the wedding
All the companions adorned the bride.
She had been preparing these seven weeks –
The repairs would be made later.
Day of the wedding
The supernal mother descended.
All the souls expressly named by God –
The interpretations –
The principles and the stories –
One seamless document
Through the radiating light.
The telling –
From Rabbi Aryeh Winter
Ruth – The Mother of Loyalty, The Mother of Spin
by Rabbi Aryeh Winter
“More than what the charity giver does for the poor, the poor does for the charity giver.” This lesson, the Medrash Rabbah tells us, we learn from Ruth.
Ruth, from the royal family of Moab, permanently left her homeland to dwell with her mother-in-law Na’omi after the husbands of both Ruth and Na’omi died. When Ruth and Na’omi returned to Na’omi’s former town, they were both poor, with no means to provide for themselves. Ruth told Na’omi that she would go out to the fields to collect that part of the crops and harvest that were allotted to the poor. That way they would have to eat. Na’omi agreed, and Ruth went to the field of Bo’az, a relative of Na’omi’s husband. Boaz inquired as to Ruth’s identity, and upon finding out who she was, he made sure that she was provided for. Ruth came home with a sizable amount of produce, which led Na’omi to inquire where Ruth went to collect. Ruth responded “The name of the man for which I did for him today is Bo’az.”
The Medrash Rabbah takes note of the unusual wording of Ruth’s response. Shouldn’t she have replied “The name of the man who did for me today is Boaz?” Why did she make herself the subject of the action performed? The answer, the Medrash says, is that we learn the lesson about who really benefits when one gives charity.
While we may learn this lesson about charity from Ruth, our original question still remains: Why did Ruth herself respond in such an unusual manner? Ruth was responding to her mother-in-law’s question about who was so generous. Did it matter to Na’omi that Ruth’s acceptance of the charity from Boaz was a bigger “favor” than Boaz giving the charity to Ruth? In fact, this response borders on being ungrateful, with Ruth pointing out that her act of kindness to Boaz was “better” than Boaz’s, immediately after Boaz did perform a very gracious act!
The answer is better understood when one looks at where Ruth came from. Ruth was a former princess who was raised in the lap of luxury. Scrounging around in a field for food as a beggar was not something that she would have ever envisioned herself doing. Yet here she was, a Moabite princess, literally begging for her sustenance. Having fallen to such depths obviously took a toll on Ruth. It was not a good experience for her. In order to restore her self- esteem and put a positive “spin” on what she had just done, she said that she had performed the bigger act of kindness on that day. She focused on the positive so that she could still hold her chin up high and not become depressed with her situation. Even if the way she boosted her morale might have seemed to have slighted Boaz, it was still something that Ruth felt was necessary for her to preserve her dignity.
This episode of Ruth teaches us two important lessons. First, when we give charity or deal with those less fortunate than us, we have to be fully cognizant that someone is hurting because they are in need. We have to try and minimize this pain to whatever extent we can, so that those who are poor can maintain their dignity and pride. Second, Ruth is a shining example of one who accentuates the positive. Even at the lowest moment in her life, a time when she may have rightfully become sad and depressed and possibly lost faith in G-d, she managed to turn a degrading incident into one which reflected positively on her. Ruth knew that it was important to preserve her dignity, and by viewing her situation in a positive light, she proved herself worthy of the title our Sages bestowed upon her, The Mother of Royalty.”
Shavu’os marks the anniversary of G-d giving the nation of Israel the Torah. When the nation of Israel was camped at Mount Sinai, they were a nation unified, as our Sages said “Like one man with one heart.” On this Shavu’os, we should recall this unity, and strive for it again. We should actively remember and help those less fortunate than us. We should try to heal rifts in our nation, by using disagreements as a starting point for discussions on unity. He have to accentuate the positive in our people and build on it. Come next Shavu’os, we will hopefully be able to accept the Torah again as a unified nation.
From Rabbi Yehudah Prero
Shavu’os – Its Customs
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
There are many customs associated with Shavu’os and we will try to touch on most of the major ones.
