Shavuot: A Match Made in Heaven, By Rabbi Yaakov Glasman

We all experience challenging periods in life. Imagine you’re doing it tough and all of a sudden you meet the most wonderful person you could ever ask for. He/she is smart, kind, attractive, caring, funny and most importantly, a mentch. You fall in love instantly. You love them with all your heart and soul and the feeling is mutual. You get married and have the most romantic honeymoon. And then all of a sudden – as if out of nowhere – your newfound love bombards you with an endless list of demands and expectations, none of which were discussed with you prior to the wedding. How would that make you feel?

As fictional as it sounds, this “fairytale” was, in a spiritual sense, a sober reality for our ancestors some 3,330 years ago. The Jews had been completely demoralised and humiliated after 210 years of backbreaking Egyptian slavery in what was clearly one of the worst periods of ancient Jewish history. Then all of a sudden G-d comes to the rescue. He redeems us with “a strong hand and an outstretched arm”, destroys our enemies and promises to take us to the land of milk and honey. Finally, we found a loving and caring life Partner who was as passionate about us as we were about Him. He led us to Mount Sinai and gave us the most cherished gift of all – the Torah. Our Sages have referred to this gift as the “marriage” between G-d and the Children of Israel. We had new meaning in life, a fresh start and a divine purpose. For the first time in centuries, we were happy.

And then suddenly, immediately following the spiritual and emotional high of tying the knot with the Almighty, He bombards us with an onslaught of commandments and obligations, none of which he communicated to us beforehand. Indeed, in the portion immediately following the giving of the Torah there appear more commandments than almost any other portion in the entire Torah.

What was G-d trying to tell us?

In doing so G-d was teaching us one of the most foundational lessons for a healthy relationship, whether our relationship with G-d or with man: that love must ultimately lead to action. It’s one thing to fall in love. It’s another thing altogether to translate this into the behavioural arena. We love our spouses, yet we buy them flowers. We love our children, yet we hug and kiss them. We love our grandparents, yet we clear our diary to spend time with them. They know we love them so why bother with the good deeds? The answer is simple yet profound:  Because love is the catalyst for action, not its substitute.  In the words of the international bestseller The Five Love Languages –relationships are built on deeds, not words.

But as we know, this value is not always easy to maintain throughout one’s relationship. We sometimes fall into our comfort zone and become rather selective as to what “actions” we wish to contribute to our personal relationships. And just as it applies in the interpersonal space, so it does in our collective relationship with G-d.

As Jews today integrated in a society whose values are ever changing, we often find ourselves grappling to make sense of our own Jewish identity. Too many Jews today question the role Judaism and ritual play in their lives. Our opinions and world outlook are understandably informed by the culture in which we live, and when those values clash with our Jewish values, the former may trump the latter. All too often this results in a process of trimming down our own Jewish belief system to create a version we’re comfortable with.

The danger inherent in this process is that our final product may bear no resemblance of the Torah G-d gave us at Sinai. By delisting, for instance, prayer, Shabbat, Kashrut, Mikvah and other commandments seen by some as senescent and antiquated, one ends up with a Judaism defined exclusively in terms of humanism. Being a good person becomes the new Jewish motto whilst ritual is relegated to a bygone era.

Indeed, as we celebrate on Shavuot our having received the Torah, we reflect on what it was like to stand at Mount Sinai and hear the immutable word of G-d in the form of the Ten Commandments. We reflect on their content, their meaning, and perhaps most importantly, their composition: five commandments about faith and ritual, and the other five about humanism and menchlichkeit. The fifty-fifty split illustrates the inestimable value G-d places on our both ritual and menchlichkeit.  Both form an equal part of our national Jewish identity and both did, and always should, form equal parts of our Jewish identity. Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Glasman is Senior Rabbi at Melbourne’s St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. He served as President of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria from 2009 until 2012 and then as President of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand from 2016 until 2017. 

 

 

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Ruth: Kindness that Leads to Kingship, By Rabbi Yosef Blau

 

The description in the Torah of the holiday of Shavuot focuses on the seven week counting from Pesach but reveals little about the intrinsic nature of the day.  Our sages concluded that it

commemorates the date that the Torah was given on Sinai to the Jewish people.   From this perspective the appropriateness of reading  Megillat Rut, the story of a single Moabite convert, who becomes the great grandmother of king David, is not clear.   Some relate this reading to the agricultural aspect of Shavuot which connects to an important part of the Ruth narrative.  There is a way to see the vast contrast between the revelation on Sinai and Ruth’s individual  choice as a reason to connect the two.

On the Seder night in the recital of Dayenu we say that if Hashem had brought us to Mount Sinai and had not given us the Torah it would have been sufficient.   The divine revelation even if it hadn’t resulted in the giving of the Torah had enormous religious impact.   It created an eternal bond between Hashem and the Jewish people, the nation He had taken out of slavery in Egypt.  It is a singular event that led to the entire people as one accepting the commandments.  The description of the revelation on Sinai is vivid and detailed;  the  experience  is so powerful that, overcome with dread, the Israelites are afraid to go up the mountain.

