We are assembled here this evening to celebrate the Festival of Shavuot. Of all the holidays of the Jewish calendar, this is the one that gets the least notice, the smallest attendance, the most meager attention, what you might call, the "least respect." Yet, this is one of the three Festivals of pilgrimage that are mentioned in the Torah, together with Sukkot and hag Hamatzot which follows the Night of the Passover. This is a major holiday, one that celebrates the arrival of the Jews at that great location, mount Sinai, where our forefathers witnessed the most awe-inspiring revelation, when God in His own Personhood, in a manner that is part myth and all mystery, effected "Matan Torah," the giving of the Torah.
This holiday, like all holidays, also celebrates an event in nature the time of the harvest of the winter crop. It is called Khag Hakatzir, the festival of the harvest, and "Yom Habikurim," the day of the first of the fields. In Israel, particularly in the villages where the people live close to the earth, they celebrate this aspect of the holiday even when they reject the old, traditional religiosity of previous generations. Adults and children alike dress in their white garments, wear garlands on their heads, and carry baskets of fresh fruit for a celebration of thanksgiving to the God in whom they refuse to believe... They sing songs that praise the land as the "birthplace," "the land of our Fathers," and "our heritage." They repeat the Scriptural description of the land as "Eretz Zavat Khalav Udvash" a land flowing with milk and honey. They recite passages from the Song of Songs about the "turtledove in the cleft of the rock" and how "ani ledodi vedodi li" I am my beloveds, and he is mine, forgetting that the "beloved" was God and the lover Israel.
I hold in my hand two pieces of paper and I ask you, which one do you want to have? Would you like the one in the right hand, or the one in the left hand. Look closely. . . You probably choose the item in the right hand. Why not? It is a reproduction, a likeness of something you all know and respect the coin of the realm. The paper I hold in other hand well, it's just a piece of paper. Let me open it and share its content with you: this paper is worth one hundred dollars if presented this day to Rabbi Ben-Yehuda. . . Hum-m-m-m! I guess the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. . .
Thirty five hundred years ago our forefathers stood at Mount Sinai and received a gift from God. It was not the old, recognizable coin of the realm. It was not gold, not precious stones, nor any easy to recognize fortune. It was, none-the-less, far more precious than rubies, much more valuable than diamonds, and what is most important more practical and necessary for life.
The text in the Torah teaches us, "Then God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." [Ex. 20:1,2] God began His presentation, as it were, by establishing His authority. He is the One who brought about the removal of the slaves from their place and duty of physical labor to Pharaoh, to bring them to this site, where He would commission them to do His will. Anyone who does not buy in to this premise need not tarry. Leave, and do whatever, but be not a part of the People of God!
Once this primary authority is established, God goes on to say, "You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments." [Ex. 20:3-6] This God, who has authority over the multitude that came out of Egypt, is a singular, invisible, indivisible God.
Once we are familiar with the authority of God, and the qualities and parameters of God, we get into the relationship between God and His people: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain." [Ex. 20:7] This statement tells the people at Sinai that they must not invoke Gods name for their own foolish whims. Thus God teaches us that our relationship with Him needs to be of a serious, measured and treasured nature. A corner-stone of this relationship between God and the People Israel is the celebration of Gods day of rest, his "Shabbat" "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy." [Ex. 20:8-11] The passage teaches us about the character of this unique day and by precedent about all of Gods teaching: it is universal. Not only the master of the house, the patriarch, and maybe his wife, are included in Gods teaching and concern. The least of the household, even the cattle and the beasts of the field are to benefit from Gods beneficence.
The fifth statement at Sinai is the most surprising, the most profound, and the least studied or measured of all: "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you." [Ex. 20:12] Oh, how we love this statement! Parents invoke it every time the "kids" show signs of rebellion, on every occasion that their advice is not accepted or their directive is not obeyed. Yet, I ask you is it possible to order or legislate respect? To be sure, we can establish the power and authority of one who has sovereignty over any aspect of our life. Parents can prescribe for infants the time when they will be in bed, the food that they will consume, or the clothes that they will wear. All too soon the parents lose control, and children and young adults stay up late, eat junk food and wear what looks to the parents like rags... But respect, where can it be found?
