Shavuot and the Mystery Beyond – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN, May 2015

At Shavuot the Jewish people celebrates a mystery. Apart from the esoteric mystical realm of the kabbalah, Jewish teaching and practice tends to be preoccupied with words and actions. Our source texts are packed with millions of words from the Torah onwards. Moreover, each incarnation of Judaism – from the sacrificial cult of the Temple, through the transformation wrought by the rabbis that made study, prayer and deeds, both, ritual and ethical, the centre of Jewish life – has been focused on the concrete. So, it’s easy to fail to notice the mystery at the heart of Shavuot, the Festival of ‘Weeks’.

In Temple times, the mystery of Shavuot was confined to the fact that it had no fixed date. We learn in parashat Emor, in Leviticus chapter 23 that the festival fell on the 50th day after the Shabbat of Pesach (23:15-16). Our rabbinic stages fixed the date – interpreting the Shabbat of Pesach to mean the first day of Pesach. They also did much more: the Temple destroyed by the Romans (in 70 CE), it was no longer possible to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the early harvest, so our sages transformed yom ha-bikkurim, ‘the day of first fruits into z’man matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah’.

On the face of it, the commemoration of the Revelation of the Eternal One at Mount Sinai translated into Aseret Ha-Dibrot, ‘The Ten Utterances’ (Exodus 20:1-14) – which Christians, later called ‘TheTen Commandments’ – is as concrete as it gets; since, as we read in the Torah, the words were carved by Moses on tablets of stone (Ex. 32:15-16). The celebration of the festival on Shavuot morning centres on the reading of Aseret Ha-dibrot, with the congregation standing in a ritual re-enactment of the moment when the voice of the Eternal One thundered from the top of the mountain. But the concrete details of Revelation – the words on the tablets and the drama of the events of that day translated into words on the parchment of the Sefer Torah, the scroll – are misleading. Revelation is not a play, with a script and characters, with props and stage directions. The words we read do a magnificent job of evoking the experience of Revelation – the thunder and lightning, the mountain peak shrouded in dense cloud – but, ultimately, they cannot capture it. It is a mystery. The clue to the mystery lies in the location. The site of Revelation: a mountain in the wilderness. And not even ‘in’ the wilderness. If we go back to the beginning of the Exodus story, we find that Moses stumbled on the mountain when he was shepherding his Midianite father-in-law’s flock because he had strayed achar ha-midbar – ‘behind the wilderness’ (Exodus 3:1). ‘Behind the wilderness’: the simple word, achar, an indication that the Eternal One cannot be captured in the ordinary spatial dimension in which we go about our daily lives; it was only when Moses accidentally led his flock away from his usual route, into a dimension beyond that he entered the realm of the Eternal One. As we celebrate Shavuot, May each one of us pause for a moment in the midst of what we are doing and saying to acknowledge the mystery beyond deeds and words. Chag Samei’ach!