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Torah Sparks

May 30 2009 – 7 Sivan 5769

Annual: Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1074; Hertz p. 810)
Maftir : Numbers 28:26 - 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 932; Hertz p. 696)
Haftarah: Habakuk 3:1 – 19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1326; Hertz p. 1032)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Reading

Each Israelite farmer was to set aside one tenth of his annual produce and bring it, or its monetary equivalent, to Jerusalem as a tithe. He was to use it for a celebratory feast in the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the seven-year agricultural cycle. In the third and sixth years, this tithe was to be given to the poor. The seventh year was the Shemittah and the Israelites were not to engage in agriculture.

Laws about the remission of debts, support for the poor, and the freeing of indentured servants are given.

The three pilgrimage festivals are described.

The maftir reading describes the offerings that were to be brought to the Temple on Shavuot.

1. Zeman Mattan Torateinu – The Occasion of the Giving of Our Torah

Then you shall observe [v’asita – in the singular] the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 16:10)

  1. Why were the Ten Commandments addressed in the singular? So that each person would think that he alone, in the whole world, was responsible for studying, performing, and upholding all the words of the Torah. (Various sources, cited in S.Y. Agnon, Present at Sinai, translated by Michael Swirsky, p. 243)
  2. Why are the Ten Commandments addressed in the singular? To teach us that every Jew should say, “It was for me that the Ten Commandments were given, and I am obligated to fulfill them,” rather than saying, “The Torah can just as well be fulfilled by other people.” (Midrash Lekakh Tov)
  3. “The voice of the Lord is power [alternate translation – strength]; the voice of the Lord is majesty” (Psalm 29:4). Rabbi Levi said: Had it been written, “The voice of the Lord is in His strength,” the world could not have stood it. Hence, Scripture says, “The voice of the Lord is fitted to the strength,” that is to say, to the strength of each and every person – the young, according to their strength; the aged, according to their strength; the little ones, according to their strength; the infants, according to their strength; the women, according to their strength. (Shir HaShirim Rabbah, 5:16)
  4. Our rabbis, the authors of the aggadah, said: Had only one of them been absent the Torah would not have been given. Rabbi Aharon Halevi, may his memory be a blessing, wrote: It is for this reason that the Torah was given to six hundred thousand people. It was the will of the Holy Blessed One that the Torah be accepted by all factions, and the six hundred thousand included all factions and opinions. (Pekudat Halevi’im (Rabbi Yitzhak ben Yaakov Alfasi), 1013-1103, Morocco)
  5. Why is it called the Occasion of the Giving of Our Torah and not the Occasion of the Receiving of Our Torah? Said Rabbi Menahem of Kotzk, in the name of Rabbi Simhah Bunem of Przysucha: The Giving of the Torah took place in the month of Sivan, but the receiving of the Torah takes place every day. Rabbi Menahem of Kotzk said further: the Giving of the Torah was the same for everyone, but the receiving is different for each person according to his ability to understand. (Emet ve’Emunah (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk), 1787-1854, Poland)

Sparks for Discussion

In this section of the Torah, the commandment to observe Shavuot is given in the singular, as are the Ten Commandments. Why? Our commentators offer several reasons; can you think of others? If the receiving of Torah is different for each person, what holds us together as a religious community? What prevents each one of us from simply deciding to follow his or her own personal religion? How do you understand Rabbi Simhah Bunem’s teaching, “the receiving of the Torah takes place every day?”

2. Shelosh Regalim – The Three Pilgrimage Festivals

Three times a year – on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths – all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. (Deuteronomy 16:16)

  1. Shavuot is not as widely observed by contemporary Jews as Passover or Yom Kippur, yet it celebrates the most important event in Jewish history: the giving of the Torah. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 592)
  2. If observance were a function of theology, Shavuot would be the most widely observed of Jewish holidays. But precisely the opposite is the case among modern Jews. No major festival suffers from greater neglect. Yet Shavuot, which caps the period of seven weeks since the second Passover seder and simply means “weeks,” is rife with gravity. As the liturgy for the day constantly reminds us, Shavuot commemorates the divine gift of Torah received at Mount Sinai, in consequence of which Judaism spawned a text-centered religious community, possibly the first in human history. Shavuot, then, is about the essential and unique nature of Judaism, a portable religion based on a canon susceptible to unending interpretation. At Sinai freedom from slavery was recast into fidelity to law and literacy.

    But that defining content is not enough to imbue Shavuot with power or popularity. And the reason tells us something about the workings of Judaism. Shavuot is ritually bereft. Unlike Pesah or Sukkot, it lacks a set of distinctive practices that would convey experientially its meaning and message. There is nothing comparable to the seder or sukkah for Shavuot, no absorbing home ritual that might unite family and friends in preparation and observance. (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “Weekly Torah Commentary from Chancellor Schorsch,” 2000)
  3. Perhaps most important, for many second generation Americans, the more frequent demands of Jewish observances seemed antithetical to modern American life, and they opted for the more streamlined modes of observance that emphasized yearly festivities such as the High Holidays, Hanukkah, and Passover. As Marshall Sklare commented about Jews at mid-century in America’s suburban heartland:

    The highest degree of retention will occur when a ritual: (1) is capable of effective redefinition in modern terms; (2) does not demand social isolation or the adoption of a unique life style; (3) accords with the religious culture of the larger community while providing a “Jewish” alternative when such is felt to be needed; (4) is centered on the child; and (5) is performed annually or infrequently.

    Sklare’s observations have been borne out over the passage of time. . . . Hanukkah has been celebrated as the Jewish winter festival of lights, which may partially insulate children from the pervasive Christmas presence in American culture. The Passover seder service-meal has emerged as the family holiday par excellence, with the additional benefit that its official rationale is a celebration of freedom, which most Americans value.
    (Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, “Jewish Life and American Culture,” pp. 125-126)

Sparks for Discussion

As our verse makes clear, Shavuot has the same Torah status as Pesah and Sukkot. However, in practice, Shavuot is the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish holidays. Chancellor Schorsch attributes this to the lack of distinctive home rituals. Do you agree? What do you think of Marshall Sklare’s analysis of why people choose to observe as they do? Can you think of ways to increase the popularity and observance of Shavuot?

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