Rabbi’s Essays

Shavuot: On Learning

The school year and the Jewish year converge in a revealing fashion. Each year, sometime from mid-May to early June, the festival of Shavuot is observed. (This year it falls quite early, beginning Thursday evening, May 16.) The holiday, you might remember, draws its name from the Hebrew word for “weeks.” This is due to the biblical requirement that one count off seven weeks, beginning on the day after Passover, in order to arrive at the festival.

The Torah describes both holidays—Passover and Shavuot—in terms of their connection to the land on which the Israelites lived, and from which they drew their sustenance. Passover (or, more accurately, Pesach) is the celebration of the beginning of the grain harvest, which would coincide with the beginning of spring. Evidently, this harvest would continue for a number of weeks, as the bushels or sheaths of grain would be brought in from the fields, threshed and then prepared for milling into flour. The harvest would therefore culminate in a festival that would mark its end, a time that coincided with the beginning of the harvest of fruits from trees and vines.

Thus, in biblical times, Shavuot served the dual purpose of bringing the Pesach season to an end, and also of marking the gathering of “first fruits.” The three festivals, Pesach and Shavuot joined with the autumn celebration of Sukkot, were the primary observances of ancient Israel. They are the only ones (along with the Sabbath) that are mentioned in all four books—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—that give the laws of the Torah. In an agricultural society, and for a people who understood their relationship with God both personally and nationally, the success of a harvest could not be taken for granted. It was a sure indication of God’s continued covenant with the people, a covenant that is constantly referred to as being established by the land itself.

And what about occasions when the harvest was poor or meager? What do you think? How much does it take to break down faith? One bad year? Three? Think about your relationship with a good friend. How many times will you tolerate disappointment from him/her, before you consider the friendship over?

Life nevertheless moves on. Partially due to the loss of the Land due to the revolts against Rome, and partially because of changing economics and social development, Jews moved off the land. With the vital connection cut off, the festivals lost a great deal of their natural attractiveness. All of them persisted, however, as a result of readjusting their focus and purpose. When we think about Pesach and Shavuot today, we are not especially aware of their role as harvest celebrations. The connection is not altogether lost. We continue to have a sprig of parsley or some other green at the beginning of the Seder, and Jews continue to “count the ‘Omer,” count off the days from Pesach to Shavuot as in biblical times.

For the most part, Pesach is now “Passover,” the celebration of the liberation from Egyptian bondage. And Shavuot is the celebration of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the giving of the Torah. The Torah itself attests to the relationship between the springtime harvest festival of Pesach and the exodus from Egypt. It is silent, however, on any connection between Shavuot and Sinai. The inference can be drawn from the chronology that the narrative in the book of Exodus provides. Namely, if the final plague-the killing of the Egyptian firstborn-took place on the eve of Passover, then the revelation from Sinai occurred roughly two months later, around the time of Shavuot.

Thus, just as students from grade school through university complete a segment of their formal education, we as Jews celebrate Torah, the epitome of education itself. Does this declaration, that Torah is the epitome of education, strike you as hyperbolic; as just the sort of thing that a rabbi would say? So, let us take a moment to consider: What is Torah? What is education?

Actually, “education” is only one thing that we get when we go to school. We have other terms: “learning,” “training,” “preparation,” etc. There is a multiplicity because, I think, there is a variety of types of schooling. With apologies to any Education majors out there, let me suggest three fundamental components:

Teaching: The implication here is that you, the student, is an empty-vessel. You nothing or only a little of a particular body of knowledge, this need to be ‘taught;’ that is, filled with facts and techniques.

Education: The word is “educe,” to draw out. Here, one begins with the belief that you know something already, but it is bottled up. It is mixed up within among a lot of dross, trivial or extraneous pieces of learning. Through education, you get to sort out; develop an ability to make something useful out of what is already within you.

Finally, there is “affect”: Behind both the teaching and the educating there is the instilling of the attitude that this stuff is actually worth knowing. That it is important or practically valuable, or useful in making you a better person. It is the effort to impart not just what to know or how to know, but that you should know in the first place! While I do not know the proper English term in the context of Education, in Hebrew it is the word for ‘education’ itself—”khinukh”—which literally means ‘dedication.’

If this is Education, in the general sense, then what is Torah, or specifically what is it that is celebrated on Shavuot? When you think about it, this is Torah as well. First, and obviously, it is teaching. The image given in the book of Exodus is that of a gathering of people standing at the base of a mountain, and being taught ideas and practices they did not know. Israel as students, and God as the teacher.

There is a second image associated with Sinai. A midrash suggests that Israel did hear God pronounce the entire Torah (or even the Ten Commandments). All they heard was God speaking the first letter of the first word of the commandments. The word is Anokhi [I], and the first letter is the letter ‘alef.’ Alef is a silent letter! What did the people hear?

The famous twentieth century Jewish thinker, Franz Rosenzweig, said, “the content of revelation is the revelation itself.” In other words, the experience at Sinai taught Israel nothing, at least nothing that they (we!) did not already know. Torah is already inside us. Through study, we develop the ability to bring it out.

Finally, Torah is affect. The book of Exodus describes the scene. Israel is given fair warning that God is coming. For three days, they are supposed to avoid going near the mountain. Thus, the people are given an opportunity to build up a sense of excitement and anticipation. Finally, the fateful day arrives. They are ushered to the base of the mountain, where they experience the most fantastic sound and light show.

Think about your best, most exciting and charismatic teachers. It is not just what they say, but also how they say it that makes them so good. You are not just learning in the class, you are being drawn into an experience that makes the learning both significant and worthwhile. Sometimes it simply changes your life. Such is the depiction of the giving of Torah.

Shavuot is therefore the celebration of Torah, and through that, the celebration of all education in its widest sense. It is the acknowledgement that there is so much we still do not know and must learn; that there is a great deal we do know if only we would apply our mind and spirit; and that the whole project is as exciting and life-changing as standing at the base of a mountain and literally hearing the voice of God.

To all you students of every age, I wish you the very best in all your studies and aspirations.