Today marks the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. If you read my bulletin article, you know that Shavuot was originally the wheat harvest as well as the harvest of first fruits. However, it is also the day on which we commemorate Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and giving the Torah to the Israelites.
The most interesting part of the portion for me is that it says little about how the Israelites came to accept the Torah. It does say, in Chapter 20 Verse 15, that when the Israelite nation saw “the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking,” they panicked and told Moses that he must serve as their intermediary to God. Moses had to tell the Israelites not to be afraid and that God’s presence will only elevate them. However, in Verse 18 it says “The people kept their distance while Moses entered the mist where the divine was revealed.”
Why are the Israelites fearful of God? A Midrash, found in Sanhedrin 88a, sheds light on this. The Midrash is based off Exodus 19:17, where it states, “The people of Israel stood beneath the mountain.” People being beneath a mountain does not make sense, hence most translators stating instead that they were “at the foot of the mountain.” However, Tractate Sanhedrin interprets this verse literally, that God held Mount Sinai above the Israelites, proclaiming “If you accept the Torah, that is good, but if not, this shall be your grave!” God therefore coerced the Israelites to accept the Torah under threat of death. This adds to why the Israelites would be so afraid of God, as God threatened to kill them should they disobey.
Another take on why the Israelites would have been afraid of God is found in a Midrash from Shemot Rabbah 29:4 where God directly proclaims the first commandment, but the Israelites cannot absorb God’s deep, booming voice, and their souls leave them. The angels revive the Israelites and they try to flee, but finally the angels force them back to Mount Sinai. God says the 2nd Commandment and once again the Israelites’ souls pop out. The angels revive them, and once again they try to flee. When they are brought back to Mount Sinai this time, they beg Moses to tell them the rest of the commandments, which he does. This is not only an explanation for why the Israelites were frightened but also a rationale for why the first two commandments are written in 2nd person and the last eight are written in 3rd person.
Here we have two Midrashim that demonstrate the Israelites’ fear of hearing the 10 commandments or of being given the yoke of the Torah. However, there is another side in the Midrash which demonstrates the Israelites’ desire to accept the Torah. In Deuteronomy 33:20, God said to the Israelites, “I came from Sinai and appeared at Seir and made my presence known at Mount Paran.” This raises the question “Why did God appear at these other places and not just at Sinai?”
In Sifrei Devarim 343, the Midrash on the Book of Deuteronomy, God tried to give the Torah to the children of Esau, who lived in Seir. They asked, “What is written in it?” God said, “You shall not murder.” They replied, “Our essence and the essence of our father is murder, as you can see from Isaac’s blessing to Esau, ‘By your sword you shall live.’” God next tried to give the Torah to the Moabites and the children of Ammon. They asked, “What is in it?” and God replied “You shall not commit adultery.” The Moabites and Ammonites replied, “Our essence is adultery, as you can see from our origin, where Lot’s daughters slept with Lot and gave birth to Ammon and Moav” (I will refer to this story more in-depth tomorrow). God then went to the Ishmaelites to give the Torah. They said, “What is in it?” and God replied “You shall not steal.” They said, “Stealing is our essence, as we see from the description of Ishmael as a wild man.” God tried to give the Torah to each nation, with the same negative result, until God came to Israel, who instead of asking what was in the Torah said the words of Exodus 24:7, “We will do and we will hear,” meaning that they accept the words of the Torah unconditionally, later coming to understand the content of those words.
While from my perspective this Midrash is faulty, both in its categorization of these nations and in assuming that descendants will follow the behavior of their ancestors, it illustrates that sometimes we need to accept something before we can understand its value. We live in a country that prides itself on individualism and personal choice, where people often ask “What’s in it for me?” before they commit to something. I strongly feel that there should be personal meaning in everything that we do, religion included. While yirat shamayim, or fear of God, is an esteemed Jewish value and is emphasized in the first two Midrashim I presented, I feel that adopting religious practices solely out of fear of God, without finding them personally compelling, is not likely to work in the long run.
With that being said, I find the approach of the 3rd Midrash, doing first and understanding later, as having value. Things are sometimes complicated to understand, and sometimes doing leads to understanding. In the modern day it can be difficult to choose to go to synagogue with all of the entertainments and opportunities for leisure, as well as our responsibilities. Today is a weekday, and the fact that each of you has chosen to come to synagogue demonstrates your commitment to following the tradition that you have received. This is not a tradition of fear but rather one of cherishing values you’ve learned to understand.
As we reflect on the giving of the Torah, let us remember past holiday celebrations. I recall going to services with my entire family and eating a festive dairy meal. I also remember staying up all night studying Torah at the Hadar Shavuot Retreat at Camp Ramah Berkshires and in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva, doing morning services as soon as the sun went up. It was invigorating learning with so many young people, although by morning I was so tired that I slept until the afternoon.
What are your Shavuot memories? Did you eat blintzes? Did you do something special to celebrate the giving of the Torah? Did you or your children have confirmation or Hebrew High School Graduation on Shavuot? What did you do special on Shavuot to ensure that it was not forgotten? As Shavuot is a holiday with few rituals, containing no section in the Shulchan Arukh Jewish law code, we need something special to “make it our own”-to make the Torah will be revealed to us each and every year to ensure its continued observance. Hag Sameach.