We have finally reached our destination. For the last fifty days we have been counting up in anticipation to the great day of Shavuos. We all know that this is one of the three main festivals on the Jewish Calendar, and arguably it is the hardest one to appreciate since by the time you get into it, the day is over.
We have two beautiful customs on this festival which we don’t have by any of our other festivals. One custom is to stay up all night learning the Torah in order to show our tremendous love for Torah and our recognition of the value of this awesome gift. The second custom is to eat dairy foods, something we usually don’t do on a festival. But aside from eating cheesecake and learning all night what is the deeper significance and the essence of this great day? What are we really celebrating? On the surface one might say well obviously we are celebrating the fact that we accepted and received the Torah, what is the question?
The issue is as follows. In the Gemara in Shabbos1 expounds on the meaning of the following verses
“And it was on the third day as it was morning, there were thundering sounds and lightening and a thick cloud over the mountain and the sound of the shofar was very strong and the entire nation within the encampment was trembling with fear. And Moshe took the nation out towards G-d from the encampment and they stood firmly under the mountain2.”
Says the Gemara what does this mean that they stood firmly under the mountain? This comes to teach you that G-d held the mountain directly over their heads and said to them, “if you accept my Torah good and if not then right here will be your grave”. The Gemara continues “Rabbah said that from this verse we can claim that the entire Torah is not binding on the Jewish people because it was accepted initially under extreme duress”. Ravah answers no Rabbah’s claim is not valid because the Jewish people reaccepted the Torah out of love in the days of Achashveirosh.”
There are some fundamental questions regarding the meaning of this Gemara. Firstly, the Ramban asks that the whole Gemara doesn’t make any sense. On the one hand if you say that there was a legitimate claim of duress in the initial acceptance of the Torah then why do we see that historically the Jews were held accountable immediately and continually from the time of Mount Sinai until the days of Achashveirosh? On the other hand if you say that they were still punished because they were doing something they knew G-d told them not to do then what was the whole need at the time of Mount Sinai to establish that the basis for our responsibility to keep the Torah was because of our acceptance of a formal covenant, something that is explicit in the verses?
The Ramban answers that the truth is that the Gemara is actually teaching us an amazing point of depth. Even though technically the Jews could have made such a claim of duress, they never actually did until much later in history when they were already in exile and therefore the initial covenant was totally binding in all ways. In fact they said we will do and we will understand and never changed that formal acceptance of the covenant with G-d. When they were brought into the land, Moshe reiterated to them that their ability to be sustained as a nation within the land of Israel was based on their performance and strict observance of the commandments of the Torah. They willingly accepted this as well. For this reason they were held accountable from the time of the giving of the Torah until and including when they came into the land and established themselves as a nation there.
The reality of this covenant proved very challenging to them, however. When they were unable to maintain their level of dedication to the Torah hundreds of years after coming into the land, the result was exile. Only at that point do we find in the words of the prophet Ezekiel3 “And that which has arisen in your spirit shall not come about that you say let us be like the other nations of the world and the families of the earth to worship wood and stone” The Gemara in Sanhedrin4 expounds on the verse that the Jews said to Ezekiel our master a servant whose master has sold him can he further claim against the servant that this servant has wronged him? Thus we see that the Jews did express a certain claim of clemency from the binding element of the Torah based on the original duress that it was given. This took place only at the point of the Babylonian exile and for this reason the Jews realized that before they came back to the land in the days of Ezra they needed to renew their commitment to Torah, which they did willingly and out of great love for G-d after all of the miracles and salvations that He had done for them in Babylonia and Persia.
Secondly, Tosafos on the spot asks the following question:
“Even though one must ask the fundamental question that we know that it says in the verse before the Mount Sinai revelation “And Moshe came and he called to the elders of the nation and he placed before them all of these words that G-d had commanded. And all of the nation answered together saying ‘everything that G-d has said we will do’, and Moshe relayed the words of the nation to G-d” (Exodus 19:7-8). And also there is another verse that is even more effusive “and Moshe took the book of the covenant and he read it in the ears of the nation and they said ‘everything that G-d has said we will do and we will understand” (Exodus 24:7), thus indicating that the nation expressed clear and genuine interest in accepting the Torah before G-d held the mountain over their heads, nevertheless it was necessary for G-d to hold the mountain over their heads because He knew that at the moment at which they would see the presence of the Almighty appearing on the mountain within fire they would be so afraid and awestruck that they would naturally recoil and regret having put themselves into that situation.”
