Voices from the field

The Weekest Link

By Shalom Orzach

Shavu'ot wheat graphicThe period of counting the Omer should enable us to keep account of time if not ideas. Its climax (Shavu'ot), however, is shrouded in mystery both in terms of its very purpose and when exactly it is supposed to occur. The confusion begins with the well known instruction in Vayikra 23:15 —

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרָת הַשַּׁבָּת.

And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the Shabbat.

The commentators are quick to explain that the term Shabbat rather than meaning Shabbat refers to the Festival (Pesach). And so we begin counting after the first day of the Festival. The major disputes that arose from the enigmatic phrase could have been avoided through less precarious instructions.

Perhaps the use of the term Shabbat is not so much a reference to time but more a state of mind. As detailed in the Ten Commandments in the Book of Shemot and later Devarim, Shabbat becomes the ultimate expression of two foundational ideals: the acceptance of the Divine creation of the world and our freedom from slavery.

The text in Shemot 20:11 reviews the creation story and the directive for resting on the Shabbat:

  .כִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖נַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י עַל־כֵּ֗ן בֵּרַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וַֽיְקַדְּשֵֽׁהוּ

For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.

The second principal in Devarim 5:15 refers to the Exodus from Egypt. This affords the capacity to celebrate freedom and protect others (humans and animals) through giving them the ability to rest:

וְזָֽכַרְתָּ֗ כִּ֣י עֶ֤בֶד הָיִ֨יתָ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֹּצִ֨אֲךָ֜ יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ מִשָּׁ֔ם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָ֖ה וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֑ה עַל־כֵּ֗ן צִוְּךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לַֽעֲשׂ֖וֹת אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת:

And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day:

The capacity to count and celebrate time is contingent on these core precepts. Shavu'ot becomes an outgrowth of the “Morrow of Shabbat." It is about the celebration of our ability to live in time as free people. In all the references to the Festival in the Torah, there is absolutely no allusion or indication that Shavu'ot has anything at all to do with the Receiving of the Torah. Rather it is described as an agricultural Festival as exemplified through its (Torah) names: חג הקציר (Chag HaKatzir, "Festival of the Reaping") and יום הביכורים (Yom HaBikurim, "Festival of the First Fruits"). Agricultural cycles are perhaps the ultimate examples of the wonders of time, as is the other biblical name for the cryptic festival - Shavuot, or Weeks! If we consider this enigma in an even deeper manner, how could the instructions for the date of the festival celebrating the receiving of the Torah be based on concepts that we formally have not yet received?

Looking at them as ideas as opposed to dates, Pesach and Shabbat profoundly convey the rationale, theology, and responsibility of freedom. Abraham Joshua Heschel develops these core ideas symbolized through Shabbat and Pesach in his book The Insecurity of Freedom: “The meaning of freedom is not exhausted by deliberation, decision and responsibility, although it must include all this. The meaning of freedom presupposes an openness to transcendence and man has to be responsive before he can come responsible…”  Later he writes: “The major root of freedom lies in the belief that man, any man is too good to be the slave of another man.”

Emmanuel Levinas also expands on these ideas in his understanding of responsibility, which could be argued parallel Heschel’s approach to freedom. He claims that “transcendence is the spontaneity of responsibility for another person. It is experienced in concrete life and expressed in a host of situations, even before a de facto command is actually received from that other. This curious proposition reflects the much debated meaning of receiving the Torah before knowing what was written in it - נעשה ונשמע ("we will do and we will listen"). Levinas calls this sort of responsiveness the “Good beyond Being.” Responsibility enacts that good, that trace of the infinite.

The title of his book, Difficult Freedom, alludes to a Midrash on the verse in Shemot 32:16

הַ֨לֻּחֹ֔ת מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים הֵ֑מָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤ב אֱלֹהִים֙ ה֔וּא חָר֖וּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת:

And the writing was the writing of God Graven, Charut, on the Tablets:

The Midrash playfully suggests read not Harut graven, but rather Cherut Freedom. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 6:2 expands this idea to state that “you will find no free man save him who is engaged in the study of the Torah.”

At the climax of counting seven weeks, a time of spiritual development accentuated by the Kabbalistic stages and qualities assigned to each day of the Omer, Shavuot becomes a Festival of Cherut, freedom which alludes to and denotes the writings of G-d Cherut, graven, on the Tablets of Torah.   

So it now becomes feasible to reintroduce Shavu'ot as also being זמן מתן תורה ["the (fitting) time for receiving the Torah"]. Being worthy of this moment should not be taken for granted, hence the date and the direct reference is evaded. There is a compelling tension each time we make this journey. By fully embracing these profound principles, we re-merit the drama of Sinai again each year.