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    Shver tzu zein Shavuot

    May 9th, 2021

    Revelation at Sinai, painting by Zely Smekhov

    People say it’s hard to be a Jew – shver tzu zein a Yid. It’s also hard to be Shavu’ot.

    Everybody loves Pesach and Sukkot, Chanukah and Purim, with their colour and charm.

    Somehow Shavu’ot is different. Few people have much of a feeling for it. The cheesecake does little to redeem the occasion. Yet it is really the most inspiring of all the festivals.

    It marks the Revelation on Mount Sinai when God proclaims the Torah and gives Israel an agenda – both negative (“Sinai” is from sinah, the enmity between God and the idols) and positive (the gematria of Sinai is sulam, a ladder, representing the human ascent to God).

    In modern Judaism there has been a theological dispute about Revelation. Did God give the Torah or did human beings arrive at it?

    The traditional answer is that the Almighty offered the Commandments to Israel and they accepted the offer and assured Him that they would observe and obey it.

    A nation of Ruths – Shavu’ot

    May 9th, 2021

    Naomi & Ruth, by Gustave Dore

    The Megillah assigned for Shavu’ot is Ruth. It is one of the short, self-contained Books of the Bible, a novelette in itself like Jonah. Its relevance to Shavu’ot is both agricultural and spiritual.

    Agriculturally it reflects the time of the barley harvest; spiritually it portrays the acceptance of the Torah.

    Look at the festival Torah reading, which comes from Sh’mot chapters 19 and 20, and you see that the story we are told there describes the national experience of the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

    Now look at Ruth, and you see that instead of the experience of the people as a whole the Book is describing the individual acceptance of the Torah by a sensitive person named Ruth who chooses the Jewish way because she wants the Jewish God to be her God and the Jewish way of life (and death) to be hers.

    The Jewish people – probably two million-strong – are like a nation of Ruths who say, “Your God will be my God, your people will be my people”.

    The agricultural & spiritual – Shavu’ot

    May 9th, 2021

    Synagogues and homes are decorated with greenery to mark Yom HaBikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits.

    The books of Jewish customs agree on the general idea but have different explanations for the details.

    One view is that the custom recalls Mount Sinai, a little, rather nondescript mountain, which burst into greenery when God chose it as the site of the Revelation.

    It reminds us that when a place, a person or a period is privileged to be the Divine instrument of joy, it smiles and feels proud to have been singled out by the Almighty.

    The use of fruit trees and their branches on Shavu’ot symbolises the idea that – as we see from Psalm 92, the psalm for the Sabbath day – the tzaddikim are fruitful and productive.

    There is even a reminder of Moshe Rabbenu, through whom the Torah was given on Shavu’ot. He was hidden for three months after his birth on 7 Adar, which means that his emergence took place on Shavu’ot.

    In this way we combine and integrate the two aspects of the festival, the agricultural and the spiritual.

    The date of Shavu’ot

    May 9th, 2021

    The calendar tells us that Shavu’ot falls on 6 (outside Israel, 6 and 7) Sivan.

    The date is not specified in the Torah, nor are there any references that say that this was the date of the Revelation at Mount Sinai. What a strange thing when we think of how indispensable the Torah is to every aspect of being Jewish.

    Abravanel, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan tell us in one of his essays, explains that the duty of remembering the giving of the Torah is a daily obligation, and it would mislead some people if the Torah identified the date of the Revelation because they might limit the duty of honouring the event to this one day (or two in the Diaspora).

    Rabbi Kaplan also cites Alshich who says that the Revelation was sublime, but the people of Israel spoilt it by their sin with the Golden Calf. The date of the Revelation is not given so that we will not be reminded of the sin.

    One might add that if we recalled the sin we might be tempted to say that keeping the Torah is too difficult for ordinary mortals: if the generation of Moses could not keep the Torah, how much more is there a problem for later generations?

    Why were the people counted? – B’midbar

    May 9th, 2021

    In English the name of the Book we begin this week is Numbers.

    Rav JB Soloveitchik of blessed memory said there are two purposes in counting.

    One purpose is to know how much one has of a certain item, money for example. In our case Moses counted the people so as to know how many they were.

    The second purpose is in order to appreciate and savour each item – in our case each person – regardless of the overall total.

    There were hundreds of thousands of Israelites in the wilderness, so what chance did Moses have of knowing and appreciating every individual? That the Almighty knew each individual is evident, but how what chance did Moses have?

    The answer is that the people were divided into groups, and each group had its leader. The chief leader, Moses, did not need to know every Israelite, but the sub-leaders did.

    The idea is spelt out in the Talmud, in B’rachot 28a, where Rabban Gamli’el was shocked to see the unpleasant conditions in which Rabbi Yehoshua lived. Rabban Gamli’el should have been aware of the circumstances of each of his people.

    Each individual should have mattered to the leader.