Bamidbar & Shavuot

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Shavuot - The Time of...

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In our prayer liturgy, we refer to Shavuot as “The time of the giving of our Torah.” Although we associate the festival of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah, the Torah itself refers to Shavuot as the “Festival of Weeks,” a time to bring the first special wheat offering from the new crops.

How, then, do our Rabbis deduce that Shavuot is “The time of the giving of our Torah”? The Torah states that the Jewish people reached the Sinai Desert in the third month of their exodus out of Egypt “…on that very day.” Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai, and God instructed him about preparations the Jewish people needed to make for the revelation of God (which would take place a few days later). The simple way to understand our tradition is that on the sixth day of the month of Sivan (which corresponds to the fiftieth day after Pesach, the Exodus), a divine revelation took place—God spoke the first two of the Ten Statements (often mistakenly referred to as the Ten Commandments) to the entire nation. The nation became frightened and the last eight of the Ten Statements were,  therefore, spoken only to Moshe.

Subsequently, Moshe ascended upon Mt. Sinai whereby God taught him all the Mitzvoth and their details. Forty days later, Moshe descended Mt. Sinai with the Ten Statements engraved on stone.

In summary, the historical significance of that day is that God uttered the Ten Statements in the context of national divine revelation. Shavuot would more accurately be described as “The day of the revelation of the Ten Statements.” Why, then, does our tradition view this day as the day of the giving of the Torah? Rav Sa’adia Gaon wrote (around 1,100 years ago) that all 613 commandments are rooted in one of the Ten Statements. The Ten Commandments contain the essential principles of the entire Torah and are, therefore, considered the entire Torah. This is one explanation of why we call this day “The time of the giving of our Torah.”

I would suggest another explanation. The Torah, at its core, is God communicating His instructions to humanity. Torah means teaching, and the giving of the Torah entails God teaching Torah to human beings. This was the first national revelation of God to an entire nation, communicating His true laws. We do not view the Torah as an ancient document with instructions that were set forth historically. When we study Torah, we are not reading ancient laws and lessons. We are, in fact, communicating with God in the present moment. Perhaps this is the reason we call Shavuot “The time of the giving of our Torah,” because this was the first national Torah instruction. It was the beginning of an ongoing process of God’s communicating His divine will to humankind. Let us strengthen our Torah study and, in doing so, relive the Sinai experience every day of our lives.