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May 12, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple

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Rabbi Raymond Apples writes on Shavu’ot.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

SHVER TZU ZEIN SHAVU’OT

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

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

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

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?

LEVI YITZCHAK & THE SHOFAR

The sound of the shofar which was heard at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given :became louder and louder” (Ex. 19:19).

Rashi explains, “When a human being blows a trumpet, the longer he blows it, the more tired he becomes and the weaker the sound grows”.

But the shofar at Mount Sinai was different. Not only did its sound constantly increase in volume, but it has continued to be heard ever since. Its sound will not cease until “the earth is as full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev comments, “There are people who hear the sound of the Rosh HaShanah shofar all year long… and there are people who hear the sound of the Mount Sinai shofar all the days of their lives.”

They are two different shofarot. The Rosh HaShanah shofar calls us to repentance, and we should repent every day of the year. The Mount Sinai shofar proclaims God as king over the world, and this thought ought to accompany us every day of our lives.

Otherwise, as the High Holyday prayers suggest, we will be caught up in the constant tussle between the “melech evyon”, the over-confident human tendency to think one is self-sufficient, and the “melech elyon”, the Creator King who expects humility of His creatures, and the capacity to listen to the Divine word and live a life of dignity and responsibility.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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