Friday, August 18, 2017

Shavuot 5777

All of our Biblical chagim have both a historical and an agricultural component. As I recently wrote, the agricultural significance of these holidays is lost on us city slickers. We Jews haven’t been famous for our farming for quite awhile, at least in the Diaspora. Thank God, our connection to the soil has been reestablished in the modern State of Israel. But even there the start-up nation is replacing the kibbutz kountry. We’re also losing our agricultural connection to the seasons. When I was growing up you could tell the season by the produce department in the local supermarket. No more! Today we have fruits shipped from hemisphere to hemisphere so that we have luscious summer fruits all year round. Bearing all this in mind, it’s important to understand the agricultural connection to Shavuot because the Torah never mentions the amazing historical event of Shavuot. The farming allusion is all we have; therefore, it behooves us to understand it.

When you read the two major sources of the holiday of Shavuot, it’s remarkable that no historical reason is even hinted at. In Leviticus we read: You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the 50th day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord. From your dwelling places you shall bring bread, set aside, two loaves made from two tenths of an ephah (about a bushel); they shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked leavened, the first offering to the Lord (Leviticus 23:16-17), and in Deuteronomy: You shall count seven weeks for yourself; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing crop of barley, you shall begin to count seven weeks. And then you shall perform the Festival of Weeks to the Lord, your God, the donation you can afford to give, according to how the Lord, your God, shall bless you (Deuteronomy 16:9-10). Not a word about, perhaps, the greatest event in human history, the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, the only mass prophetic event ever.

Without a word about revelation, the Torah defines Shavuot in two ways. First, it is celebrated on the 50th day after Pesach. No other date is given. Secondly, it is very connected to grain production. We start to count the Omer from the first cutting of Israel’s winter harvest, namely, barley, and then the actual celebration takes place when we begin reaping the wheat harvest. Because we begin gathering the main life-sustaining crop, we are told to be generous to those who need. Back in Leviticus we are also reminded of the laws for the poor while reaping: leket, gleanings; shichacha, forgotten sheaves; and peah, corners.

The dating of the festival based upon Pesach is relatively easy to explain. The significance of Shavuot can only be understood in the context of Pesach. Receiving the Torah at Sinai was the purpose of the Exodus, and many rabbis count it as the fourth step in the redemption process of Pesach and is connected to the fourth language of redemption (Exodus 6:5-6). This term is v’lakachti, meaning I took you as My people. The celebrations are connected because they are only meaningful when seen as a combined event. The receiving of the Torah on Shavuot gives meaning to the Exodus on Pesach.

But what about the agricultural stuff? Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ob”m, helped to explain this when he described the difference between the katzir term used with Shavuot and the word asif describing Sukkot. He wrote: What is the difference between katzir and asif? Katzir is the first point in the agricultural process at which some sort of usable item emerges from the field. At this stage, the grain has developed to a point where it can begin its humanly controlled processes. However, it is still far from being a finished product. At the time of harvest, much potential has yet to be realized before the time of ingathering (“The Challenges of Accepting the Torah,” delivered Shavuot 1997).

Pesach is basically the time of planting; the results are not yet in our hands. It’s up to God whether there will be produce. Sukkot is the end of the process. It’s time to take stock. But Shavuot is the beginning of the hard work. The first wheat grain is ripening. Wheat becomes bread. The process of taking the raw kernels and turning them into finished bread for the table is the epitome of human endeavor and technology. The later technologies of textiles, mechanized transportation and electronics built on that original experience. It’s no coincidence that the first 11 melachot, or prohibited acts of work on Shabbat, are the process of producing bread from wheat. Making bread is the paradigm of human creative activity.

Now we can apply this back to the Shavuot experience. The giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai was an act of love and kindness and largesse. However, in a greater sense, it was a challenge to the human spirit. God gave us a Written Law, which we must obey. But that’s not the real challenge. The real test is to develop the Oral Law, to adapt God’s law to the lives we live. The Torah is an eternal document; it will never be replaced or become obsolete. However, it must be continually adapted and recalibrated for every age. We must use this written Torah and the Oral Law to understand how to deal with new breakthroughs in medicine and technology.

The epiphany at Sinai is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year we must recommit to the challenge. It’s easy to say, “I accept the prohibition of murder.” It’s not so easy to define when life ends so that a heart donation can be a life-giving gift and not an act of killing the donor. Every year we stand, again, at the foot of the mountain, and vow to discover anew how the Torah guides our lives. No one said it would be easy. Chag sameach!

By Rabbi David Walk

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