As you sow, so shall you reap says the famous proverb. This is true in the field, where a row of corn will not yield one tomato, and a field of wheat will not produce one ear of corn. Likewise, in the field of parenting, honor comes where honor was deposited. When one lives with God and by His teachings, the children recognize their heritage and live a life of Torah and Mitzvot. Where mendacity and deceit is the hallmark of the lifestyle, one cannot expect the children to grow up full of the knowledge of the Lord.
So, as we celebrate this evening the conclusion of years of study of Torah, Jewish history and culture, I wish for you, our graduates and our congregants, a life imbued with Torah and with "derekh eretz" respect for the teachings of God. Because, in the final analysis, it is truly the measure of our success in life, and it is if there is to be our continuity, our only real permanence and our perpetuity.
We celebrate the Festival of Shavu'ot at the end of the counting of the Omer. Thirty five hundred years ago our forefathers stood at Mount Sinai and received a gift from God. It was not what the people expected, it was not the recognizable religion they had seen in Egypt. There was no sun-disk, no sphinx, not even a golden calf. There was no cult of priests and shamans - to temples of gold, bedecked by precious stones, no sign of affluence or luxury.
Yet, before we come to the text in the Torah that teaches us, Then God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, [Ex. 20:1-6] which is, of course, the revelation of Gods word, which we call Aseret Hadibrot, (the Ten Statements) God began by establishing His authority on the ground. He commanded that the people should come to the mount, but not climb up the mountain. Thus we read, And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the lower part of the mount. [Ex. 19:17] In Hebrew the words are Vayityatzvu betakhtit hahar. which means as the text in the English says, except that if you wish to be very literal, betakhtit means at the bottoms of - and the Talmud teaches us, And they stood under the mount: R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,If ye accept the Torah, tis well; if not, there shall be your burial. [Shabbat 88] Now the Talmud itself tells us, R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. After all, we are supposed to have free will. More than once we are told that we can follow Gods teaching if we wish. So, where is free will, when you have a huge mountain over your head?
The answer is that free will is what put us in the predicament of being under the mountain in the first place. Freedom is not merely an asset - it is also a liability. There is a price to pay for the security of Gods divine protection - and the price is that we must follow His directions. The God who brought us out is Egypt did not take us for a joy ride in a fantasy world. He took us into the formative mold of the desert of Sinai, to form us into His people, to worship Him and be made into a unique people and a nation of priests at Sinai. Freedom from encroachment and exploitation carries a price tag. Again and again the Torah teaches us, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. If you dont live by the rules, you can not be a member of the group. This is true in every society, in every communal undertaking. Democracy works because members of society are willing to live by the rules that have been established. You dont reinvent the wheel every time you want to take the car out for a spin - but you much abide by the rules of the road if you want to get safely from here to there.
Anyone who does not buy in to this premise need not tarry, need not accept the authority of God, not be swallowed by the mountain. But neither can he stay with us. Leave, and do whatever, but be not a part of the People of God. If, on the other hand, you do accept the primary authority, and do so willingly, then you are ready to learn Gods teaching, and you hear, Then God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. [Ex. 20:3-6] This God who has authority over the multitude that came out of Egypt is a singular, invisible, indivisible God. He is by His nature a good and benevolent God, loving and caring and guiding and supporting.
And we are His people, His children. Need we say anymore? Well, maybe - Halleluyah and Amen!
This evening we begin celebrating the Festival of Shavu'ot, which is the third of the "major holidays" of the Jewish calendar.
Our religious calendar begins in the fall season of the year, with, the anniversary of creation. The holiday is the start of the intense religious time of return and repentance that we call "the High Holidays" - which reaches a climax and an end with the fast of Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are two singular events, days of awe and awareness, days of intensity and introspection. We look into our souls, into the deep recesses of our being, and we seek to unite with the Holy One, the Creator and animator of all existence. The two days of Rosh Hashana, celebrated both in the diaspora and in Eretz Yisrael, are called "Yoma Arikha" - the One Long Day. It is the day of judgement, the day that triggers all the coming days of our life. Yom Kippur, at the end of that period, is likewise a singular and unique day - a day when we seek to change our life as we change our routine and our very nature - putting aside the needs of our body, forsaking food and drink to rise to the vcery presence of the Master of the Universe, to be His companions, His advisers, and His challenge to continue to bless His creation with His capable protection.