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Giving the Devil his Due, by Rabbi Chaim Bronstein

Does the end justify the means is a constant persistent question. Chazal and later Meforshim dealing with problematic issues in Tanach have grappled with this issue and offered surprising approaches.

The well-known Ramban dealing with the Se’ir La’azazel (Vayikya 16:8) states: therefore they offered a bribe to Sama-el on Yom HaKippurim not to nullify their sacrifice, as the Passuk declares “One lot for Hashem and one lot for Azazel” Hashem’s lot is an Olah sacrifice and the lot of Azazel is the Chatas goat with all the sins of Israel on it.

The source for this remarkable statement is Prikei D’Rabi Eliezer (46) which the Ramban quotes verbatim. He then adds by way of explanation:

“But the Torah forbade completely acceptance of (angelic) divinity and any service to them. But HKB”H commanded that on Yom HaKippurim we send a goat into the desert to the prince (power) who rules over desolate places… Not that it should be an offering from us to it- heaven forbid- rather our intention should be to fulfill the wish of our Creator who commanded us to do so.”

Even with this formulation, it seems clear that the underlying purpose is to appease or at least distract Sama-el.

The Chizkuni presents a similar approach, much more succinctly: “one lot for Azazel (i.e. Sama-el) and in order that he not nullify their sacrifice we give him a bribe”.

In Rus (ch. 3) we find that Na’ami instructs Rus as follows:

“And you shall bathe and anoint yourself and dress (in your finest) clothing and go down to the threshing floor; do not make yourselves known to the man (Boaz) until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down take note of the place where he lies and go and uncover his feet and lie down and he will tell you what you should do”

The Alshich comments:

“Before Naami revealed her plan to Rus she explained certain matters to her (namely) that all holy matters cannot endure without having some admixture that appears to be sinful, even if it’s not actually forbidden. For example, Yaakov married two sisters, even though in his time it was not forbidden, the Torah would prohibit it. Nonetheless, his intent was pure in order to bring forth the twelve tribes of Hashem. Similarly Yehuda and Tamar even though (their relationship) involved the Mizvah of Yibum; nonetheless, the angel who directed Yehuda to join with Tamar so that from them would issue kings and prophets, did not inform him (Yehuda) that this woman was Tamar and that he would be fulfilling the Mitzvah of Yibbum. Rather the angel wanted him (Yehuda) to come unto her not in an act of marriage so that there should be attributed to their relationship something improper.

“Similarly, Naami spoke to Rus and explained- please know that the entire House of Israel depends on this pairing. For you are the woman from which will be revealed the light of Mashiach in the world. Ever matter which is extremely holy necessitates that it be mixed with some element of sin. Just as it is not possible to eat very sweet things without mixing in a little which is bitter and only then will it be palatable. This I have made known to you from Yehuda and Tamar.

The Igeres Shmuel on Rus (by the same author of the better known Medresh Shmuel on Pirkei Avos) writes in a similar vein:

All the commentaries wonder at the contrivance of Naami who advised Rus to act in a manner lacking in tznius and with brazenness, which has no place in a proper Jewish woman. One can explain, based on the fact that when the soul of Meshichan Shel David descends into the world there is always interference by Satan and the Sitra Achara. The strategy against him is to cloak (the pure) soul with a filthy and lowly garment, so then he will not sense what is transpiring, Satan will take pleasure in the garment and not touch the essence. We find this in various places:

Lot had relations with his daughters from which issued Moav and the family of Rus. Yehuda had relations with Tamar from which issued Peretz, a forbearer of David. Similarly, Yaakov married two sisters, all this was a ruse to conceal from the eyes of the Satan the greatness of the holy Neshama of Mashiach, and to ailence him with these very deeds with which he is appeased and demands, as with the Seir Hameshtaleach on Yom Kippur, to silence Satan. Since Nami knew that from this pairing would come forth the root of Yishai; therefore, she offered this advice to Rus, to conceal the matter from Satan.

In Megillas Esther, Mordechai instructs Esther to go Achasveirosh to plead for her people. Esther finally acquiesces with a final plea of “Ka’aasher Avadti Avadti”. Rashi comments based on the Gemara in Megillah (15a), “As I am lost from father’s house, I will be lost to you. For I am submitting willingly to a gentile to and will be forbidden to you. The Targum explains that just as I was taken from you against my will, so I will lose life in the world to come, for the salvation of the House of Israel.”

Esther is asked to make the supreme sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people, to voluntarily go  to Achashveirosh and be lost to Mordechai forever (or according to the Targum to give up eternal life). With such grave consequences, it is clear that what Esther was doing was clearly wrong; yet, at the same time both Esther and Mordechai understand that the salvation of the Jewish people is the greater good that must be realized.

There are many lessons to be derived from this. We live in a world of “Ohr Vechoshech Mishtamshim Beirbuvya, where light and darkness serve in a chaotic mixture”. Where the light and darkness both vie for supremecy and we are bidden to negotiate our way through the corrosive maze. When the end justifies the means and when it does not remains an eternal question.

