Parashat Shavu'ot

Deuteronomy 14:22–16:17 / Numbers 28:26–28:31

May 30, 2009 / 7 Sivan 5769

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Barry W. Holtz, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education, JTS.

Of the three great pilgrimage festivals, surely Shavu'ot is the least understood and least celebrated by the majority of American Jews. Passover, of course, has the advantage of the Seder, the most popular of all Jewish religious rituals as the sociologists tell us. And Sukkot has the charm and mystique of the sukkah, the decorated "booth" that becomes a focal point of many synagogues in the fall. Both Passover and Sukkot are eight-day holidays (in the Diaspora) while poor Shavu'ot—without an elaborate ritualized meal like the Seder and without a physical embodiment as startling as the sukkah—is only left with a two-day celebration, as if indicating a lesser status. What can one say about a holiday whose major association, for those who know it at all, is eating blintzes at the evening meal?

This is a sad tale, and what makes it worse is that in many ways Shavu'ot commemorates the most important mythic narrative in all of Judaism. While the escape from Egypt that is the core of Passover certainly resonates across the ages, for the Jewish narrative, exodus is only a prelude to something bigger. Judaism is only partially about freedom: it is freedom that leads to commitment. The heart of Judaism is the marriage of God and Israel at Sinai, the revelation of the Torah. Shavu'ot celebrates not the birth of a nation; that, perhaps, occurred at the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh's army in pursuit. Shavu'ot marks the start of the Jewish way of life. We are the religion of Torah. Torah gives us our laws and rituals, our stories and heroes, our core of values and the starting place for the most fundamental Jewish expression of all, study. If education is at the heart of Judaism, Torah is at the center of that heart.

The Sinai event was so powerful in the Jewish imagination that our tradition abounds with interpretations of the revelation at Sinai. Here is one of the most powerful of these traditional interpretations:

R. Levi said, The Holy One appeared to them as though He were a statue with faces on every side. A thousand people might be looking at the statue, but it would appear to be looking at each one of them.

So, too, when the Holy One spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, "The Divine Word is addressing me." Note that Scripture does not say, "I am the Lord your God"; [in the plural] but "I am the Lord thy God" (Exod. 20:2) [in the singular].

R. Yose bar R. Hanina said: The Divine Word spoke to each and every person according to his particular capacity. And do not be surprised at this idea. For when manna came down for Israel, each and every person tasted it in keeping with his own capacity—infants in keeping with their capacity; young men in keeping with their capacity; and the elderly in keeping with their capacity . . .

Now what was true about the manna—that each and every person tasted it according to his own particular capacity—was equally true about the Divine Word. Each and every person heard it according to his own particular capacity. Thus David said "The voice of the Lord is in strength" (Ps: 29:4). Not "The voice of the Lord is in His strength" [as we might expect from standard Hebrew pronoun usage], but the voice of the Lord is in the strength and capacity of each and every person. Therefore the Holy One said: Do not be misled because you hear many voices. Know ye that I am He who is one and the same: I am the Lord thy God. (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:25)

One of the most striking things about this text is that, in its opening, God is compared quite literally to an idol! For the Hebrew word used here is ikonin, a loan word from Greek which we recognize from our English use of icon (as in iconoclast, literally "one who smashes idols"). Having fought the long battle against idolatry, it appears the midrash is able to use the metaphor of an idol to speak about God; truly a remarkable turn of events.

Although the use of the metaphor of the statue with many faces here is surprising, it is meant to communicate one specific idea: God is viewed as addressing each individual so directly that standing at Sinai one might have said, "The Divine Word is addressing me." This reading, as we often see in midrash, turns upon an attempt to find a hidden meaning in the Bible' s particular use of language, here the singular pronoun of Exodus 20:2, "thy God," something hard to capture in modern English.

Our midrash here is built as a metaphor (God is like a statue with faces on every side) that is explained by means of another metaphor or analogy (the experience at Sinai was like the experience the Israelites later had with the manna). Of course, it is precisely that orientation toward the individualized dimension of the giving of the Torah that makes this midrash so fascinating. In a sense, such a reading flies in the face of the conventional understanding of the revelation at Sinai as it is described in the Bible. Our natural assumption from reading the biblical text is that Sinai was seen as essentially a communal experience— the person is plural, as it were: all the people say, "We will do and we will obey" (Exod. 24:7).

And yet our midrash here moves in the opposite direction. Sinai, according to both R. Levi and R. Yose, was the individual experience of each Israelite, seen through the lens of the individual's eyes: "The Divine Word is addressing me." Yose's analogy of the manna takes the idea one step further. He is attempting to explain what such an individualized experience of the "Divine Word" might mean. It was not only, as R. Levi saw it, a revelation to each person, as I might feel the Mona Lisa's eyes staring directly at me in the presence of the painting; it was a revelation appropriate "to each and every person according to his particular capacity." In other words, the content of the revelation was specifically appropriate to each individual.

Each of us, in other words, is going to experience God in his or her own way, a way that emanates from who we are and what we want or expect from that encounter with God. In addition, that experience is connected to what we are capable of understanding—it is connected to the competencies, whether they be of mind or of heart, that we bring to it. That is, if even at Sinai, revelation was individualized, certainly in ordinary human life the experience of God is rooted in who we are ourselves. As we enter the festival of Shavu'ot this year, let us remember its centrality to us as Jews. It is the beginning of our people's romance with study and it is the most powerful example of the encounter in life between human beings and the Divine.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.