The year begins with the singular unit, One - as our God is one. Even as we witness every day, "Shma Yisrael, Adona'y is our God, Adona'y is One."
Before the taste of the singular holiday escapes our palate, before we have a chance to forget the lesson of the awesome qualities of our God, we enter into the celebration of the first of the "major holidays" that are prescribed in the Torah - the Festival of Sukkot. This holiday is one of three times when our ancestors would make a pilgrimage to their ancient capital of Jerusalem. Sukkot was the fall holiday, lasting a week. Six months later, to the day, the Israelites celebrated the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which began with the Night of the Passover, and like the fall festival, lasted a week. At the end of a "week of weeks," seven times the seven days from the night of the Passover, the third holiday came due. It is the Feast of Weeks, the time of the First Fruits, the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah.
I am reminded of a passage from the book of Koheleth, Ecclesiastes: "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; a threefold cord is not quickly broken." [Ecc. 4:9-12] Somehow, this year, it has been revealed to me that this passage teaches us about our faith, about the institution of our calendar. The Primary Holiday, "the Day of the One," which is to say, God's day - is Shabbat. For His Creation, for the world and its inhabitants, the One day, Judgement day - is two days counted as one. "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor." As if that was not clear enough, we conclude the period with "Kippur," another singular day, but joined with Rosh Hashana it is "book-ends" - two days. Two days to engender and bring forth the safety of our existence, as it is said, " For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has not another to help him up."
All this is fine and good - but what does it have to do with Shavuot?
Well, the lesson is not over - and neither is the text we are examining. As I pointed out, we follow the High Holidays with Sukkot, and six months later with Pesakh and Khag Hamatzot. Both are important and well recognized holidays - and both have helped keep Judaism alive, even as our text says, "And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; a threefold cord is not quickly broken." "Two shall withstand him;" the memory of God's deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt - as celebrrated in the Festival of Our Freedom, and their miraculous survival during forty years of wandering in the desert - as celebrated in the Feast of Sukkot. These are the two that will withstand the onslaught of the "one [that will] prevail against him." But yet the text continues with the enigmatic message. "And... a threefold cord is not quickly broken." What is the "threefold cord [that] is not quickly broken?"
I came to realize that this is the third (and oft forgotten) major holiday - the festival we are innaugurating this evening. Shavuot is the celebration of "first fruits." It is a recognition of an event in nature - and it is a celebration of the coming of age of a people as they met with their God and received His teaching. It is a time of revelation and enlightenment, a time of growth and maturation - a coming of age. In a manner of speaking, it is the "bar-mitzvah" of the People Israel, with their God as the guest of honor at their celebration. Without this holiday, without recognition of our obligation to our God, there is no "one" - and there are no "two." Rosh Hashanah is not ours to celebrate, nor do we find forgiveness at the end of Kippur. Sukkot will not shelter us - and at Pessakh time we would find our first born as dead as those of Egypt. For without this commemoration there is no Torah, there are no mitzvot, there is no calendar. We are as vulnerable as a driven leaf in the wind of time.
The words of our great prophet come to mind, "The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field; The grass withers, the flower fades; when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall endure forever." [Isaiah 40:6-8] "The word of our God shall endure forever" says Isaiah, and we know that as His word shall endure, so also shall all who accept it. The "threefold cord" is made up of (1) God Almighty, the foundation of all being and the Master of the Universe. (2) Israel, the people who came out of Egypt and witnessed the revelation at Sinai and received the Torah. Finally, there is (3) Torah - God's revealed Teaching that establishes our Covenant with Him, that establishes our calendar, our Shabbatot and our Holidays.
Now it is all clear - and one hopes that we can understand the scheme of things from beginning to end. First there was God. Then there was creation, and Humanity. Much later came Abraham and his progeny. Then came the time of the exodus, the establishment of Shabbat and the arrival at Sinai. The Revelation of God's Teaching was the beginning of all wisdom, of all knowledge. That is Shavuot! The last is, in fact, the prime mover of all that came before it in the chronology of our calendar. May we be aware of all this, and may we rejoice in our Torah and our privilege of having been at Sinai, to witness His revelation, to live by His Light - Torah - Ora, the Light of His teaching. And may His blessing be upon us forever.
