April 13, 2024
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Shavuot

Shavuot, the anniversary of Hashem’s revelation to Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai, is never identified as such in the Torah. Rather, its significance is always defined in agricultural terms. It is called “Chag HaBikkurim,” the Festival of the First Fruits, it is called “Chag HaKatzir,” the Holiday of the Harvest and it is called, simply, “Shavuot,” marking the end of the seven-week counting period following the Omer offering. Although the Torah gives no reason for this “omission,” the Kli Yakar (Vayikra 23: 16) suggests that there was a reluctance to mark only one day as a day of Torah for fear that people would mistakenly limit their study of Torah to but one day each year (which is also, he adds, why Rosh Hashanah is never described as a day of teshuvah).

Nonetheless, our rabbis showed no such reluctance, calling this day “Z’man Matan Torateinu,” the Time of the Giving of the Torah, and based both today’s Torah and haftarah readings on that very theme. As the Torah reading from Parshat Yitro (Shemot 19-20) describes the great “theophany,” the divine revelation, to Israel in the desert, so our haftarah describes the personal theophany experienced by Yechezkel Hanavi in the golah, the exile.

Nonetheless, we are rightfully troubled by this choice (even though it is clearly established in the Mishnah) because there is another rabbinic tradition stating that we never choose this first chapter of Yechezkel, the “ma’aseh merkava,” as a haftarah—undoubtedly due to the view of Chazal that its teachings cannot be truly understood except by the rare few, and should therefore never be taught publicly.

HaRav Yehuda Shaviv suggests that perhaps this selection, with its parallels to the desert revelation, was chosen to drive home the point to a nation in exile that, although ma’amad Har Sinai was a never-to-be-repeated phenomenon, there would be rare moments in history when “sparks” of this divine revelation will illuminate and inspire outstanding individuals with prophetic insights—even if they are forced to live in the galut.

We do not experience theophanies—or do we? Perhaps we do not have visions of Hashem’s throne or of angels attending to God on high. We are not granted entry into Hashem’s throne in heaven, nor do we merit visions of it. But we do have moments. We have moments when we feel God’s presence hovering over us. We have experiences in a beit knesset during Yom Kippur tefillah, or hearing our child say his first words or even watching our granddaughter receive her doctorate. We have had collective moments in 1948, in 1967 and, yes, in 2020. Indeed, we do have moments! And it is these moments that we must remember and cherish.

The Kli Yakar begins his aforementioned commentary by stating that the Torah desired that we see it every day as being fresh and new—as if it had just been given to us then (see Rashi in Devarim 6:6). One can argue that our relationship with HaKadosh Boruch Hu is the same. That we remember the moments when God seemed so close and thereby renew our relationship with Him each day.

The ability of the Jewish nation to survive 2,000 years of a cruel exile is a story of ongoing miracles. But it is also the story of the miraculous commitment of a persecuted people to their God and to their study and observance of their Torah. It is a remarkable story of a nation that refreshed and rekindled those relationships so that they always felt them to be new.

It has been the sparks of Sinai and the vision at Nehar Kevar that were granted only to the few that have illuminated our way throughout the centuries of darkness.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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