One prevalent custom is that of staying up all night on the first night of Shavu’os and learning Torah. The Rama (in Orech Chayim 494) explains that we do this because at the time the Torah was given, our forefathers slept throughout the night. Hashem had to awaken the nation of Israel from their slumber so the Torah could be given to them. In order to “repair” this fault in our ancestors’ reception of the Torah, we stay up all night, the anniversary of the night our forefathers slept, learning the Torah which they had to be awakened to receive.
One of the things traditionally studied on Shavu’os night is a compilation of parts of both the Written and the Oral Torah, entitled Tikkun Leil Shavu’os. This compilation was organized centuries ago. One noticeable feature of the compilation is that in it, each book in the Written Torah (Tanach) is begun and concluded, as well as each of the six books of the Mishna. The reason for this stems from a teaching which we see applied in the Kedusha said as part of Mussaf on Shabbos. In the Kedusha, we recite “S’hma Yisroel” and we conclude that portion of Kedusha with “Ani Hashem Elokeichem.” Not coincidentally, these two verses are also the first and last verses of the S’hma prayer. The reason why it appears in Kedusha is because during our exile in Persia, the king forbade the saying of S’hma. In order to circumvent the decree, the first and last verses of S’hma were added to Kedusha, so it would be _considered_ as if we had said the whole S’hma prayer, although not violating the king’s decree. Similarly by Shavu’os, we learn the beginning and end of each part of the Torah, so by the end of the night, it is as if we had learned the Torah in its entirety. (from Sefer Minhagei Yisroel Torah)
Another custom that we have is to eat dairy foods on Shavu’os. There are many reasons give for this. The reason that the Rama (in 494:3) mentions has to do with the special offering brought on Shavu’os, the Shtei HaLechem (see YomTov # 23). The Rama says that just as on Pesach, we have food items that represent the offerings brought on that day (on the Seder plate – The Z’roa/Shankbone to represent the Paschal offering, and the Beitza/Egg to represent the Chagiga/Holiday offering), so, too on Shavu’os we should eat something to remember the bringing of the Shtei HaLechem. How is this done? The law (which is being oversimplified here for brevity’s sake) is that one can not use the same loaf of bread for both a meat meal and a dairy meal. If a loaf is eaten with the dairy meal, it can not be used at a meat meal. Therefore, on Shavu’os, before we begin our meat meal, we should have dairy foods. This way, when we continue our meal and have meat, we will need another loaf of bread to eat with it. This will result in our having two loaves of bread on our table, which is a remembrance of the two loaves that were offered in the Temple on Shavu’os. The Mishna B’rura adds to this that one should make the first loaf dairy by adding butter to it, so that it will be absolutely necessary to have a second loaf when eating the meat portion of the meal.
(***A caveat – before one undertakes having milk and meat at the same meal, one should make sure that they act in accordance with proper Halacha – only meat can be eaten after dairy. Dairy cannot be immediately eaten after meat.
Also, all vestiges of the dairy meal should be removed from the table before the meat is served. As there are many other applicable laws with varying levels of complexity, many people no longer eat both milk and meat and the same meal. Some eat only dairy at the meal, or they eat two separate meals, one after another, the first being dairy, the second being meat. For any questions as to how one should conduct themselves, they should speak to their local Rabbi. ***)
Another reason for eating dairy is so that we remember the situation our ancestors were in immediately after receiving the Torah, on the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. The Mishna B’rura tells us that right after the nation of Israel received the Torah, the came away from Har Sinai, and were faced with a quandary: What should they eat? They had just learned that there were laws of keeping Kosher which they had not followed before, such as the law that an animal is to be slaughtered and checked for blemishes in a certain way. As they did not know the laws well, dairy foods were the only option. Also, as all the food they had cooked previously was not “Kosher,” the pots and other cooking utensils could not be used right away, as they had to be “Kashered.” Therefore, as their only choice of food at the time was dairy, we eat dairy as well to remember the situation of our ancestors at the time they received the Torah.
Another custom that we have is to spread out greenery in our homes and synagogue on Shavu’os. The Levush says the reason for this is also so that we remember how things were at the time the Torah was given. We know that Har Sinai was full of greenery, as Hashem had to give a warning to the nation of Israel that “also your sheep and cattle should not graze by this mountain (Sh’mos 34:3). In order to remember that time, we too have greenery, so we remember how things were at the time we received the Torah.
