Shavuot: The Time of the Giving of Our Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shavuot

Shalom from swampy, steamy Swampscott! It’s summertime- on
both the Jewish and American calendars. Tonight ends the 49-
day counting of the omer, leading into the celebration of Shavuot,
or the holiday of “Weeks.” (Since we’ve been counting 7 weeks of
7 days since Pesach.)

Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage holidays (the other two
are Passover and Sukkot), dating back to Biblical times, when
our ancestors would come to Jerusalem to give thanks for
agricultural blessings. On Shavuot, they gave thanks for the first
fruits (well, harvest, not just fruit) of summer. Later, in post-
Biblical times, Shavuot also become known as “Zman Matan
Toratenu,” the “Time of the Giving of Our Torah,” and thus
becomes a bookend to Pesach seven weeks earlier.

Pesach is about leaving Egypt; Shavuot is about being present at
Sinai. The re-enactment of liberation on Pesach is eating matzah
and bitter herbs; the re-enactment of revelation on Shavuot
happens in the synagogue, when we hear the Ten
Commandments read from the bimah during the Torah service.
On Pesach, we remember our liberation; on Shavuot, we
rededicate our freedom to a higher purpose.

One of my favorite teachers of the past century is Rabbi Dessler,
an Orthodox rabbi who taught in England after WWII. Rabbi
Dessler, in one of his lectures on the meaning of the holidays,
reminds us of the midrash (rabbinic teaching), which asks why
the Torah was given way out in the desert, on top of a lonely

The midrash answers: because if Torah were given in any part of
the Land of Israel, the tribe whose territory it was would claim the
Torah belonged to them, and if it were given in any nation, that
nation would claim it as exclusive property. So it was given out in
the desert, which doesn’t belong to any family, clan, tribe, or
nation, and thus becomes the inheritance of anybody who will
learn it.

That’s the midrash, but R. Dessler takes it one step further: he
says (I’m paraphrasing here) that each of us, as an individual, in
order to study Torah and receive its wisdom, has to renounce
any sense of self-interest or desire to make the Torah benefit us
as “property.” We have to be wide open and free of personal
agendas- like the desert wilderness- so that we can hear the
Voice of the Divine speak through the words which our ancestors
have loved and revered for countless generations. We have to be
as expansive as we can be- and then Torah can enter into our
hearts and transform us in ways beyond our imagining.

Torah isn’t a book, in this sense; it’s a spiritual practice where
heart meets text in a communal search for meaning which
includes all previous generations, and which every Jew can
claim as an inheritance and birthright.

Hag Sameach,


PS- if you want to study further, here are two great websites. The
first is a one-page summary of the history and themes of the
holiday; the second is a set of links to articles and explorations
which go into much greater depth, but which can be taken one at
a time.

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