"Vihi no'am adona'y eloheynu aleynu - And let the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish the work of our hands upon us; O prosper it, the work of our hands." [Psalms 90:17]
Shavuot - Second Day 5762
We read in the Torah
"Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee; from the time the sickle is first
put to the standing corn shalt thou begin to number seven weeks. And thou shalt
keep the feast of weeks unto the Lord thy God after the measure of the freewill
offering of thy hand, which thou shalt give, according as the Lord thy
God blessed thee. " [Deuteronomy 16:9,10] Shavu'ot is the third festival
holiday of the Jewish calendar, and celebrates the time of the harvest.. Hence
the name in Hebrew - "khag habikurim" - Feast of the First of the
There is an ancient tradition to read the Book of Ruth during the holiday of Shavuot. Ruth, a Moabite woman, married an Israelite man who died young. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, sets her free from any obligation to her dead husband, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, stating, "Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if even death parts me from you." [Ruth 1:16,17] Jewish law ordains that a widow who does not have a male child must marry a a brother or other close relative of her dead husband, to beget a son and keep the man's family from extinction. Ruth followed her mother-in-law back to her hometown of Beth-Lehem, where she met Boaz, a kin to Naomi, during the gathering of the harvest. He became Ruth's second husband, redeemed the dead man's name, and Ruth's grandson was Jesse, father of the shepherd boy, David, the sweet singer of the Psalms, the great anointed king of all Israel.
The meeting of Boaz and Ruth during the harvest season is the connection between the holiday and the reading of the book at this time. However, there is much more of a message here. The time of the giving of the Torah sets the Israelites apart from all other people. From this point on, the Israelites were a unique people, the ones that lived by mitzvot. Being set apart like that gives some people the wrong idea - that the Jews are a "special favorites" of God. That God would allow "His people" to have special privileges and treatment as a spoiled favorite child in some families. Nothing is further from the truth. Maybe that is why we are reminded by the book of Ruth which we read on this most solemn holiday when our Torah was first given to us that our strength and our pride came from "the stranger in our midst." Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, sweet singer of Israel, composer of the Psalms.
That is not all! Ruth is a Jewish lesson of the value of a proselyte. There are two books in the Hebrew Scriptures that carry the name of women: Esther and Ruth. Esther was a Jewess, the direct descendant of the House of Israel's first king, Saul - the House of Kish. Esther was a great Jewish heroine. Yet, she was a reluctant heroine - she would have preferred to remain unknown and out of danger. She was forced into prominence by circustances - and by her uncle Mordekha'y, and her nemesis, Haman. Ruth was a foreigner, who came to Judaism through an "accidental" union with an Israelite man. Fortune was not good to her, and her marriage ended in the death of her husband. She was set free by her mother in law, and could have returned to her familiar circustances in her parental home. She refused to accept the easy escape from her destiny - following, instead, her deep commitment to the family into which she married, in the person of the only survivor - Naomi. Her statement of commitment has become a classic expression of love and devotion. Let me remind you of the verse as it was done in the "old English" of the King James version. It rings so true: "for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me." Such great nobility!
Some scholars compair Ruth's adherence to Naomi to Abraham's devotion to God in that our patriarch heeded God's call, "Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you;" [Gen. 12:1] Ruth is told by her future husband that he knew her story: "And Boaz answered and said to her, It has been fully told to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband; and how you have left your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and have come to a people which you did not know before." [Ruth 2:11] Abraham was called by God. Ruth was motivated by her love for her husband's mother.
The book of Ruth is a treasure for women to learn and bring close to their heart - for it teaches us the value of women in the history and continuity of our corporeal existence. The Jewish people, successors of "the Children of Israel," came from the womb of great women - as the book of Ruth reminds us. When Boaz takes Ruth for a wife, the people of the town bless the groom with the words, "We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman that has come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, who both built the house of Israel. May you prosper in Ephratah, and be famous in Beth-Lehem; And may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Lord shall give you of this young woman." [Ruth 4:11,12] This is true Feminism at its finest, and I approve and applaud it!
There is a parallelism between the two matriarchs, Leah and Rachel, and between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, to whom she bound her life - as if they are sisters. There is a second parallelism between Ruth and Tamar, the widow of Juda's son, who was steadfast in her vows to the House of Judah, and who waited to be "redeemed, even when Judah did not offer her a redeemer. She had to resort to her own devices to obtain the seed that would conitue the line of the Israelite Judaic family. Likewise Ruth knew sadness and bereavement with the loss of her first love, to remain faithful to her vows, to return to Judah from the land of Moab, and there to find the redeemer who would revive not only her hopes - but those of the bitter mother-in-law, Naomi.