It is mentioned by the Magen Avraham that there used to be a custom as well to bring trees into the synagogue on Shavu’os, as Shavu’os is the day the fruit trees are judged as to how they will produce for the rest of the year. If trees are there before us as we pray, we will be reminded to pray for the fruit trees as well. However, the custom was abandoned when other religions brought trees into their houses of worship on their holidays.
The Megilla of Rus (Ruth) is read in Shavu’os. Sefer Ta’amei Haminhagim writes that we read this Megilla on Shavu’os because of the connection between Ruth and King David. The Megilla of Ruth was written by the prophet Sh’muel so that we would know the story of David’s ancestors, and that David came from this righteous woman. In the Tosafos on the tractate of Chagiga (17a), we are told that David died on Shavu’os. As we have a tradition that Hashem makes “complete” the lives of the righteous, it must be that David was born on Shavu’os as well. It is therefore appropriate to read the story of David’s ancestors as an honor to him, on the day of his birth.
The Magen Avraham (490:8) tells us that there is another connection between Ruth and Shavu’os. Just as the process leading to our receiving the Torah was filled with pain and trying times, so too the path that Ruth took to receiving the Torah was filled with the same.
And On Shavuot
excerpt from Yishmiru Daat
by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
And on Shavuot, the Sefirah of Binah is illuminated in 50 portals within the attribute of the Gevurah giving Torah – from the mouth of the Gevurah / Almighty we heard, (Eruvin 54b), b’Tzimtzum / with contraction of the divine light from the central point of perfection outwards onto stone tablets upon which were tzamzem / condensed ten commandments, (tanchuma vayakhel 7), and tzamtzem / condensed His Shechina / in-dwelling between the two staves of the ark. And also the expression “atzeret,” (meaning both concluding feast, i.e. Shavuot and also he squeezed), points to the tzimtzum / contraction and the limiting of this yom tov to only one day – and two in the diaspora – (and there are hidden expansions [on this day] up to a full week’s worth, but you will have to look to find them). And we who stood together, (Exodus 19:17, and cf. Yalkut Shimoni, B’reishit chapter 22 remez 101), at the foot of the mountain, like Yitzchak, our father, in his bindings, we with our cautions, (Shabbos 88:) and our souls flew out of our bodies with each and every utterance. And they are united with the souls of King David may he rest in peace, and with the Baal Shem tov, his soul is in Eden, and with the ger tzedek of Vilna, may God avenge his murder, having publicly sanctified God’s name, whose souls were drawn back on Shavuot into the body of the King with the kiss of Hir mouth, May S/He be blessed.
And so, one can say, “I believe with perfect faith, that Hashem Yitbarach is beyond the beyond of time and space in the eternal present, that S/He gives the Torah and still is saying both ‘anochi’ and ‘you shall have no other gods beside’ in a single utterance, (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot chapter 20 cf., remez 284), in such a way that every single generation can hear God’s word anew according to now and here, and we accept upon ourselves the limits that come from ‘the sacred spices,’ the Torah, so we can overcome our natures and give our Creator naches / delight.”
The One becomes Many & the Many become One
Wendy’s Comment: I very much like this teaching and I am fascinated by the connection
between Shavuot and Purim.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
These are 3 teachings and a midrash
from the Jewish Book of Days
The Covenant With Creation
The Israelites begin to prepare for the giving of the Torah in Sivan. Yet, a legend says the world has been preparing for the giving of the Torah since Creation. Rashi teaches that the Divine made a deal with the world: It’s existence would depend on the acceptance of the Torah.
Two lessons stem from this teaching. The first is that the Jewish tradition is
inextricably entwined with the natural world. The world of nature inspires the stories and laws of the Torah, and Torah influences the way we understand nature. The second lesson is that the survival of the world does indeed depend on whether we, and all peoples, are willing to act as stewards of life and of the planet on which we live. Creation does depend on Torah, and Torah depends on creation. Perhaps this is why we receive Torah when spring moves into summer, when creation is in full swing.
