Shavou'ot is the holiday that concerns itself with our deepest emotions
Celebration of Shavou'ot requires preparation
The Torah was given to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai on Shavou'ot
Why the Torah was given in the wilderness
Preparations for the covenant at Mt. Sinai
Aseret Ha-devarim (Ten Words or Ten Commandments)
The Book of Ruth is about compassion
Ruth and Tamar
Akdamus, a mystical liturgical poem
Excerpts from Shavou'ot (Pentecost) Guide for the Perplexed (by Yoram Ettinger, Israel Ambassador (ret.))
Shavou’ot, celebrated on the sixth day of the Hebrew month Sivan, is different…
… from the other two major holidays in the Jewish calendar -- Pesach and Sukkot-- in that they commemorate past events (Exodus from Egypt and living arrangements during the desert trek) whereas Shavou'ot is about the perpetuation of ethics and morals we accepted at Mt. Sinai. Pesach and Sukkot are filled with ritual listed in the Torah; Shavou’ot is not.
The holiday is also known as…
• Chag Hakatzer (the Harvest Holiday)
• Chag H’ Bekurim (first fruit offering holiday)
• Atzeres (holiday of gathering)
• Z’man Matan Torasaynu [The time the Torah was given. This expression is first found in the Seder Rav Amram during the 9th century.]
Shavou'ot is unique in that…
• … “a person is obligated to purify himself for the Festival”
• The Torah does not explicitly state the associated religious event (Giving of the Torah) that occurred on that Hebrew date [A probable reason is lest it be thought that Torah and Torah learning is an observance for this day only when, in fact, it is something to be experienced every day of the year.]
• It is linked in time to another holiday, Pesach (“You shall then count seven complete weeks after the day the [Passover] holiday when you brought the omer as a wave offering until the day after the seventh week when there will be [a total of] 50 days. [On that 50th day] you may present a new grain offering to God.”
• That only Torah requirement is agricultural in nature: offerings of first fruit and two loaves of bread.
Shavou’ot is the Holiday that Concerns Itself with Our Deepest Emotions:
It’s about building about our relationship with God and with one another
It’s about our daily engaging with God and with the Torah. [The custom of staying up all night on the first night of the Holiday is to demonstrate our excitement and enthusiasm about learning Torah.]
It’s about reminding ourselves to always be grateful [Bringing bekurim (first fruit) and two loaves of bread offerings to the Holy Temple.]
It’s about humility [Mt. Sinai was selected for receiving the Torah because it was smaller than the surrounding tall mountains.]
It’s about our being compassionate and caring for one another [The story of Ruth]
It’s about being inspired by the beautiful soaring words of Akdamus [Mystical poem introduction to reading about the Mt. Sinai experience.]
Celebration of Shavou'ot Requires Preparation
"R' Isaac further said that a person is obligated to purify himself for the Festival" (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16: b).
The need to not be in a state of Tumah is especially important for the holiday of Shavou'ot, the anniversary of the receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This Divine manifestation and revelation is the fundamental experience that created a unique relationship and bonding between us and God. On Shavou'ot we recall and try to relive the emotional experience of Mount Sinai.
We think Tumah can best be understood in psychological terms. Our hypothesis is that Tumah is a state of cognitive loss; a "death" or "dispirited" state during which one is so deeply depressed, apathetic, and/or guilt-ridden (on some level) that he/she no longer has the capacity to enter any relationship--not with God and not with other human beings.
Contact with death precipitates a state of Tumah. A corpse is considered the "ultimate father of all Tumah," because contact with death triggers a primordial uneasiness, fear (of one's own mortality?) and negativism that can absorb all the person’s emotional energy. (Even medical students report a sense of uneasiness after the first encounter with a cadaver.) Death of a family member can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. One who encounters death is self-absorbed, sad, and depressed. These feelings interfere with the ability to connect with others.
The negativity associated with death becomes diluted the further one is removed from the source. Thus, a person who touches a corpse (called a "Rishon L'tumah") experiences the most intense emotional negativity (i.e., Tumah). As that person comes into contact (e.g., shakes hands) with others, the emotion of the "death association" by the latter is a step removed and diluted. And so on down the line as each Tameh person comes into contact with another person or object, the transmission (emotional response to the original source of Tumah) weakens.
The Mishkan, the Beis Hamikdash and Mt. Sinai have been designated by the Torah as places where an individual can have a relationship with God. It is in these locations that one can bring a Korban, an offering of/from oneself to experience closeness with the Divine. It is in these locations that God communicates with us. Indeed, the Ramban, and more recently, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, note that the role of the Mishkan during the wandering in the desert was to serve as a constant and concrete reminder of the Mt. Sinai experience, as a kind of visual representation of the place that the special relationship with God was forged. The encampment surrounding the Mishkan, the flames from the offering of Korbanot in the very center mirrored the encampment on and around Mt. Sinai where Korbanot were offered amidst the fiery scene. There is no Biblical injunction against being in a state of Tumah. A person's status in this regard is relevant only in determining the permissibility of entry into these holy places.