The text tells us that the women of the town, when they heard that Ruth was with child, "said to Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which has not left you this day without a redeemer, that his name may be famous in Israel! And he shall be to you a restorer of your life, and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse." [Ruth 4:14-16] The story of Ruth and Naomi is a perfect tale of devotion and selfless love paying off. It is a manifestation of all that Torah tries to teach us. It is an affirmation of womens' rights and their great value, their compassion and steadfast devotion. It is a story of faith overcoming tragedy to pull a happy ending at the end of a dark and dreadful dark tunnel. It is a celebration of the victory of hope over dispair.
For the 3500th time,
we celebrate the Festival of Shavu'ot, and - of course - we do so at the end
of the "counting of the Omer." Thirty five hundred years ago our forefathers
stood at Mount Sinai and received a "gift" from God. It was definitely
not what the people who came out of bondage in Egypt expected, it was not the
familiar type of religion they had seen in Egypt. There was no "visible
God" no sun-disk, no sphinx, not even a golden calf. There was no
cult of priests, preachers, diviners and shamans - no temples of gold, bedecked
by precious stones, no sign of affluence or luxury.
Yet, before we come to the text which we call "Aseret Hadibrot" (the Ten Statements), beginning with "Anokhi hashem eloheykha asher hotzetikha me'eretz mitzra'yim mibeyt avadim I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," [Ex. 20:2] we must read the words, "Va'ydaber hashem et kol hadvarim ha'ele lemor Then God spoke all these words, saying..." [Ex. 20:1] which is, of course, the revelation of God's "word" and what is this word? It is Torah.
Almost at the end of the Torah, as Moshe is about to leave the Israelites to die alone on Mount Nevo, we read "Torah tziva lanu moshe morasha kehilat Ya'akov Moshe commanded us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob." [Deut. 33:4] Shavu'ot is the "birthday" of this event of receiving the Torah. Yet is has no "date" it has a computation: the morrow of the week of weeks from the night after the night of the exodus from Pessakh.
So, this is a good time to speak of our connection to "numbers" and I don't mean the book which we started reading just a week ago in the synagogue. The world at large gives us credit for exposing humanity to God almighty - and for giving them the Decalogue the Ten Commandments. We say, not so! We don't have ten, we have 613 and they are not Commandments, they are "mitzvot." As we look at the revelation at Sinai, this Shavu'ot, let us notice another strange fact about what the world calls "Ten Commandments": The first two are given in the first person, the words of the Living God, "I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me." [Ex. 20:2,3] So, in fact, at least these two cannot be called, under any interpretations, commandments.
Keep that in mind, and let us go far afield back to the verse in Deuteronomy: "Torah tziva lanu moshe morasha kehilat Ya'akov Moshe commanded us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob." You will recall that in Hebrew the letters of the alphabet have a numerical value. Torah's numerical value is... No, if you think 613 you are not right. Tav is four hundred, vav is six, resh is two hundred, and heh is five. So, Torah's numerical value is 611! Our sages were at first surprised and then outraged, asking, did Moshe forget to teach us two mitzvot? Or was he not aware of the numerology of words? Surely not Moshe, our greatest sage... The great scholars looked at the text again, and said, the Torah is a rare instrument! It is so honest, so true, and so obvious, that only the innocent and the simple can comprehend it without great effort.
The sages reasoned that "Torah tziva lanu moshe Moshe commanded us a Torah," refers to those mitzvot which Moshe taught. They further reasoned that the two "first person" statements made at Sinai by the Master of the Universe were not lessons which Moshe taught. They were empirical truths, ones that required no teaching on the part of master Moshe, for they came directly from the Master of the Universe.
So, here we are, on the eve of Shavu'ot and we are all standing at the foot of Har Sinai. Some of us are aware of the fact that God is about to reveal to us the Great Truth that He is One, that He is our father, our Keeper, our Guardian. In a blink of an eye He will transmit to us that he is loving and faithful and constant and forgiving and full of grace. Others see this moment as a spectacle and a challenge. They think that God has to be refashioned in their image, to be more like them. If not that, at least be something they are familiar with - the sun or the moon, or the river or the sea, a snake or a bull. They see themselves as demi-gods, and they strive to take a more active role in the business of running their societies, their lands, the world.