 

 

What Does Shavuot Really Celebrate: On Preparing for Kabbalat Ha-Torah, by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter

The Gemara (Shabbat 86b) records a disagreement between the Rabbanan and Rabbi Yosi as to the day of the month of Sivan that the Aseret ha-Dibrot were handed down at Sinai. The first opinion is that it occurred on the sixth of the month while Rabbi Yosi maintains that it occurred on the seventh. The Gemara goes on to explain that both agree on two matters: first, that the Bnai Yisrael arrived in the Sinai desert on the first of that month and, second, that the Torah was given on a Shabbat. They disagree, however, continues the Gemara, regarding on what day of the week did the first of the month fall, on a Sunday (in which case the Torah was given on the seventh of the month) or on a Monday (in which case the Torah was given on the sixth).

A second Gemara. The Gemara (Shabbat 87b) informs us that the Bnai Yisrael left Egypt on a Thursday.

A third Gemara. The Gemara (Pesachim 68b) simply assumes that the holiday of Shavuot commemorates the day of the giving of the Torah. This is not self-evident because the Torah refers to this holiday four times and not once makes this association. In Shemot 23:16 it is referred to as “chag ha-asif,” in Shemot 34:22 as “chag shavuot,” in Bamidbar 28:26 as “yom ha-bikkurim,” and in Devarim 15:9, 16 as “chag shavuot.” Nowhere does the Torah associate this holiday with the event of Revelation, an association that became self-evident in later rabbinic literature. Indeed, in his biblical commentary on Vayikra 23, the Abravanel wonders (question #17) why the Torah does not explicitly make this connection, and he is only one of many who address this issue.

And a pasuk. The Torah (Vayikra 23:15-21) tells us that fiftieth day from the beginning of the counting of the omer is a holiday and the clear assumption in Jewish tradition is that this is a reference to the holiday of Shavuot.

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Shavuot: A Holiday Without Rituals, by Rabbi Shimon Murciano 

 

In pastoral Israel, Shavuot was celebrated as –Chag Hakatzir– an agricultural festival. It was the season when we brought an offering of the first produce of the field and orchard as a thanksgiving to the Almighty for his bounty. Today Shavuot is primarily celebrated as the great occasion on the Jewish calendar as it commemorates –Z’man Mattan Toratenu— the giving of the Tora to Israel, on Mount Sinai over 3000 years ago. It has been estimated that since the Tora was given, mankind has passed millions of laws in order to enforce the laws contained in the—Aseret Hadibrot-the Ten Commandments . The exact number is not significant; what is significant is man’s struggle to live a good life inspired by Divine Commandments.

Consciously or unconsciously, great thinkers of the past based their doctrines on ideas expressed in the Aseret Hadibrot . But in the process, people have forgotten the source, and began to think of the content of those commandments as the product of earlier civilizations or legislators. Civil laws concerning human relationships are poor substitutes for the biblical commandments. Today’s society has neither outgrown the Ten Commandments nor has it reached a point where they are no longer needed. Daily events prove not only that the world needs them but that the world accepts them as guiding principles in everyday life.

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The Hidden Revelation at Sinai, By Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz

Of the Ten Commandments, the First and Second are considered those that are primary.  The First is positive and states, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt from the house of slavery.”  Exodus 20:2.   The Second is negative and states, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” Exodus 20:3.  Immediately after receiving the Ten Commandments, it seems that God is repeating the first two.  The Torah says, “And God says to Moshe, Thus you shall say to the Children of Israel, ‘you have seen that I spoken with you from the heavens.’” Exodus 20:19.  This is a positive statement of what God did.  And it immediately follows with a negative corollary, “do not fashion with me gods of silver and gods of gold, do not make them for yourselves.” Exodus, 20: 20.

What was the need for God to repeat these again?  The Rabbis were sensitive to this issue and attempted to explain that it referred either to those who serve God through the worship of the heavenly constellations or these referred to the construction of the cherubs on the aron.  “Do not make an image of my servants who serve before me in heaven.”  Rashi, Ad Locum.

The plain meaning of the text, however, even with the Rabbinic interpretation, is that this is another prohibition against idolatry, albeit with a broader definition of idolatry.

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The Second Day of Yom Tov Revisited, By Rabbi Daniel Friedman

With the approaching ‘3-day Yom Tov’ this Shavuos, and the accompanying sociological challenges, this essay will reexamine the origins of Yom Tov Sheini shel Goluyos.

Most are familiar with the Gemara in Beitzah 4b:

In early times they used to light bonfires, but on account of the mischief of the Samaritans the Rabbis ordained that messengers should go forth. But now that we are well acquainted with the fixing of the new moon, why do we observe two days? — Because they sent from there: take care of the custom of your fathers in your hands; for it might happen that the government might issue an antisemitic decree and it will cause a blunder.

Rashi explains that the inability to learn Torah would lead to confusion regarding the fixing of the calendar.  Were they only to observe one day of Yom Tov, their negligence might result in an error concerning the calculation and setting of the correct day of Yom Tov.

The Meshech Chochma (Bo ch.12 s.v. Uvazeh), however, asks: What makes the Diaspora unique in this regard?  Theoretically, such a decree could also be enacted in Eretz Yisrael, causing confusion around the correct day of Yom Tov!

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