To develop a relationship, one needs to prepare oneself, much as a farmer needs to plow his fields and plant seed if he is to reap the benefit of rain. If we are filled with negativity in a state of emotional self-absorption (Tameh) it is pointless to enter the Mishkan, for no relationship can or will occur. This truth is applicable to our human relationships, particularly the most important one of all, the spousal situation. When there is the negativity by one of the partners, there can be no meaningful relationship. In our view, this is the deeper message of Tumah for us all in our religious and personal lives.
To be prepared for the relationship experience that is Shavou'ot, one must build a reservoir of positive emotional/religious energies. It is a building-up process, day by day for forty-nine days to neutralize the deep feelings of depression and worthlessness that we experienced in Egypt. This mental state is captured in a poetic description of our Egyptian experience of plunging to the forty ninth level of Tumah—meaning, in our view, to the depths of despair. Each day is an emotional building block that builds on the previous day. By missing a link of a day, one is no longer able to achieve the totality of the rebuilding of spirit-- a recognition that manifests in the inability to recite the Bracha from that day forward.
What we think and feel while counting the Omer can help us emerge from whatever Tumah state we may have been in. This prepares us to re-accept and re-experience the defining Jewish experience at Mt. Sinai on Shavou'ot. And we hope and pray that this healthy emotional condition extends itself to all our human relationships.
The Torah Was Given to Us in a Wilderness
The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the Torah was “not given in a civilized environment, but in a desert” to show that one needs to be open-minded to appreciate its values, and to not be influenced by one’s distracting environmentven to Us in the Wilderness. We are obliged to help one who is floundering in a spiritual wasteland find himself and assist him to develop into a civilized, directed person.
Lecturer and educator Dennis Prager reasons that the location in no-man’s land sends a message that the ethics embodied in the Ten Commandments are the best guide for all people, not just for Jews and that the rules are binding wherever Jews live-- not only in their Homeland. The commandments…
Are in the singular, speaking to each one of us as individuals
Contain no abstract moral principles (like “be a good person”) only behavior that is demanded of us if we are to become good people
Are mostly formulated as prohibitions
Are obligations, not rights. Fundamental human rights are better secured when one first feels morally obligated to others
Rabbi Sacks comments on the similar-sounding Hebrew words for wilderness (midbar) and word (davar). “Where other nations found the gods in nature – the rain, the earth, fertility and the seasons of the agricultural year – Jews discovered God in transcendence, beyond nature, a God who could not be seen but rather heard. In the desert, there is no nature. Instead there is emptiness and silence, a silence in which one can hear the unearthly voice of the One-beyond-the-world… In the silence of the desert Israel became the people for whom the primary religious experience was not seeing but listening and hearing: Shema Yisrael. The God of Israel revealed Himself in speech. Judaism is a religion of holy words, in which the most sacred object is a book, a scroll, a text.” It is in this desert, concludes Rabbi Sachs, that a whole new relationship was born built on Love and Joy that was concretized by the Covenant between God and His people.
The wilderness conjures up images of clarity, of quiet, of intimacy with no distractions, of openness, of a place available to all. That the Torah was given in the desert may mean that without it we would find ourselves living a desolate existence. With it, we are given a clean start. The open spaces may allude to God’s open invitation to us all to become purified and to be “reborn”. Or perhaps this is a reference to the wilderness within us all that can be tempered by adhering to the ethics contained in the Torah.
Rabbi Marc Angel quotes the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) who taught that the divine presence settles on those who think of themselves as being in the wilderness. The desert is vast and untouched. No matter how much one has learned, there is an enormous amount of information and ideas yet to be explored. A wilderness will remain unproductive and empty unless cultivated. So, too, we must expend tremendous energy to discover and understand the profound truths of the Torah. Humility, critical thinking, investment of significant amounts of time and arduous work are necessary. The serious student’s mind is active, interested and searching. An individual who has matured into a rabbinic scholar is popularly called a “talmid chacham”. He is a “student of the wise”, an appellation that reinforces the idea that to remain a scholar one must always remain a student, thirsting for more knowledge.
The Zohar states that all Jewish souls including those souls yet to be created were present at Mt. Sinai when the Torah was given to us. All Jews throughout history are part of one organic whole. Generations that came after Mt. Sinai learned of this extraordinary event that defined us as a nation from their parents, and then transmitted the idea to their children. Every day, but especially on Shavou'ot, we try to capture the emotion and inspiration of the Mt. Sinai experience, as if we were there.
Preparations for the Covenant at Mt. Sinai
In the third month (Sivan) the Israelites unified as “one person with one heart”, prepare for this momentous occasion. Moshe is instructed to speak to “Bais Yaakov” (the women) and declare to “Bnai Yisroel” (men) and remind them how God has “asah” (carried them) “aal kanfey nesharim” (on eagles’ wings) to bring them to Him and that if they obey Him and keep His covenant He will make them His “aam segulah (treasured nation)” and “a kingdom of Priests and a Kadosh(Holy) nation”.
