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Shavuot is the second of the three major pilgrimage festivals. Originally a harvest festival, it was the time when our ancestors would aliyah l’regel—literally “go up on foot”—to make an offering of their first fruits in the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Temple’s destruction, when bringing first fruits was no longer possible, rabbinic Judaism was compelled to transform Shavuot into z’man matan Torateinu—the time of the giving of our Torah.
Shavuot became the endpoint to our annual spiritual journey – beginning with Pesach, through the seven weeks counting the omer, and concluding with the collective experience of revelation at Mt. Sinai – paralleling the physical journey our ancestors took from Mitzrayim to Sinai. Just as they received revelation, we too receive Torah every year.
Our ancestors proclaimed as the mountain shook, “We will do and we will understand,” entering into a brit that bound all of us to living out Torah in the most humane and ethical way possible. In the aftermath of the founding of Medinat Yisrael in 1948, these questions took upon new-found urgency and depth. Who received Torah? Who is Torah for? And what does it mean to do and then to hear/understand?
As you learn the next few sources, think about how these ideas apply to the Jewish people classically and contemporarily. How do we continue to live out and honor our brit in an ever-changing geopolitical reality?
Source 1: Shmot/Exodus 19:1-9
בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְצֵאת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי׃
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר׃
וּמֹשֶׁה עָלָה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו יְהֹוָה מִן־הָהָר לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל־כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי׃
וְעַתָּה אִם־שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל־הָעַמִּים כִּי־לִי כֹּל־הָאָרֶץ׃
וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיִּקְרָא לְזִקְנֵי הָעָם וַיָּשֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶם אֵת כֹּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ יְהֹוָה׃
וַיַּעֲנוּ כֹּל־הָעָם יַחְדָּו וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וַיָּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל־יְהֹוָה׃
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם־בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם וַיַּגֵּד מֹשֶׁה אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל־יְהֹוָה׃
On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. יהוה called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a dominion of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that יהוה had commanded him. All those assembled answered as one, saying, “All that יהוה has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to יהוה, And יהוה said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear/understand when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” Then Moses reported the people’s words to יהוה,
Questions for discussion on Source 1:
Source 2: Midrash Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3:1
כִּי כֹה אָמַר יי, חִנָּם נִמְכַּרְתֶּם וְגוֹ’ (ישעיה נב, ג). לְמַעַן הָקִים אוֹתְךָ וְגוֹ’, שֶׁלֹּא אֶחְזֹר בַּדָּבָר שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבוֹתֵיכֶם. וְלֹא אֶתְכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם, אֶלָּא אַף הַדּוֹרוֹת הָעֲתִידִין לָבֹא, הָיוּ שָׁם בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה. אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי, לָמָּה כְּתִיב: כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה וְגוֹ’ וְאֶת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה. לְפִי שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמוֹת הָיוּ שָׁם וַעֲדַיִן גּוּף לֹא נִבְרָא, לְכָךְ לֹא כְּתִיב בָּהֶן עֲמִידָה.
For thus says the Lord, ‘You were sold for free, [and you shall be redeemed for no money].’” (Deut. 29:12:) “In order to establish you today as God’s people…,” so that I would not go back on the word that I swore to your ancestors. Deut. 29:13), “And not only with you [have I made this covenant and this oath].” But rather the generations that have yet to come were also there at that time, as stated (in vs. 14), “But with those who are [standing (‘md)] here with us [today… and with those who are not here with us today].” R. Abahu said in the name of R. Samuel bar Nahmani, “Why does it say, ‘those who are [standing (‘md)] here […]; and those who are not here’ (without using the word, standing)? Because all the souls were there, [even] when [their] bodies had still not been created. It is for that reason [their] existence (literally, standing, rt.: ‘md) is not stated here.
Questions for discussion on Source 2:
Midrash Tanchuma, a famed collection of rabbinic midrashim introduces us to the oft-repeated idea that all of us across time and space were present at Sinai, that the brit made with our ancestors wasn’t for them alone but extends across all generations that ever were and ever will be.
Source 3: Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 13:16
מִזְרָק אֶחָד כֶּסֶף (במדבר ז, יט), כְּנֶגֶד הַתּוֹרָה הַמְשׁוּלָה בְּיַיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ט, ה): וּשְׁתוּ בְּיַיִן מָסָכְתִּי. וּלְפִי שֶׁדֶּרֶךְ הַיַּיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת בְּמִזְרָק, כְּמָה דְתֵימָא (עמוס ו, ו): הַשֹּׁתִים בְּמִזְרְקֵי יַיִן, לְכָךְ הֵבִיא מִזְרָק, (במדבר ז, יט): שִׁבְעִים שֶׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ, לָמָּה, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁיַּיִן חֶשְׁבּוֹנוֹ שִׁבְעִים, כָּךְ יֵשׁ שִׁבְעִים פָּנִים בַּתּוֹרָה
“One silver basin” was brought as a symbol of the Torah which has been likened to wine, as it says: “And drink of the wine which I have mingled.” (Mishlei 9:5) Now because it is customary to drink wine in a basin, you may gather from the text, “that drink wine in bowls” (Amos 6:6) — he on that account, brought a basin. “Of seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary” (Numbers 7:13). Why? As the numerical value of yayin (wine) is seventy, so there are seventy modes of expounding the Torah.
Questions for discussion on Source 3:
Source 4: We All Stood Together by Merle Feld
(This poem can be found on Ritualwell.org).
for Rachel Adler
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
As time passes
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Closing food for thought on Source 4:
In her powerful poem, Jewish feminist, spiritual thinker, and writer Merle Feld notes that Torah is incomplete. Women’s voices are absent and even more, women’s experiences are erased. The work is never complete to ensure all experiences and voices are acknowledged. May this poem be a call to all of us to continue the work of claiming and reclaiming our place in Torah as we live a Torat emet and a Torat chesed—a life-giving Torah, a Torah of kindness and truth. And, may the insights of this poem be applied to the real State of Israel as we ask, who is missing there from governance and who needs to be at the table but is not in the Knesset?