With all of this in mind let us try and revisit our original question. We certainly understand that the festival of Shavuos is a joyous one, and we celebrate the giving of the Torah which happened on this day. However, when we start to look deeper into the exact circumstances of the event of the giving of the Torah there are some fundamental questions. The Gemara says G-d held the mountain over their heads and even though the reason G-d did it was to prevent the Jews from backing out when they would see the awesomeness of His presence, and not because they didn’t want the Torah, nevertheless this still does create a certain degree of duress. On the other hand the Jews still entered into the entire event willingly and though they may have been able to claim duress they never really did. After all is said and done though, it seems as if the joy of the event from this point of view is a bit anticlimactic at best, and if so again what is the big celebration? Perhaps this question really points us to the idea that there must be more to this whole story which we haven’t yet exposed.
The Maharal of Prague in his Sefer Tiferes Israel Chapter 32 deals with this whole topic and offers an extremely important insight into the depth of Shavuos which will also serve as a bridge to understanding the missing piece of the story we talked about above:
“Rather that which G-d held the mountain over their heads was for one singular purpose. It was to take away the pretense that the Jews would be able to claim that WE of our own volition decided to accept the Torah and in turn had WE decided at Mount Sinai that WE didn’t want it we could have just as well decided not to accept it. This is a false pretense. It also is a pretense that by force causes one to reduce the virtues and value of the very Torah itself. Because the Torah is the instrument of creation, and the entire creation is dependent upon it. And if not for the covenant of Torah then G-d would return the entire creation back to nothingness. It is for this reason alone that the acceptance of Torah should not be dependent on the free will of the Jewish people rather it needed to be something that G-d forced and obligated them to receive since without the Torah being accepted in the world, the world would otherwise have to be returned to nothingness….Ultimately the whole experience at Mount Sinai and the glory of the event, and the force and necessity that the Jews felt to accept the Torah was to expose this much more fundamental reality of Torah in the world.”
Here is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, if you will. In a G-d centered world does it make any sense that the world reaching its ultimate purpose and perfection should be something that is teetering and hinged entirely on chance or luck? Would it make sense for G-d to have created an entire universe for one unified and integrated purpose and leave that entire endeavor completely up for grabs whether His plan will be achieved or fulfilled? This manner of giving the Torah by force served to expose the answer to this question – a definitive no. From G-d’s point of view it wouldn’t make any sense at all to allow the purpose for which He created the entire universe, and the plan of where it is all heading to be left up to the coincidental free will choice of a group of people at some point in history. Therefore He gave the Torah in the manner of force and obligation.
To the tremendous praise of the Jewish people, they were chosen to be the vehicles through whom this universal message was going to be conveyed to the world. Free will exists, it is real, but not to the extent of whether or not the purpose of the world will ultimately be fulfilled. That is not a matter of free choice. The only element of free choice within that broader plan is what role if any WE will play in it.
The celebration of Shavuos is therefore much deeper than we originally may have thought. Because G-d gave the Torah in the manner in which He did we are confident that the world will reach its purpose and fruition. We can celebrate that reality. We are also extremely humbled and eternally appreciative that we as Jews have been chosen to be the carriers of this message and that if we ultimately choose to embrace this way of life and this mission we will have an even greater sense of meaning and pleasure for having joyfully carried this responsibility and become partners in bringing about the ultimate purpose in the world. We can also celebrate this role that we play in the process. Perhaps greater than all we can celebrate the opportunity that Torah provides us with, that ultimate potential and the guidance about how to complete the universe and its intended purpose.
The difficulty we have in our day and age with this whole approach is it kind of takes a way an aspect of the experience of Shavuos that we are generally so fond of embellishing. Much talk and discourse centers around the amazing fact that the Jews said “we will do and we will understand”. Some people even walk away from the whole festival with an inflated sense of entitlement. Somehow the thought process becomes, “because we chose to make the covenant with G-d through Torah, therefore we deserve some unique sort of rewards and privileges. We become overtaken with our own greatness for having been the only nation fearless enough, trusting enough, and perhaps even crazy enough to have accepted G-d’s offer. Perhaps what drives us to this somewhat distorted perspective on the Mount Sinai experience is the theme of entitlement that surrounds us and that pervades every aspect of our surrounding culture.
Today if we look around there is a palpable sense that every human being is some how by the very fact of his own existence, with no conditions or strings attached, fully entitled to have the most perfect life in this world and the next and any scenario or situation, any other person or entity that causes the slightest blemish in that is immediately defined as evil and becomes the aggressor and the enemy, unfairly trying to rob me of what I am entitled to in this world. This false sense of entitlement pervades every member of the society and has unfortunately managed to creep its way into modern Jewish thinking in many circles.