The exquisite imagery is of swiftly, safely and rapidly ascending magnificent soaring eagles that carry their fledglings on their wings, unafraid of being attacked by other birds from above because they fly higher than all other birds. Through His selection, protection and nurturing of the Israelites, the nation will soar and achieve moral, ethical and creative heights. Fulfillment of this journey on eagles’ wings occurred again in 1949 when 45,000 Jews in Yemen were flown to Israel (Operation Magic Carpet) and then again in 1991 when Israel’s Operation Solomon airlifted some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to their Homeland.
Rabbi Natan Slifkin (“zoo Rabbi”) thinks that, the nesher is not an eagle but a griffon vulture because eagles are not generally known to carry their young on their wings. [Or possibly nesher is a name that includes both eagles and griffon vultures.] Clearly the vulture of the Torah is lacking the negativity that is associated with it in contemporary culture. The griffon vulture was characterized as a loving and caring parent deeply devoted to its offspring. Its young are slow to develop and do not leave the nest until they are three or four months old. “The long devotion of the vulture to its young symbolizes God’s deep dedication to the Jewish people.”
“Aam segulah” (“treasured nation”) has been translated inaccurately by some as “chosen nation”, communicating a supercilious, better-than-thou haughtiness that is resented by non-Jews (one basis for anti-Semitism) and by some Jews. In fact, the expression incorporates our special responsibility to behave ethically and morally and to observe the Torah law with all its restrictions, if we are to earn and keep this special relationship.
Being a “Kingdom of Priests” means administering to the rest of humanity. This, what was then (an even now), a radical idea is that every person has a religious calling, not just a select few leaders or priests.
Holiness Means Separation or Setting Aside…
o In behavior
o In place (Holy Temple)
o In time (Shabbat; Holy days)
o To think for oneself (e.g., not following a mob or crowd)
o From pagan worship and from a distinctive “profession” (i.e., a prostitute is called a kedaysha)
Being holy does not mean withdrawing and separating completely from the surrounding Society. On the contrary, the Torah is filled with practical prohibitions, regulations and laws--both humanitarian and ritualistic--that affect all aspects of our life and which, when observed, make us unique. Avoidance of certain types of behavior—and the self-control it demands—defines our persona and prevents us from becoming naval b’rshus hatorah (offensive even when observing the letter of the Torah laws).
Martin Buber understands kedusha as separating but not withdrawing just like God Who transcends and is separate from the world but has not withdrawn from it. We are commanded to imitate Him (Imitatio Dei) and to “radiate a positive influence on them (the world of the nations) through every aspect of our Jewish living.” It is our unique life style of self-control and ethical behavior that defines us, separates us and makes us different (i.e., holy). It is the duality of ethically engaging with the world while at the same adhering to religious life and ritual in an unboastful way that defines our destiny in the world.
Rav Tzvi Dov Kanatopsky, author of Holiness a Negative Concept, offers the intriguing notion that the restraint and self-control inherent in negative behavior commandments (lo sa’ase) is the thing that makes an individual kodesh, presumably because successfully battling the urge to succumb builds character.
The theophany at Mt. Sinai was the uniquely defining moment for the nation of Israel. The Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one, so no nation could claim that it was not made available to them. God’s offer of the Torah to other nations was rejected (according to the Midrash) because the restrictions contained in it contradicted their national practices. But the Israelites responded “Naase V’nishma” -- “we will do, and we will listen” -- even before they heard its details.
We all heard His public pronouncements. Other religions are built on an assumed Divine communication was heard or experienced solely and privately by the founder. This public Revelation proves the historical truth of Judaism, according to the Spanish-Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), author of The Kuzari
We accepted Him as an ongoing force in our lives
Our nation was born based on common obligations and shared Sinai experience, where no unity existed previously
These commandments reflect the Covenantal relationship between Man and God. They are addressed to the individual, each according to his or her own understanding, and underscore the duty of each person to do his or her share. The specifics are stated tersely but elaborated upon and detailed subsequently in the Torah. All the Mitzvahs can be categorized in these ten broad groupings.
I believe that the Torah is meant to help us change for the better. We need to feel the living truths in the Torah to counter whatever negativity exists within us. To be successful, Torah must become a living, breathing document whose ethics are integrated into our persona.
Explains Rabbi D. Nathan Lopes Cardozo…
“The Torah is not a record of what once happened at Sinai; it is an experience that takes place now while we study it…
Learning Torah is neither the study of what happened a long time ago nor a record of what God once commanded humans to do.
Rather, it is an encounter with the divine word at this present moment.”
The Torah was given once, at Mt. Sinai, but receiving the Torah takes place in every generation:
Learning Torah is a religious act that includes trying to listen for and to “hear” its profound revelations
Reading and learning are not enough; we need to “hear” the inner voice.
“This divine voice is captured and becomes tangible in the fulfillment of the mitzvot”
The Biblical philosopher Franz Rosenzweig insightfully perceived that “one hears differently when one hears in the doing”.
