“The Anonymous Holiday”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This Thursday night, Friday and Shabbat, we will celebrate the joyous festival of Shavuot. On the Hebrew calender it is the sixth and seventh days of the month of Sivan. According to traditional calculation, the Torah was given at Sinai 3312 years ago, in the year 2448 on the Jewish calender, corresponding to the year 1312 BCE. Because this Shabbat is Shavuot, the normal Torah portion for the week is postponed until next Shabbat, and instead, this Friday we will read from Exodus 19 and 20, and on Shabbat from Deuteronomy 15 and 16, — readings which concern the festival of Shavuot.

Despite the tradition that the Torah was given on the holiday of Shavuot, many of the commentators are astounded that nowhere in the Torah is there any mention that the Torah was given on that day. Yehuda Nachshoni, in his observations on the weekly parasha, cites a number of traditional commentaries and their remarks on this lacuna. He quotes the Akeida (Akeidat Yitzhak, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, Spanish commentator, 1420-1494), who brings down two reasons. In his counting of the mitzvot, says the Akeida, the Bahag (Ba’al Halachot G’dolot, Babylonian codifier, 9th Century?) did not count the existence of G-d among the 613 mitzvot – simply because the existence of G-d is the most fundamental principle of the mitzvot. If there is no commander, there can be no commands. So obviously there is no need to count the existence of G-d among the 613 commandments. Similarly, with Shavuot, says the Akeidah, the giving of the Torah is such a primary philosophical principle, and so self-evident, that for the Torah to mention it would be extraneous.

A second reason brought down by the Akeida is that most of the holiday mitzvot depend upon time, but the giving of the Torah can never be limited by time. As it says in the book of Joshua 1:8: “Lo yamish sefer ha’Torh ha’zeh mee’peecha, V’hagita bo yommam v’lailah,” This Torah shall not depart from your mouth and you should contemplate upon it both day and night. The words of the Torah need to be fresh and beloved in our eyes at all times as the moment they were given. Therefore Scripture did not fix a time for the giving of the Torah, and only mentions the mitzvah of bringing bikurim, the first fruits, that are observed on the festival of Shavuot.

The Abarbanel (Spanish philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508) goes even further, arguing that the relationship between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah is merely coincidental. Shavuot is a holiday of thanksgiving to thank G-d for the harvest and the first fruits. While it is true that on the sixth of Sivan the Torah was given to the Jewish people, but that is not really what necessitates the celebration. Rather, the first fruits and the harvesting of the wheat are the reasons to rejoice. The Abarbanel does find certain symbolic hints in the celebration of the festival of Shavuot which relate to the giving of the Torah — for instance, on Pesach we bring an offering of barley, which is a coarse food for animals, whereas on Shavuot we bring the Shtei ha’Lechem, the two loaves of bread and the first offering of the very fine wheat. The implication, clearly, is that the Exodus was the coarse liberation, while Shavuot and the giving of the Torah is the refined elevation. Similarly, the fact that we count the omer from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot, shows how much we long for Shavuot and long for the Torah.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the great European-American Talmudist and philosopher who died in 1993, once delivered some impromptu remarks concerning the study of Torah to his class at Yeshiva University, as brought down in Shiurei Ha’Rav. The Rav’s remarks put the centrality of Torah and the festival of Shavuot into proper perspective. Rabbi Soloveitchik commented on the ceremonial blessings that are recited at the completion of the learning of a Talmudic Tractate. Jews, he remarked, yearn for kedusha, sanctity, and Torah. Just as Jews always refer to Shabbat in their prayers as the day to which they long, by referring to the other days of the week as today is the first, or the second, or the third day in the Shabbat cycle, the counting of the omer reflects the Jews’ awareness that the goal of the exodus from Egypt was really receiving the Torah.

So it is with the Jews yearning for mastery of Torah. Torah is not only to be studied, but is meant to be an all encompassing involvement. That is why the blessing that Jews recite every morning is, lasok b’div’rei Torah, Blessed art thou, Lord our G-d, l’asok, to be involved in, to make our business, our careers, in the words of Torah. Usually, when a Jew makes a blessing and departs from an activity, like leaving a Sukkah after eating and drinking, and then re-enters the Sukkah to again eat or drink, the blessings are recited again. But the blessing for Torah is recited only once in the morning, and never again, even though a Jew may open the Torah to study many times a day. The reason for this is that the obligation of Talmud Torah, studying Torah, is continuous. This is what is meant by the verse that we cited from Joshua, “V’hagita bo yommam v’lailah,” You should be aware and conscious of the mitzvah of Torah study all day and all night.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that there are two kinds of awareness. The first is acute awareness, while the second is latent awareness. Acute awareness is obviously lacking when one thinks about other matters, but latent awareness is always present, even though one is engaged in other matters. Rabbi Soloveitchik gives the following paradigm: When a mother plays with her child, there is acute awareness of the child. But even when the mother is at work at a job, or distracted by some other activity, there is always a latent awareness of the child, and so it remains throughout the mother’s lifetime. This is an awareness that typical parents have that can never be extinguished. The infant is the center of gravity of the parents’ lives. That is why parents often feel that they cannot live without their child.

Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the same is true with regards to Torah. A Jew may not be acutely aware of Torah at every moment during each 24 hour day, but the latent awareness never ceases. L’asok b’divrei Torah, implies that even when we are mentally involved in something else, we are always aware of Torah. This awareness of Torah becomes part of one’s “I” consciousness. Just as one is always aware of one’s existence without having to walk around saying: “I exist, I exist,” so should a Jew be aware of the Torah.

Concludes Rabbi Soloveitchik, it is for this reason that we make a special siyum, conclusion ceremony, at the end of learning a Tractate, by saying Hadran alach, we will return to you. As far as acute awareness is concerned, we are through with the Tractate, we are leaving this chapter, but the latent awareness remains, and for that reason we still return again to learn. It is similar to the mother who leaves her child and says, “I’ll be back.” She does not say this merely to encourage the infant, she expresses a basic truth. A mother leaves only to return, otherwise she would never leave.

We pray that this Shavuot will be a celebration of embracing Torah, not only of holding it, but making it an intimate part of our lives. With Torah as our guide, we will surely be blessed.

Chag Sameyach.

May you be blessed.