The Gift of Shavuot

Click here for Hebrew text.

Shavuot‘s Sefirah is Gevurah. Gevurah is understood as God’s mode of punishing the wicked and judging humanity in general. It is the foundation of stringency, absolute adherence to the letter of the law, and strict meting out of justice. It is Yitzchak‘s time and the day of giving Torah, (Eruvin 54), “From the mouth of the Gevurah” we heard when the mountain was picked up and held over our heads.

On Shavuot, the Sefirah of Binah shines in its fifty gates within the attribute of Gevurah. An attempt to access Binah‘s light is humbling because she encompasses every combination from Chesed Sheb’Chesed down through Malchut Sheb’Malchud along with one that is beyond these.

So receiving Torah from Gevurah is somewhat like a Hebrew school teacher who hits you on the back of the hand when you did something wrong; not like Pesach where you had chesed chinam, freely bestowed love. You are like a Kindergarten child and God is stripping down the Torah to make it accessible to the small portion of which you may be capable.

We learned that on Shavuot the entire Torah was given, but we also learned that the light of Binah delivered by Gevurah was condensed into ten Commandments, so everybody can relate: 1) Anochi, deal with this, God, a presence. 2) You shall not have other gods, just stick with Hashem, don’t be swayed or distracted. 3) Don’t take the name in vain, what’s in a name(?), but okay. 4) Keep the Shabbos, makes good sense. 5) Honor your mom and dad, really(?), well, if you say so, will do our best. 6) Don’t murder, ok. 7) Don’t commit adultery, Check.  8) Don’t steal, Yes, feels wrong. 9) Don’t bear false witness, 10) Don’t covet, we have done this; we will do our best. That’s the way it is given, condensed into the ten and, the Shechinah was also condensed.  She usually flies all around creation but for an instant on Shavuot she is focused between the two staves of the ark, and gives revelations to us.

And also the word Atzeret, (in the Talmud, Shavuot‘s nickname), points to restrictions, condensing. Atzeret teaches that the whole holiday is condensed onto a single day. As full as a seven day Chag, like Pesach, like Sukkot, it should have been as long as these, but it all happens just on a single day (and two in the diaspora). (It was seven in ancient times because you could bring your sacrifices for a week even though it was only one day due to the big backlog, so they said okay, yes, bring your Shavuot sacrifice any day of the seven.)

We who stood together with the mountain being raised over our heads were like Yitzchak who had that knife hanging above. We were facing our deaths when we were placed in this situation. Our souls left our bodies, they flew out of our bodies with every commandment. We died and then the next one came down and it happened again. As we were given a revelation we were dying and then we were somehow not dead, we had continued.

And so the dead are there too because the lines of life and death are lowered. We unite with the souls of King David alav hashalom, with the Baal Shem Tov, nishmato b’eden and with the Ger Tzedek of Vilna, may Hashem avenge his blood for he was sacrificed in the name of his Yiddishkeit and he died in public. So he also was willing to do what he had to do to be given the Torah. All these three were withdrawn on Shavuot into the body of the King with the kiss of His mouth, Yitbarach. (It is not a kiss that we want to just walk over to, and say, “give me that kiss baby. Come on, plant a big one on me;” not that kind of a thing; a heavy duty thing.) We have to be prepared to die, to be absorbed into the body of the King, we have come to terms with our mortality and we recognize that we need to move into actions to serve that King and this may or may not be in accord with selfish best interests because ultimately the revelation is something that’s going to guide where it goes.

And so, one can say: I believe with complete faith that Hashem Yitbarach is above and beyond time and space in the eternal present. Revelation continues and is ongoing. On this sixth of Sivan 5773, we will be given a new revelation, one which we were never given before. He gives the Torah. He is still saying “Anochi” and “lo yihiyeh l’cha” in a single utterance. “Give your full attention to Me. If you see that there is something which is not Me, ignore that.” We might be inclined to turn our backs, to deny it, to get far away from it because we don’t want to feel like we will die, it’s scary; we don’t want to try to aspire to something of which we are so unable to even begin to approach; we want to just live. But with “anochi” “V”lo yihiyeh l’cha“, there’s nowhere to run because the only place you could run is to the elohim acherim / other options, and you mustn’t do this.

The revelation comes in such a way that every single generation is able to hear God’s word anew according to the time and place where they are, (e.g., in a recent time and place, the revelation has us with new technologies that can determine if there is a blood spot in an egg and this enters into the discussions about halachah.)  And we accept upon ourselves the setting of boundaries of the fragrance of the Torah to overcome our inclinations and to give delight to our Creator. The fragrance, the joy of it: Out of this whole business, so bleak, so stern, but then the fragrance, that little tavlin makes it all possible, like an itch you want to scratch, because if the tavlin weren’t there, there would be nothing for us to feel good about, to give that delight our Creator wants, (but did we even have a choice?)

Freely translated by Gabbai Seth Fishman

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