TROUBLING TORAH – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

The next festival will be Shavuot, meaning, ‘Weeks’. Originally, it was ‘The Day of the First Fruits’ – Yom Ha-Bikkurim – the early summer harvest festival, when our ancestors would bring their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem.  After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the rabbis transformed Shavuot into z’man matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah’. If they hadn’t done this, the festival would have disappeared.

So, what’s the connection? Well, since Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and the Torah relates that the slaves came into the wilderness of Sinai on the first day of the third month following their departure from Egypt (Yitro, Exodus 19:1), there is a clear correspondence between the seven-week period from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot, and the arrival of the people at the scene of Revelation. All the rabbis had to do was use their considerable ingenuity to identify the passage of six days between the first day of the third month and the sixth day – the Festival on the 6th of Sivan. Actually, they had to do a little more than this: the Torah does not actually give the date of Shavuot, it simply states that the festival falls on the 50th day after seven weeks of counting, that begin the day after Shabbat during Pesach (Emor, Leviticus 23:15). By interpreting the word, ‘Shabbat’ to mean the first day of Pesach, the rabbis were able to fix the date of Shavuot as the 6th of Sivan.

By expounding the Torah, the rabbis succeeded in reinventing Shavuot and securing its observance for future generations. And they did much more. By troubling with the Torah to create new meanings, the rabbis completely recreated Judaism for Jewish life in the Diaspora; a life without the Temple, which centred on the home and the synagogue.

So, ‘Troubling Torah’ is about engaging with the Torah, and drawing on the hermeneutical principles of interpretation developed by the rabbis to make sense of the text: investigating the P’shat, the ‘plain’ meaning; making sense of the gaps and what the Torah does not tell us – the D’rash; exploring the hints in the text – Remez; and for those of a mystical bent, delving into the Sod. This system of interpretation is known by the acronym, PaRDeS.

‘Troubling Torah’ is also about the passages in the Torah that we find troubling, difficult or challenging. If you want to learn more, come along to Lishmah Sussex, ‘Jewish learning for its own sake’, on Thursday evenings from May 10th to June 28th. For further information about this exciting new cross-communal venture, see the notice in this issue of SJN.

May ‘the season of the giving of our Torah’ inspire us all to study! Chag Samei’ach!