Cited: Rashi on Genesis 1:31
The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. Though there is no fire or thunder in her story, Ruth represents the covenant, for she chooses to be part of the Israelite nation out of her love for her mother-in-law, Naomi. In this story, the growing and harvesting of grain is a sign of love. Ruth gathers grain to feed Naomi and Ruth in turn is fed by Boaz, a local landowner who admires her courage. On Shavuot, as the loaves of grain are offered, we too are like Ruth. We have come to glean in the fields of Torah, and often we find many more grains of insight than we expected.
Like the wedding of Sinai, Ruth’s story also ends with a wedding. Boaz marries Ruth after she approaches him on the threshing floor and asks him to spread his wings over her. Boaz plays the role of the Holy One, wedding Ruth after her long journey. He symbolizes the abundance of the summer Shavuot season. Ruth, having been received under the Shekhinah’s wings, becomes the great-grandmother of David, the ancestor of the Messiah. Ruth is indeed one of the Matriarchs, sustaining the people with the grain of summer.
Cited: Ruth 2:2-3
Ruth Rabbah 5:5
Under the Mountain
There is a legend (Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 3) that when the Israelites stand at Sinai, the Divine lifts up the mountain and holds it over their heads. If they do not accept the Torah, the Holy One threatens, the mountain will fall on them and bury them. This somewhat bitter midrash is, perhaps, the Sage’s way of saying they do not feel they have a choice about accepting the Torah.
But what if the Holy One lifted up Mount Sinai so that the Israelites could see inside the mountain? Today’s midrash imagines that while Moses is on top of the mountain, receiving the stone tables of Torah, Miriam is underneath the mountain looking at the inside of the Torah. Like sap on the inside of the trunk of a tree, the spirit of Torah flows unseen within its limbs…
Cited: Exodus 19:2
Jill Hammer, “Miriam under the Mountain”
Miriam looked, and saw in the mountain a wrinkled brown stone like an eyelid. As Miriam watched, the eyelid opened. The stone wrinkled and lifted as if pulled by a muscle, and behind it was a door, into the heart of the mountain…”What is this place?” Miriam asked. “You are in the hollow of the mountain,” the old woman said. “Inside the words. The stone tablets your brother will receive-if he broke them open, this is what you will find.”
This midrash is from Sisters at Sinai, New Tales of Biblical Women. The book is listed in the Resources Section.
Rabbi David Seidenberg
An Offering In God’s Image
The Baal Shem Tov taught:
Tsohar ta’aseh lateivah “Make a light-opening for the ark (teivah)…”
—Make an opening for light within every word (teivah) you speak; Make your words shine, because in every letter there are worlds, souls, and divinity.
On Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah, we also celebrate the offering of the first fruits in the Temple, the bikurim.
The offering was a supremely humble gesture: the fruits which form first on a tree are often smaller, less perfect, only hinting at the abundance to follow. In ancient Israel, these offerings were gussied up, surrounded by the more beautiful fruit which grew later, brought sometimes in gold baskets, accompanied by flutes, processions. All the trappings of art and wealth were used to beautify the offering. Yet without the small, perhaps wrinkled fruit of the bikurim, there could be no offering.
It was at this moment of offering that the Torah teaches us to recite the story of redemption, the same one we now read in our Passover haggadah. The story was also a garland, as it were, for the bikurim offering, connecting our history to the very physical redemption of another spring and another growing season.
These first fruits acted as a reminder that society, civilization, culture, wealth, and religion, are all built on a relationship to the earth. The people who brought the offering were taught to trust in God’s providential care for the earth, praying, in the words of the Torah: Hashkifah mime’on kodshekha “Look out from the sanctuary of your holiness, from the heavens, and bless your people Israel and the earth which you gave us…” (Deut. 26:15) The bikurim made a kind of opening for us to think about our relationship to the rest of life and creation.