Contemporary Israeli author and commentator David Hazony explores the issue of how this most ancient encounter can renew modern life. Following are some of his ideas:
The Mt. Sinai experience was designed to create an unswerving loyalty to God. This experiential initiation ceremony involved a text, a document of allegiance to Him. Because we owe our existence to Him, we must submit to His yoke. Ultimately, each of these Ten Statements/Precepts is related to the service of God—even though the last five appear to be on the surface only between Man and Man. Obedience to Him means not only how He should be treated but also how we are to treat His children (Mankind).
The central message seems to be that even ordinary people can follow God’s word, if they only put their mind to it
“The power of the Ten Commandments …is insistence that real human beings, with all their faults and failures, can improve themselves and the world around them”
…Revelation of God in the First Commandment is, above all, a revelation about ourselves … and applied to every significant area of our lives”
Aseret Ha-devarim (Ten Words or Ten Commandments or Ten Precepts)
“I am the Lord your God…
You shall have no other gods beside me…
You shall not swear falsely…
Remember the Sabbath day…
Honor your father and mother…
You shall not murder
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not steal
You shall not bear false witness
You shall not covet…”
Dennis Prager cites Biblical scholar Nachum Sarna’s identification of several characteristics that make the Commandments unique, original and unparalleled:
• It is the first and only instance of a deity creating a covenantal relationship with an entire nation
• It focuses on everyone’s behavior toward his fellow man (in addition to the relationship with God)
• It expands the definition of God’s will to include interpersonal morality; a person who is unethical cannot be regarded as “religious”
• “Unlike other legal codes, the Ten Commandments are laws that are simple, absolute, and devoid of qualification”
In the first two commandments God speaks in the first person. The rest are expressed in the third person.
The Israelites, frightened by the sound of the Divine voice and His overwhelming presence, demanded that the last eight be said by Moshe in God’s name.
The commandments are presented on two tablets, each listing five.
The first five, consisting of matters between Man and God, mention His name and include punishment for violation and reward for observance.
The fifth, to honor one’s parents is included on this right tablet because God is a partner with parents in creation and education of children. It is the bridge to…
The left tablet, which consists of five staccato, short statements demanding ethical behavior between Man and his fellow Man.
The left-hand side commandments have no associated reward or punishment;
They are deemed to be fundamental basic, universal ethical behavior requirements if one is to be included in the Community of God.
In Divine matters, faith lays the groundwork for observance
Ibn Ezra notes how on the tablet on the right the progression…
• Begins with beliefs
• Continues with the verbal
• Advances to behavior one day a week (Sabbath)
• Concludes with full-time behavior (Honoring parents)
The commandments on the left tablet are harsh, demanding, and concise without explanation. Interpersonal relationships demand that proper conduct comes first; thoughts, plans and cravings come later:
• The first commandment on the left prohibits the most reprehensible behavior (murder) and is…
• Followed by less-severe immoralities (adultery, stealing) then…
• Advances to deceitful speech and…
• Concludes with sinful thoughts and desires
When it comes to interpersonal relationships, we are a religion of deed before creed! We are commanded to avoid the worst type of behavior first and then deal with our speech and then work on controlling our impulses.
Rabbi David Fohrman discerns a correspondence of ideas between the commandments on the left and on the right. The Decalogue is encapsulated in five core principles that encompass and summarize the essence of the Torah. The structure is a kind a table of contents for the entire Torah, elegantly summarized in few words:
Commandment number one (I am the Lord your God) corresponds to commandment number six on the left (not to commit murder). Both communicate the idea that one is not to act on the belief that one’s life would be better off without either God (by not believing in Him) or without a person (by killing him/her).
The second commandment on each tablet deals with the sanctity of relationships and the requisite exclusivity entailed. As relates to God, “You shall have no other gods beside me”. As relates to humans, adultery is prohibited because it is a betrayal of a sacred, exclusive relationship.
To not swear falsely (third commandment on the on the right tablet) and its corresponding prohibition of stealing (on the left) share the same idea of miscarriages of justice committed by fraudulently removing a person’s rightful possessions.
Guarding the Sabbath, the fourth commandment, corresponds to the commandment not to bear false witness (fourth on the left tablet). The Sabbath bears witness to God’s universal Goodness in His creation and to His cessation of creation. One who violates the Sabbath may be comparable to the witness who perjures himself in court, denying the truth and contradicting the Divine equilibrium of universal integrity, honesty and justice.
Honoring one’s parents, the last commandment on the right, corresponds to the tenth commandment, of not coveting, by the commonality of the powerful, aggressive emotional forces (both conscious and unconscious) we experience. Both commandments impress upon us the need to take control and make sure that our behavior is appropriate, these powerful internal forces notwithstanding.
I. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of Bondage”
Is this a statement or commandment?
Abravanel and others maintain that there is no commandment to believe in God because Torah cannot dictate belief. Their conclusion is that it is a statement that records what God did for the Israelites, which is the basis for His subsequent commandments. The introductory phrase resembles preambles that appear in ancient documents.
