Shavuot: Why Doesn't the Torah Celebrate the Revelation on Mt. Sinai?
Shavuot is a yom tov (festival) that is celebrated as Z’man Matan Torateinu – “The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.” The entire theme of the celebration is ‘Torah.’ The custom of eating dairy food is explained as being either because Torah is compared to milk or in order to commemorate the fact that when the Jews got the Torah they needed to learn how to observe the dietary laws and until then had to make do with dairy food.
There is a custom of staying up all night studying Torah in preparation for receiving the Torah first thing in the morning then davening at dawn and reading the Torah portion in Exodus that describes events at Mount Sinai and God giving the Aseret Hadibrot often translated as “the Ten commandments”. These customs leave a vivid and deep impression as to the nature and significance of Shavuot as a festival celebrating Torah and revelation.
Indeed this would have been the beginning and end of the story, had the Torah included in any of the six places that it mentions the festival, a mere three words, that we are all so familiar with — Z’man Matan Torateinu – “The time of the giving of our Torah. For that matter, had the Torah concluded the chapter describing the giving of the Torah as it does with Pesach (Exodus 12) that we are to celebrate this occasion in all future generations, the meaning of Shavuot would have been clear. Nevertheless, the Torah makes no mention of any connection between Shavuot and the Sinai revelation.
In fact not only doesn’t the Torah mention that Shavuot is a celebration of Torah, it actually describes Shavuot very differently. Fortunately, this gives us a historical window into the evolving nature of Shavuot, forcing us to think more deeply about the meaning of the festival and the celebration of Torah.
Notwithstanding the historical-critical answer (i.e. that the meaning of the holiday has evolved over time), over the years, I have collected seven different answers or what may be more accurately described as approaches that provide insightful ideas on how we can derive meaning from this tension between the way we celebrate Shavuot today and the way in which it is described in the Torah. This year, with the launching of TheTorah.com/ Project TABS, I would like to supplement these with an eighth approach that speaks to the heart of the mission of TABS.
One of my favorite stories in Nevi’im (Prophets) is the story of Eliyahu (Elijah) at Mount Sinai/Horeb (1 Melachim 19). (In fact it was one of the reasons we named our youngest son Eliyahu.) Following the events on Mt. Carmel, where Eliyahu challenges the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to a contest to see whose God will respond to their sacrifice with a miraculous fire, the people acknowledge that the “Lord alone is God” helping Eliyahu to slaughter all the prophets of Baal.
Queen Jezebel, however, is unimpressed. She sends a message to Eliyahu that she is going to kill him as he killed the prophets of Baal. Frightened, Eliyahu flees for his life into the wilderness. Feeling like a failure, he prays to God that he may die. It is at this point that an angel provides him some food giving him the strength to take a forty day and forty night journey to the mountain of God at Horeb, also known (in a different tradition) as Mt Sinai.
At the mountain where we received the the Torah, the word of God appears to Eliyahu and asks him, (1 Kings 19:9-10):
וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, מַה לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ? וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת, כִּי עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ, וְאֶת-נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב; וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי, וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת-נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ.
“Why are you here, Eliyahu?” He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken the covenant, torn down your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life”
God tells Eliyahu to exit the cave where he is now and stand on the mountain before the Lord (19:11-12).
וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ, לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה. וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה.
And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound. (an alternative translation, ‘the sound of a thin silence’ – its exact translation is a well known enigma)
Following this revelation, God asks Eliyahu again, “Why are you here, Eliyahu?” Eliyahu repeats his original words, implying that God should act zealously with the Israelites; he fails to internalize the message of the revelation. God then informs Eliyahu that he should appoint Elisha to succeed him as a prophet.