I am reminded, when I think of this simple gesture, of a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. When God gives instructions to Noah for building the ark, Noah is commanded: Tsohar ta’aseh lateivah “Make a light-opening for the ark.” (Gen. 6:16) In Hebrew, the word teivah has the meaning of both “ark” and “word”. The Baal Shem Tov therefore taught us to read the verse this way: “Make an opening for light within every word you speak.” Open up each word and gesture – to meaning, to feeling, to the outside and unexpected.
Instead we create ghettos within ghettos. We act as though civilization were a self-enclosed system, sealed shut, like Noah’s ark, daubed everywhere with pitch. Society shields us from famine, violence, disease. We act as though the economy, not the ecosystem, is what produces our food, fuel, wood, cloth, everything we need to live comfortably.
Even Torah can become a kind of ghetto, a book that looms so large before us it takes up the entire horizon. A mishnah in Pirkei Avot says, “A person who is walking along repeating a teaching and interrupts his learning to say, ‘What a beautiful tree,’ it’s as if he deserves to forfeit his life.”
Outside of all this human activity lies what we call “nature,” from which we extract our needs and into which we cast our waste. But are we really supposed to see only the words on the page, to hear only the sounds of human culture, and nothing else?
The Baal Shem Tov’s teaching continues: “Make your words shine, because in every letter there are worlds, souls, in every letter divinity.” If we really pray and learn from the depth of our being, we begin to see the beauty and holiness of creation within our words. When that happens, beholding a tree is no longer an interruption of one’s learning, but a continuation.
On Shavuot, we study all night in order to become open to how every word in the Torah shines with meaning. Similarly, the first fruits teach us to remember that in every being, every creature, every small piece of fruit and every stirring of life, there are also worlds, souls, and divinity.
If we only see the divine in ourselves, if we only appreciate human initiative and activity, then our words, our world, cannot be whole. When our civilization becomes a sealed-off room, a cheder atum, when the walls that separate us from other creatures become too thick, we ourselves cannot survive.
This is what the Torah says: “Make a light opening for the ark, and complete the ark from above.” One might have thought that a window diminishes a wall; after all, a hole makes a wall less complete. But an ark needs an opening which lets in light and sea air, which is, as it were, open to God’s care and nature’s storm, in order to be complete and life-sustaining.
“Make an opening…” to the elements, to the more-than-human world of nature, and complete it “from above”—that is, by opening to the world around us, we also become open to the divine, the more-than-human dimension we call God.
In a time when our contact with the non-human world may be limited to parks, gardening and natural disasters, how can we open up to the full meaning of prayers and rituals like the bikurim offering, which are so connected to the earth? If we are cut off from other people, we must open our words, our language, toward them. Likewise, if we are cut off from the source of our physical life, from the natural world, we must actively open our culture and our sense of caring toward nature.
We learn the same lesson from the giving of the Torah itself. There is a midrash which teaches that Israel only heard the first letter of the first word of the ten commandments, which was Alef, the silent one, the first letter of Anokhi “I AM”; not the “I”, but the purest perfect silence, a miraculous silence open to all the possibilities of the universe.
That which comes first, that which is still and small, like the Alef, or the bikurim, is a place where we can find new meaning, and new wisdom. Only by making an opening to what is beyond the words, beyond human culture, are we able to receive revelation. This is one reason why Torah was given bamidbar “in the wilderness”.
If we invite God to look down on us, to bring blessing and revelation, on the holy day of Shavuot, we must look out, and look up, create openings in our world, holes in our ark, in order for the holy to get in. Facing global climate change, we are beginning to acknowledge as a civilization that we have to pay attention to more than ourselves. But if we take these teachings seriously, then the reasons for our attention are far deeper and broader than our own survival.
Our civilization is only one chamber in the ark of life which carries us through the cosmos unto God. The infinitude of living things, the nefesh-kol-chai, upon which our lives depend, the manifold changes and processes of Creation, all manifest the infinitely diverse faces of God’s image. All of these faces, the proverbial shiv’im panim which stands for all possibiliites, all teach us Torah.
May we be blessed to learn the Torah of life from the bikurim, and from all beings, and with it to bring blessing to all creation.
Reb Duvid Mevorach Seidenberg
From Aryae 2009
Hearing light seeing
sound our soul soars beyond our
dreams. Now we are one.
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