Rambam asserts that there is a commandment to believe in God. One is obligated to realize that there is cause and motive in the world; that God intervenes in human affairs (like freeing the Israelites from Egypt); and that one needs to observe, investigate and then realize the Awesome-ness of God and all He has created.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin summarizes that ethical monotheism—the idea that One Universal God rules and demands ethical conduct from human beings— “comprises Judaism’s major intellectual and spiritual contribution to the world.”
Rabbi Benno Jacob (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) sees the importance of the phrase “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of Bondage” as the Divine rejection of lands of culture [like Egypt] that are built on human slavery and misery and that prosper at the expense of personal freedom. God removed us from this environment of enslavement. “This divine act provides the legal force for the ensuing commands.” (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)
Rav S.R. Hirsch explains that this is not just about the existence of God, but “that this One unique, true God is to be my God, that he created and formed me, placed me where I am, and goes on creating and forming me, keeps me, watches over me, leads and guides me”.
People who gain freedom may forget what things were like before their liberation. To prevent this and to prevent any later romanticizing of the marvels and glory of ancient Egypt we are immediately reminded that it was God who “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of Bondage”. [Dennis Prager]
II. “You shall have no other God besides me…”
We need to recognize God’s singularity and are forbidden to present Him in any form of sculptured image. There is only one God; one human race; and one moral standard for all.
Idolatry means the idealization and worship of anything that is made to be an end in itself or believed to be a worthy and noble thing that is greater than God. We are prohibited from “worshiping”, for example, technology in its many forms (bio- engineering, medical, computer software, and Artificial Intelligence) as the ultimate power in the universe. Idealization of education to the exclusion of morality is dangerous and prohibited. “Love, like education and art, must be morally directed or it, too, can be a false god.” (Dennis Prager)
Nechama Leibowitz surveys possible meanings of the expression “besides me” …
Or Ha-chayyim thinks it means God’s demand of exclusive worship because once a person starts worshiping even only one other deity, he will end up worshiping many
Chizkuni: If you accept another master, know it will be in defiance of Me (i.e., in my face)
Onkeles: besides me, or in addition to me
Rashi/Midrash: in my presence. Just like God’s existence is eternal so is the prohibition of idolatry
Ramban: God is present everywhere so knows whether one is idolatrous publicly or in private
Avraham, son of the Rambam: Because of God’s Omnipresence, we are prohibited from accepting the services of any mediator between Him and Man
Because of His love for us He is characterized in human terms as being zealous/jealous. (“The Torah talks in the language of human beings.”) He demands our exclusive devotion and loyalty.
Impassioned God promises “visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children” if the children remain wicked like the father.
The prohibition against idolatry includes the making idols out of the mitzvahs, says the Rebbe of Kotsk. “We should never imagine that the chief purpose of a mitzva is its outer form, rather it is the inward meaning, the devotion with which it is done”.
III. “Lo Seesaw (You should not take) the name of the Lord your God in vain…”
We are commanded to not use the Divine name in false (swearing a tree is a rock) and unnecessary oaths (swearing a tree is a tree). We are to safeguard His name from obliteration. We are not to trivialize His name.
The word “seesaw” can also mean carry. As such, Rabbi Telushkin understands this commandment to mean that one is prohibited from citing (i.e., “carrying”) God’s name and authority for promoting an evil cause (like Crusaders murdering innocents in the name of God or racist organizations like Ku Klux Klan or ISIS claiming they are doing God’s will).
IV. “Remember the Sabbath day and make it holy…”
The Sabbath, already practiced by the Israelites since the appearance of the manna, was a revolutionary innovation in its demand that not only humans but also servants and animals cease working on that day. The ancients mocked the idea. Workaholics take note: We all are entitled to have at least one seventh of our lives for ourselves—to rest; to think; to rejoice with family and friends; to contemplate; to study; and to rejuvenate both our spiritual and physical lives. We work during the week so we can rest and refresh ourselves on the Sabbath, writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and not the other way around (i.e., resting so we can work during the week).
Nachum Sarna points out that the seven-day week is not rooted in Nature. The day and the month correspond to movements of the earth and the moon. But the week does not. It is an arbitrary and unnatural time measurement and exists only because our supernatural God who is above nature is described as having created the universe in this time period. “There is no other ritual or ethical law in the Bible whose purpose is to affirm God as the Creator of the world”. (Dennis Prager)
Sabbath is about testifying that God created the universe. Sabbath is about the renewal of spiritual life. Sabbath is about imitating God, who on the seventh day ceased creating, having concluded that all that He had made in the first six days of Creation was very good. What is prohibited is any action on a concrete item that transforms it in a creative and productive manner, as defined by the thirty-nine categories of activity that were employed in the building of the Tabernacle.
Some have argued that Sabbath is Israel’s most original contribution to world law with its unvarying, religiously demanded intervals whose observance is both an unchanging weekly obligation and an inalienable privilege. The Hebrew essayist and Zionist thinker Achad Ha-Am (“one of the people”, pen name of Asher Ginsberg,1856-1927) captured its importance for the nation throughout history in the pithy observation that “More than Israel has guarded the Shabbat, the Shabbat has guarded Israel”.
