Standing at Sinai


Shavuot falls on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan and is observed on the sixth and seventh days in the Diaspora. In our liturgy we refer to it as z’man matan torateinu (the time/season of the giving of our Torah), yet in the Torah itself no explicit association of Shavuot with the receiving of Torah is made. 

In the Torah, Shavuot is referred to as an agricultural holiday, one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot). In Sh’mot (Exodus) 23:16 it is referred to as Chag Hakatzir, the feast of the harvest, while in B’midbar (Numbers) 28:26 it’s also referred to as Yom Habikurim, the day of the first fruits. The name Shavuot itself means “weeks” because Shavuot occurs essentially seven weeks after Passover. 

Certain numbers have great significance in our tradition.  The number eight, though less thought of as such, is one of them. It is a number often associated with transcending nature.  Among the first occurrences of eight that people will think of is the holiday of Hanukkah which is an eight-day holiday popularly associated with the miracle of one day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days. Another common association with eight is Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision – a connection with the Eternal One that also transcends nature and occurs on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life. 

Though neither Josephus nor Philo, both of whom lived at the end of the second Temple period, related Shavuot with the Revelation at Mount Sinai and the receiving of Torah, by the time of our Talmudic sages, the connection was central to the holiday’s meaning. The Revelation at Sinai is probably the most transcendent moment in the Torah. According to our tradition, when did it occur?  After seven cycles of seven! In other words, it occurred at the beginning of the eighth cycle. 

One of my favorite midrashim depicts Moses up on Sinai wondering what is taking God so long to write the Torah, when he sees the Blessed Holy One attaching crowns to the letters.  Moses asks what’s delaying the Master of the Universe. The Holy One tells him that in the future there will arise a man, Akiva ben Yosef, who will expound mounds and mounds of halakhot (Jewish laws) on every crown. Moses wants to see this amazing person. The Holy One transports him to the eighth row of Akiva’s house of study!  Moses doesn’t understand what Akiva is teaching, which he finds quite dispiriting. Then he hears Akiva’s students ask, “from where (Akiva) do you learn this?” Akiva responds that it’s halakhah that Moses received at Sinai! The midrash goes on, but for our purposes, this is enough. 

The holy chutzpah of the Midrashist is breathtaking. It both allows for evolution in the tradition and sees it all as going back to a primordial revelatory experience. This brings to mind the saying in Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of our Ancestors) 6:2 that every day a Divine Voice (Bat Kol) emanates from Khorev (another Biblical name for Sinai). This reading of the tradition perceives that the experience of revelation, which is the sacred myth of the experience at Sinai, is perennially possible.  We can always wake up as our ancestor Jacob did and realize “akhen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh” (indeed the Eternal One is in this place) (Genesis 28:16) – which is every place. 

How we understand revelation, which is what Shavuot has primarily been about since the dawn of the rabbinic era, is a central part of our relationship to Judaism and a factor in determining which expression of Judaism resonates most for us. Among the innovations of the kabbalistic community in 16th century Tzfat (in northern Israel) was the Tikkun of the (first) night of Shavuot, that is the custom of staying up all night studying various classic texts of our tradition. A couple of years ago at our Tikkun at Temple Beth El in Fall River, we studied the ways different influential Jewish thinkers understood revelation. 

There are many ways of understanding revelation. For some people, it is an historic occasion that occurred approximately 3,300 years ago. The farther we are from it, the weaker our consciousness and connection to it. I prefer to emphasize the voices in our tradition that encourage our daily relationship to a living Presence. I find this implied when the Torah speaks of receiving some mitzvah “today” – i.e., every day and any day – it can come alive for us.  I go back to the opening Mishnah of Pirkei Avot that begins by saying Moshe kibel Torah miSinai (literally, Moses received Torah from Sinai), that is, Moses received Torah (literally Teaching with a capital “T”).  It doesn’t say “et haTorah” (the Torah).  It feels more open-ended in the formulation in Pirkei Avot

We can still bring new Torah, new insights into the world.  One of my favorite teachings regarding revelation also goes back to 16th century Tzfat, to Isaac Luria, the Ari (1534 -1572) who taught that every soul has its own letter in the Torah, which I take to mean that every person has the potential to bring unique insight into Torah and new Torah into the world.  May we all merit learning from each other’s Torah, as it says, once again in Pirkei Avot (4:1):  “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone!

MARK ELBER is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Fall River, Massachusetts.