In his zeal, Eliyahu goes back to Mt Sinai–the place where God revealed himself to the Israelites. This return to Horeb implies a critique of the Israelites for not maintaining the covenant with God. After all, the Torah warns us in Deuteronomy (4:9-10),
רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֙ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֙ח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר־רָא֣וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וּפֶן־יָס֙וּרוּ֙ מִלְּבָ֣בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּ֑יךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֥ם לְבָנֶ֖יךָ וְלִבְנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיךָ׃ י֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֙ר עָמַ֜דְתָּ לִפְנֵ֙י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ֘ בְּחֹרֵב֒ בֶּאֱמֹ֙ר יְהוָ֜ה אֵלַ֗י הַקְהֶל־לִי֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְאַשְׁמִעֵ֖ם אֶת־דְּבָרָ֑י אֲשֶׁ֙ר יִלְמְד֜וּן לְיִרְאָ֣ה אֹתִ֗י כָּל־הַיָּמִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֙ר הֵ֤ם חַיִּים֙ עַל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וְאֶת־בְּנֵיהֶ֖ם יְלַמֵּדֽוּן׃
But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your minds as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your childrens’ children: The day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that the may learn to revere Me as long as they live on earth, and may so teach their children.
If Eliyahu raises a legitimate critique, how do we understand God’s response? How are we to understand the revelatory experience that God conjures up for Eliyahu? And what is the signifcance of קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה – a soft murmuring sound?
It would seem that by reproducing some of the effects and pyrotechnics of the revelation on Mt Sinai, God does acknowledge Eliyahu’s critique. Yet at the same time, God demonstrates to Eliyahu that God can no longer be found in the supernatural form of revelation, thus Eliyahu should not expect God to punish Israel for their misdeeds. In turn, there is a קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה – a soft murmuring sound. Even with the exact meaning unclear, it is clear that it is a subtle, non miraculous sound, a wordless revelation from ‘Sinai’ –possibly even a revelation with no sound at all!
It is this approach to the covenant of Sinai that Eliyahu should be using to reach the Israelites. However, Eliyahu, whose modus operandi is bringing down miraculous fire on Mt Carmel, doesn’t seem to be able to fully grasp this approach and God removes him from leadership.
There is a well known axiom about the celebration of the festivals: We do not celebrate the past but the present. When we sit at the seder night it is not only about God having taken Israel out of Egypt more than three thousand years ago. Rather, as we say in the Haggadah, “The Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed not only our fathers from Egypt, but He redeemed us with them as well.” We use the story of the exodus from Egypt to experience redemption in the present.
Accordingly, I would like to suggest the following perspective on why God did not instruct us in the Torah to celebrate the revelation of the Torah on Mt Sinai. As we learn from the story of Eliyahu, Mt Sinai was a one-time event; it is not an experience that we can reconstruct or an approach to revelation that is demanded of us, consequently it is not an event that can be celebrated in the present.
The story of Eliyahu is said to have taken place around two thousand nine hundred years ago, a mere few hundred years after the traditional date of the Israelites receiving the Torah on Mt Sinai. Already by then, there was an understanding that God is no longer in the fire of Sinai but in the “soft murmuring sound.”
Fast forwarding to our generation in the twenty-first century, living in a world that is dominated by science and technology. Irrespective of what did or did not happen, can God really expect us to relate to Torah as a revelation of fire and thunder on a mountain in the wilderness? Or, does God wish us to rise to the challenge of being able to hear the revelation of Torah in the natural but not-less profound medium of the “soft murmuring sound”?
It with this mission in mind that I embarked on founding TheTorah.com / Project TABS. It is my prayer that TheTorah.com / Project TABS provides an approach to God, Torah and Judaism akin to the revelation experienced by Eliyahu with the words קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה a soft murmuring sound.
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May 7, 2013
April 5, 2020
Rabbi David D. Steinberg is the co-founder and director of Project TABS. He learned in Manchester Yeshiva, Gateshead Yeshiva, and Mir Yeshiva. Steinberg took the Ner Le’Elef Rabbinical Outreach training course and moved to Huntington, NY to work as an outreach rabbi for the Mesorah Center. In 2007 he joined Aish Hatorah NY as a Programs Director, managing their Yeshiva in Passaic and serving as a rabbi in their Executive Learning program.
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