V. “Honor your father and your mother so that your days will be lengthened…”
Treatment of parents left much to be desired, it appears, in ancient times.
The conflict between child and parent seems inherent in the human condition to the point where God promises family harmony (in Malachi 3:24) by interceding and sending the prophet Elijah to “reconcile the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children in their relationship with their fathers”.
The Torah does not command us to love our parents since one cannot dictate emotions. We are commanded to behave in a way that honors our parents. Cabayd—the Hebrew word for honor—is from the root word for “heavy”, suggesting that this commandment is among, if not the, “heaviest”, most important and most difficult one to observe. Children owe their lives to their parents, and their constant watchful concern.
The root word cabayd also means liver, that body organ that the ancients believed was the source of heaviness, anger, and melancholy (and perhaps, in modern day parlance, conflict and depression). In modern psychological terms these may refer to the Oedipus complex and the Electra complex.
This fifth commandment, listed among those that have to do with Man’s relationship with God, makes the point that God is a partner with parents in the creation of offspring both physically and spiritually. Also, respecting and honoring parents is one facet of respecting and honoring God. That this commandment segues to the last five (between Man and Man) suggests, perhaps, that the behavior listed and prohibited on the left-hand side of the Decalogue (murder, theft, adultery) may be rooted in internal conflicts related to a failure of reconciliation with one’s parents.
Rav Yissocher Frand deals with the question of how far one must go to respect parents by citing the story of a non-Jew from Ashkelon named Dama bar Nesinah (Kiddushin 31a).
Dama owned a stone needed for the Urim v'Tumim. The Sages offered to pay him a huge sum for the stone. The stone was in a strongbox, with the key under his father's pillow.
When he told the Sages “I cannot help you; my father is sleeping, and I wouldn't disturb his sleep” they left.
A year later, a perfect red heifer, suitable for a parah adumah, was born in Dama's herd. The Sages came to purchase it. When asked how much he wanted for it, Dama replied "I know that you would give me any price I ask, but I only want the amount of money I lost by not waking my father last year."
As parents get older, they can become more demanding and test the patience of their children. Is there a limit to such patience? How much patience can be expected of a person? Is there a point where a person can run out of patience and be exempt from this mitzvah? Rav Frand concludes that Dama’s experience shows us the extent to which we are capable of honoring parents even under such tempting circumstances.
The respect for our parents extends beyond their lives and is manifest in the twelve-month morning period required for their death, compared to only thirty days mourning for other relatives. Rabbi Hillel Davis shared with me a discussion on this topic between the great Torah scholars Rav Teitz, Rav Hutner and Rav Soloveitchik. The first two Gedolim explained that the reasons for this longer mourning period are 1) since one can only have one set of parents (while one can have multiple siblings or spouses or children) the loss for a parent is so much more severe and 2) because the loss of a parent severs the connection to Sinai. The Rav opines that there may be a tendency to feel that the death of a parent is normal and expected, since parents generally die before their children. The Halacha forces us not to underestimate the profundity and intensity of the loss and its effect on us by mandating that we experience the longer (and longest) mourning period.
These insights by our Gedolim resonate with psychological truths about the profound effect that death of a parent can have on a person’s mental health and behavior. Freud called the death of his father "the most poignant loss" of his life, an event that prompted him to start self-analysis. Furthermore, he theorized that the illness or the death of one's parents can trigger a response “of punishing oneself in a hysterical fashion...with the same states [of illness] that they have had”. The profound, unconscious love-hate that can exist in a child-parent relationship is the heaviest burden one has to cope with in life (and, therefore, the use of the word cabayd).
There is intense, unimaginable pain in the loss of a child, but there is not the potentially life-long ongoing conflict described by Freud in the parent-child relationship. It is this depressive struggle and conflict (and possible associated guilt) in the parent-child relationship that prompts the need for twelve times more time to work through. The Halacha demands the extended period be observed by all, even by those who may not feel the need for it (lo pluug).
Loss of our parents, our creators, is akin to loss of the connection with God the Parent/Creator of both us and the universe.
For honoring parents, we are assured “that you may long endure on the land which the Lord your God is giving you”. [Note: this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that specifies a reward.] Failing to honor parents prevents the development of a wholesome, harmonious life and will result in the Holy Land’s rejecting us. Observing this Commandment may affect the way we deal with others and certainly influences how are children will treat us.
The long life may mean the promise of being remembered by one’s children or that by having children one’s life is extended. Or perhaps it means an improved quality of life. In Rav Sadya Gaon’s view this commandment is greater than the other nine. “If you honor your parents, your children will honor you”, following your example.
VI. You shall not “Tirtzach” (murder; commit unauthorized homicide)
What is prohibited is killing someone not deserving of death. The Hebrew word for killing is harog. Many incorrectly translate this prohibition to mean not “to kill” when in fact killing is permitted in certain circumstances including self-defense; a house intruder believed to be a mortal threat; terrorists; and evil and dangerous demagogues like Hitler.