For them, possibly, the Torah of Moshe has another numerical message. The mitzvot, six hundred and thirteen of them, can be "final summed" six plus one plus three to give us ten! Can you master ten? How many, do you think, can actually name the "Ten Commandments?" Further, the number ten is not really the final sum, for it is a one and a zero for the real final sum of one. Yes, He is One, and His teaching is One. He gave us the two personal statements at Sinai, and transmitted the remaining six hundred and eleven through Moshe, his servant. He is, as he told Moshe, "Eheye" "I shall be" the God of the future, as well as the present and the past, "Eheye" with a numerical value of three, the root of truth, the source of love.
Further, Shavu'ot is the festival of acceptance of all who wish to come and bask under the light of God's learning. It is traditional to read the Book of Ruth on this holiday, to recall the perfect love shown by the proselyte, Ruth, to her mother-in-law, Naomi. It is a time to recall that Judaism has never been an exclusive faith, but quite the opposite from the mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with the Israelites to righteous men and women throughout the ages who chose to bind their fate to ours we must extend a hand of peace and love. We must not sell short our heritage, but neither are we allowed to make it exclusive, for we are taught many times that He is God of all humanity, of all that has the breath of life. That is our God, and we are all equally His children.
May we live by these words and precepts, and may our God find favor in our service before Him this day and always.
THE FESTIVAL OF SHAVU’OT 5765
The Scriptural names
for the festival are: "Hag Shavuot" ("Feast of Weeks," Ex.
34:22; Deut. 16:10); "Yom ha-Bikkurim" ("The Day of the First-fruits,"
Num. 28:26), and "Hag ha-Kazir" ("The Harvest Feast," Ex.
23:16). The rabbinic name is "Azeret" (RH 1, 2; Hag. 2, 4). This word
comes from the Hebrew root ‘Ayin’ ‘Tsadi’ and ‘Resh’
– which makes the word ‘atzar,’ meaning ‘he stopped.’
This would suggest a day of stoppage of labor, but generally it is translated
as "solemn assembly." It occurs also in connection with the day following
the Festival of Sukkot (Lev. 23:36; Num. 29:35). This would seem to suggest
that, for the rabbis, Shavuot is an ‘additional one day feast’ to
Passover just as there is an additional one day feast to Tabernacles (see Targ.
Onk. to Num. 28:26 and Pd-RK 192a–93a).
We read in the Torah, “Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn shalt thou begin to number seven weeks. And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the Lord thy God after the measure of the freewill — offering of thy hand, which thou shalt give, according as the Lord thy God blessed thee. And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are in the midst of thee, in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt; and thou shalt observe and do these statutes.” [Deuteronomy 16:9-12]
Shavu’ot is the third festival holiday of the Jewish calendar – as it exists in our times (Scipturally it was the second). Unlike the other two, however, the reason for celebrating Shavu’ot is not clearly explained in the Torah, and the date of celebrating the holiday is not given as a “stand alone” date, but rather it is related as “the fiftieth day after the night of the exodus.”
It is celebrated by most Jews, therefore, on the sixth and seventh days of the month of Sivan — at the end of the “countdown” of the sheaves — forty nine days, which is a “week” of weeks, our convoluted mathematical formula ordained this most joyous and significant holiday. Actually, Leviticus 23:11 states that the sheaf was waved on the day after the Sabbath on the festival of Passover. Thus Shavuot falls 50 days after this day. The Sadducees (and later the Karaites) understood the term "Sabbath" in these verses literally, hence, for them Shavuot always falls on a Sunday. The Pharisees, however, interpreted "Sabbath" as the first day of Passover (which was a “Sabbath,” or a "day of rest") so that, for them, Shavuot always falls on the 50th day from the first day of Passover. The Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia who were cut off from the rest of Judaism for almost two thousand years (and were called “Falashas” - meaning ‘strangers’), interpreted "the day after Sabbath" as meaning the day after Passover so that for them Shavuot falls on the 12th of Sivan. The community of Qumran apparently interpreted "Sabbath" as the Sabbath after the end of the Passover festival, and as they had a fixed solar calendar this "Sabbath" always fell on the 26th of Nisan so that Shavuot always came out on Sunday the 15th of Sivan.
