Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shavuot - שבועות

Shavuot is a festival that goes by many names. Known variously as Atzeret, Chag Habikkurim, Zman Matan Torateinu, Chag Kaztzir and Shavuot, it has many dimensions which can be explored and interpreted in differing ways. Previously, I have looked at the relevance of the name Chag Habikkurim, (a highly recommended read if you have an extra five minutes,) and this year I plan on exploring the connection between the names Zman Matan Torateinu and Shavuot.

The underlying question behind this D'var Torah is simple: the festival of Shavuot is known primarily for one thing – the giving of the Torah. But the name that refers to this, Zman Matan Torateinu, is not actually to be found anywhere in the Torah. We only refer to this festival that way in our prayers. Nowhere can we find a biblical source for this name. On the other hand, we routinely call this festival by the name Shavuot, which means 'weeks'. Problem is, the weeks that we are referring to are the previous 7 weeks during which religious orthodox Jews are careful to count the Omer. Why are we referring to something in the past?

In the Yalkiut Lekach Tov, it is written that Rav Elyah Lopian poses the first part to this question in his sefer, Lev Eliyahu. There, he asks how is it that the Torah doesn't refer to this festival as Zman Matan Torateinu, but rather as Shavuot?

The answer may be drawn from a famous teaching in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). In the sixth chapter, we read, "שהתורה נקנית בארבעים ושמונה דברים/ That the Torah is acquired in 48 qualities." The text there then goes on to outline each one of these 48 qualities. Rav Lopian explains that the terminology "the Torah is acquired" teaches us that Torah isn't simply something that is ours – we must be active in our pursuit of it. We must acquire Torah, it is not ours by right.

An intriguing aspect to the two names Zman Matan Torateinu and Shavuot is that while one is that both are defined by time [1]. Zman Matan Torateinu literally means "The time of the giving of our Torah," and Shavuot means "Weeks". But there's a major difference between the two names; while the former is less subject to time (Torah is an eternal blessing, one that is unaffected by the passage of time,) the latter refers to seven very specific weeks.

To answer the question above, we must refer to the historical chain of events that led up to the giving of the Torah. As we know, the Jews were living in exile in Egypt prior to the giving of the Torah. They had sunk to the 49th level of impurity and, by the grace of God, were whisked out of Egypt in the nick of time. But although the Jews were then on course to receive the Torah, they could not do so straight away. 50 days elapsed between the date of the exodus itself and the giving of the Torah. Why was this? The answer is simple and fits in perfectly with the quote from Pirkei Avot, above: they had to acquire the Torah so that when it was "given" to them on Shavuot, they had already earned it to some extent. The Jews took each day as a step in building up, ascending 48 levels. On the 49th day, they went over their work in the biggest revision session the world had ever seen, and then on the 50th day, we received the Torah. (We failed the exam, but that's another story!)

Having connected the two names, it could well be that the reason why the Torah doesn't refer to Shavuot by the name of Zman Matan Torateinu is because we could only call it that after having been through the essential cleansing and rebuilding period of the seven weeks (Shavuot) before it. When the Torah refers to Shavuot, it also refers to the giving of the Torah at the same time. Only through the preceding Shavuot could we reach that final goal of receiving the Torah

Wishing you a Chag Sameach

[1] Idea found here: http://www.meaningfullife.com/torah/holidays/9a/The_Three_Names_of_Shavuot.php

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