VII. You shall not commit adultery
Adultery--when a married woman has sexual relations with anyone other than her husband, both are guilty--is considered a sin against God and, therefore, cannot be absolved by a forgiving spouse. The building block of society is the family and adultery threatens the family and, by extension, a stable, civilized society.
VIII. You shall not steal
It is prohibited to kidnap… to take something belonging to someone else without permission…to deal deceitfully or falsely…to defraud…to tarnish a person’s good name, dignity, trust and intellectual property. This commandment encompasses the other four on the left tablet; it is so open-ended as to include anything belonging to another.
IX. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
A corrupt judiciary will pervert society. Justices are prohibited from favoring or even giving the appearance of favoring either party, rich or poor. Perjury is taboo as are deviations from the truth in and out of the courtroom. The punishment for lying witnesses is imposition of the financial amount they intended to extract from the party they were testifying against…This precept also may include speaking falsely about another.
X. You shall not “sachmod” (covet) your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his female slave or his ox or his donkey or anything that is your neighbor’s.
To covet is to want or yearn to have someone else’s possession at his/her expense. The Hebrew root-word “sachmod” means a burning desire so strong that the individual may act on his impulse. Reasoning that one cannot be punished for one’s uncontrollable desires and thoughts, some maintain that one violates the prohibition if one does something to obtain the coveted object.
In his Mishnah Torah codification of laws, Rambam distinguishes between coveting and craving:
“Anyone who covets a servant, a maidservant, a house or utensils that belong to a colleague, or any other article that he can purchase from him and pressures him with friends and requests until he acquires it from him, violates a negative commandment, even though he pays much money for it, the Torah states, “Do not covet” (Exod. 20:14…. Anyone craving a home, a wife, utensils, or anything belonging to another that he can acquire from him–-from the time he thinks in his heart, “How is it possible to acquire this from him?” and his heart is aroused by this matter—he has violated a prohibition, as the Torah states “Do not crave” (Deut 5:18) – “craving” is only within the human heart.”
The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (25 B.C.E– 50 C.E.) places this sin squarely in the realm of thought, noting that craving what others have can lead to dangerous actions such as plotting and strife. He argues that whereas most passions are involuntary, covetousness is under human control since it is based on an idea, namely, that something that is not yours should be yours. Philo suggests that although desire for other people’s possessions does not always lead to wrong action, it is always destructive, either to the self or to others. If people do not/cannot take what they desire, they are forever tortured, and if they do, they violate a core social prohibition and risk throwing society into chaos and violence.
Others view this commandment as a means of controlling our passions. It is an anti-entitlement concept. Ibn Ezra argues that coveting is avoidable and can be suppressed through religious training that accustoms each of us to be content with what we have. We need to train ourselves to think about and to consider others’ possessions as things so far removed from the possibility of our ownership:
“… every intelligent person knows that a beautiful woman or money is not something an individual can obtain through wisdom or personality, it is all up to the portion doled out [to an individual] by God… For this reason, a wise person will not be jealous and will not covet. Since he knows that God has forbidden his neighbor’s wife to him, thus she is more elevated in his eyes than the princess in the eyes of the peasant. And so, he is satisfied with his portion and does not allow his heart to crave and desire something that is not his. For he knows that that which God does not wish to give to him, he cannot take by force or by his thoughts or schemes. He has faith in his Creator, that He will provide for him and do what is good in His eyes.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ intriguing analysis views the Commandments as three groups of three:
The first three are about God, the Author and Authority…
o One God
o No other God
o Not taking God’s name in vain
o The second set is about “createdness” …
o Shabbat is about the creation of the universe
o Honoring parents who created us and brought us into the world
Murder is prohibited because we all are created equally by God
The third set is about the basic institutions of Society…
o Not to commit adultery is about the sanctity of marriage
o Not to steal is about sanctity of private property
o Not to bear false witness is about the administration of justice
The final Commandment is devoted to the emotion of envy and its devastating effects. Cognitive behavior theory argues that beliefs can mold feelings, a core idea also found in Tanya. A false belief about reality can trigger rage (in a situation, for example, where a person’s [baseless] belief that others are talking about him can trigger anger and resentment).
Envy is one of the prime drivers of violence, as is clear from the Torah (Kayin and Hevel; Yosef and his brothers) and from world history. This burning desire to have what belongs to someone else or to be someone else can drive people to commit adultery; to steal; to give false testimony; and even to murder! Envy is singled out for attention because it is the force that undermines the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments.
Belief in God; being reminded of God’s presence in history and in our lives; and thinking about the concept of “createdness” can help us thwart envy. We exist because God created us, and we have what He wanted us to have. Defining ourselves in relationship to other people (rather than in relation to God) triggers strife and envy and brings unhappiness.
The antidote for envy is gratitude. It is the “modeh ani” we say when we awake –expressing thanks before we think or say anything else. It is the idea embodied in Ben Zoma’s statement that the only person who can be considered rich is the one who rejoices in—and is satisfied with-- whatever he has.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that once we are freed of our letting others’ happiness determine ours, “we release a wave of positive energy allowing us to celebrate what we have instead of thinking about what other people have, and to be what we are instead of wanting to be what we are not.”