Most, if not all, commentators and historians believe that the origin of both the “counting of the Omer” and the celebration at its end — that is to say, Shavu’ot — predate the Exodus (and possibly Abraham) and is an agrarian celebration born (in Canaan) of the anxiety of waiting for the harvest and of the joy of its bounty. Shavu’ot is also called “Khag Ha’bikurim” — the feast of the first fruits of the spring harvest. “Also in the day of the of the first of the fruit, when ye bring a new meal offering unto the Lord...” [Numbers 28:26]
In establishing Jewish national events on the religious calendar, Moshe prescribed the three festivals as a time when the Jews will come to serve God in the place where God’s Temple (or shrine) would be (see Deuteronomy 16:16), which means that the major holidays were all pilgrimage holidays, designated in Hebrew “Shalosh Regalim” - the three times of “walking up” to Jerusalem. Shavu’ot is celebrated as the thanksgiving for the gift of Torah.
It is not certain if the time elapsed (49 days) between the morrow of the Night of the Passover and the day when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai to hear God speak is, in fact, correct – but we accept the sixth of Sivan as the date of the encounter between the children of Israel and God at Mt. Sinai. We call it “Zman Matan Torah,” the time of the giving of God’s teaching. In spite of this most momentous anniversary, Shavu’ot is the shortest of the three festivals: in Israel it is celebrated for one day only, while abroad we extend it by an additional day.
In many communities outside the land of Israel in the period after the destruction of the Temple, as Jewish life evolved to be synagogue-centered, it was customary to introduce children to the “Kheder” – Hebrew school on Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah. At this initiation ceremony the child, at the age of four or five, was placed on the lectern in the synagogue and from there was taken to the school where he began to make his first attempts at reading the Hebrew alphabet. He was then given cakes, honey, and sweets "that the Torah might be sweet on his lips." In modern times, some synagogues, particularly Reform, celebrate the “confirmation” of older children instead of or in addition to Bar/Bat Mitzvah on Shavuot
Because the festival celebrates the giving of God’s mitzvot, a tradition developed of behaving in a manner that is most harmonious with God’s creation during this holiday: unlike any other holiday, the Shavu’ot repast was established by tradition to be a non-meat meal. Depending on the country of one’s origin, one may feast on blintzes (cheese or fruit filled crepes), cheesecake, koogle (noodle pudding made with cheese and fruits), potato knishes, and cheese and/or herb bourekas (a baked delicacy of North African and Spanish Jewry). These ‘bourekas’ are usually triangular in shape because the Torah is of three parts (Torah (Pentateuch), Neviim (Prophets), and Ktuvim (writings) – and was given to a people of three “parts” (Cohanim – Priests, Levi’yim – Levites, and Yisrael – the twelve tribes of the Sons of Israel) on the third month through Moshe who was the third child of his parents.
It is traditional for Jewish homes to be decorated for Shavu’ot with flowers, green foliage, and potted plants. Fruits and vegetables are used both as decoration and as food.
It is also traditional to wear white or light colored clothes and avoid the use of leather goods, such as shoes. The rationale behind this avoidance of meat or leather is that God in his lovingkindness and mercy has seen fit to teach us his life-sustaining wisdom -- and we show our appreciation by avoiding the use of products that require the taking of a life during the celebration of the holiday.
There is no doubt that in our times the Festival of Shavu’ot is the least celebrated of the Major holidays — at least among the less pious, less observant Jews. Yet, in fact, it may be considered the most important — for it celebrates the giving of the Torah, without which no other holiday would have been instituted!
Three events are unique to this holiday: Tikun Leyl Shavu’ot – in observance of Shavuot, and in preparation of the revelation of the Torah, with which the holiday is associated, this is an all-night study period that traditionally included portions from all the books of the Torah and the first and last Mishnah of each tractate of the Talmud. Before reading the Torah it is traditional to read special prayer called “Akdamut,” preparing us to hear the Ten Statements of God’s revelation at Sinai. No one is sure when this practice began, but it is an ancient tradition to read the Book of Ruth during this holiday -- maybe because Ruth met her second husband, Boaz, during the gathering of the harvest.
Khag Same’akh to one and all.
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