This is of course not only against what the Torah teaches us, it can be very damaging to the well being of a person and of course leads to serious errors in judgment, behavior, and character. But perhaps worse than anything else it blinds us from being able to appreciate the simple truth of what the uniqueness of our covenant with G-d is as Jews. We are not bound to keep the Torah because we chose it and we could have just as easily not chosen it. We are bound to keep the Torah because G-d designed the world in such a way that Torah must be carried and lived by human beings which He created. He nurtured and developed an ancient people who exhibited qualities that made them strong candidates for this mission and took them out of Egypt for one purpose and one purpose only, as the verse says
”And G-d said to Moshe I will be with you and this will be your sign that I have sent you, when you will take this nation out of Egypt you will serve me [G-d] on this mountain5.”
Let me not be misunderstood. It is a great and everlasting merit that even though G-d wasn’t really willing to take no for an answer in terms of the Jewish people accepting the Torah, we still said with great desire “we will do and we will hear”. We certainly made the greatest imaginable effort to show our willingness to do what G-d had planned to do anyway. We must remember that what makes this nation so special is that we have that natural willingness to recognize and fulfill the will of G-d. But that great quality is not the foundation upon which our covenant with G-d was forged. Ultimately we were taken and chosen for this task and we had no other legitimate option. Our celebration again derives from the joy of knowing that the world will make it to its designed purpose and we will be partners in bringing that about.
With this insight in place perhaps we can understand an oddity. The Chumash never once openly mentions any connection between the festival of Shavuos and the giving of the Torah. By tradition we know they fell out on the same day, but from the point of view of the verses in Chumash Shavuos is an agricultural festival based on the joy of the harvest and more specifically the bringing of the first fruits of the trees. Let us examine for one moment the joy of the bringing of the first fruits. Imagine being a farmer. How would we describe the specific form of joy that we would feel when we would see the first fruits emerge and ultimately harvest them? What is the great joy? A fruit growing on a tree is a very natural thing. Every year we watch the fruits of the trees we have planted emerge and take shape. What is the exact element of joy if after all it is a purely natural thing? Do we experience joy when we see the sun rise or the moon wax and wane? Fruits grow because they were designed to grow, it is totally natural, it is just what fruits and for that matter trees do. A fruit tree doesn’t sit there and make a decision whether or not to produce fruit this season or not. Perhaps one could suggest that we are so joyful when we see the first fruits emerge because we know that environmental factors could have hindered the growth of these fruits but they didn’t. However, I would suggest that the fascination with the growing of fruits, and specifically when the first ones emerge from the tree each season is that we now see the unfolding and the emerging of that aspect of reality which we knew was there inherently but had not yet been revealed to our eyes just yet. There is a certain pleasure and a confidence; an affirmation that we feel when the fruits emerge because it strengthens our conviction that what was designed and expected actually did in fact come about.
With this we can perhaps understand a deeper insight into the connection between the Festival of the Giving of the Torah and the Festival of the first fruits. Our main joy and cause for celebration with regards to the Giving of the Torah was the fact that we now knew with confidence that the purpose G-d created the world for was going to be fulfilled. We saw then, so to speak the emergence of G-d’s first fruits. The innate plan and purpose that was beforehand hidden within creation finally started to emerge.
There is a famous Midrash that says that the whole reason G-d created the world was for the sake of the mitzvah of bringing the first fruits. In another Midrash an interesting comparison is made. There are three things that are referred to as “reishis” – first, Bikkurim – the first fruits of the tree, Torah – the first of G-d’s ways, and Klal Israel – my son my first born. With what we have learned above it is quite clear that the connection here is that Torah and Klal Israel were paired together to reveal the inherent designed purpose of the world. The first fruits are an exact parallel to this idea in that the joy of the first fruits is precisely the same aspect of joy that was felt when the Jews made a covenant to keep the Torah at Mount Sinai, that of seeing the designed purpose emerge and become revealed until the point where you see and know that it will reach its full fruition. May Hashem help us to see the beauty of the emergence of G-d’s ultimate plan in the world through Torah. May He grant us the strength and the courage to not only be passive observers of this process but partners in it. May His joy be our joy and may we speedily see the ultimate fulfillment of the purpose of this world “And it will be on that day that Hashem will be one and His name will be one!”