The Book of Ruth is About Kindness and Compassion
The Midrash informs us that the Book of Ruth “has neither purities nor impurities, neither things permitted, nor things prohibited and why was it written? To teach the reward for those who do kind deeds.”
This Megillah is read on Shavou'ot because…
The story takes place during the harvest season and Shavou'ot is the holiday of harvest
Of its reference to King David, Ruth’s great grandson, and Shavou'ot is the anniversary of his death
It reminds us that the Torah and Judaism can only be acquired through suffering
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elaborates on some of the other truths that emerge from the story…
Ruth represents the prototypical convert. It is not unusual for women who convert to Judaism to adopt the name Ruth
The concept of Chosen People is not racist (since Ruth’s lineage is from Moav)
The deep platonic friendship that developed between her and her mother-in-law Naomi
But, argues Rabbi Sacks, the most profound lesson for us all is about compassion and its effect on both the one exhibiting it and on the one receiving it. Recent scientific experiments show that being treated with compassion or observing generosity of others dramatically increases the likelihood that one will be caring and considerate of others. Rabbi Sacks concludes that “Perhaps along with its other names the holiday of Shavuot might come to be known as the Celebration of Compassion”.
Rabbi David Fohrman proposes that the essence of Ruth and her behavior is her selfless loyalty and devotion to another in assuring the continuation of the lineage of a deceased relative. It was seen in Avraham, who married his niece Sari to perpetuate the family name after the death of his brother Haran, Sari’s father. Fast forwarding ten generations to Ruth, we encounter the story of the prominent Elimelech, who abandons the Land of Israel during a famine and travels the land of Moav. He and his wife Naomi had sired two sons Machlon and Kilyon, (whose names mean “sickness” and “destruction”) who then marry Moavite women (Orpah and Ruth) and who then die childless –thereby terminating their father’s legacy.
Though her sister-in-law Orpah chooses to abandon Naomi’s legacy by turning back to Moav, Ruth clings to Naomi: “wherever you go I will go and wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God”. Both travel to Israel together. When Naomi tells Ruth to go to any field to collect crops, Ruth (guided by Divine destiny) happens to go to the field owned by Boaz, Naomi’s relative. It is Ruth who, urged on by Naomi, persuades Boaz later in a clandestine nighttime meeting that he should marry her for the sake of perpetuating Elimelech’s family name. It is Ruth the outsider who extends herself to assure Naomi’s physical and family survival. It is this selflessness that is the essence of Ruth—and the lesson for us to take away from this story.
Rabbi Fohrman also notes the linkage of the story of Ruth with the story of Tamar and Yehuda; and with the story of Lot’s involuntary (?) seduction of his two daughters in a cave after their escape from Sodom. Each has elements of deception and seduction. But Ruth’s “seduction” of Boaz is never consummated because her intent was to ask him to care for/marry her.
The story is an inspiring one of how Ruth, an offspring from the nation of Moav (the name of one of the children resulting from Lot’s impregnation of his daughters) unites with Boaz, an offspring of Yehuda to--after facing and overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges-- build a flourishing life together that is replete with acts of kindness.
Ruth and Tamar
Both were ethical non-Israelite women who considered themselves part of their Israelite in-law’s family. Both were stubborn, independent women who had an unshakable desire to identify with Israel. Both were widows who married a man from an older generation as part of the Yibum process. When Boaz and Ruth marry, the well-wishers blessing is “let thy house be like the house of Peretz, whom Tamar bore to Yehuda…” The two are linked again in the closing verses in the Book of Ruth when the genealogy of King David is presented starting with Tamar’s son Peretz, rather than with Yaakov or Avraham.
On “Akdamus Millin…”
This mystical liturgical poem (piyut), composed by Rabbi Meir ben Yitzchak Shatz (11th century; Worms, Germany) is read by Ashkenazic communities on the first day of Shavou'ot before the Torah reading. “Akdamus Millin” means “introduction to the words” (of the Ten Commandments).
It consists of ninety stanzas written in cryptic Aramaic. The first forty-four verses form a double acrostic of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet. The remaining verses begin with letters that together spell out the name of the author and a blessing “Meir the son of Rabbi Yitzchak, may he grow in Torah and in good deeds Amen. Be strong and of good courage.”
Each one of the stanzas ends with a two letter Aramaic word Tah --Tuf-Aleph-- the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The use of these letters reminds us that the study of Torah is endless. Even if one has learned it and reached the end—the letter Tu--one must immediately return to the beginning, -- the letter Aleph-- and start again.
Akdamus is a kind of preface to the Torah reading which describes the events leading up to and then the actual giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
Aryeh Pinchas Strickoff (son of my good friends Kive and Carol Strickoff) provides an analysis of the structure of Akdamus in his recently published book, “Inside Akdamus” (Feldheim Publishers).
The poem centers around three major themes:
Describing and depicting the glory of God
Describing and praising the greatness of the Jewish nation
Describing the reward awaiting the righteous in the World to Come (Olam Habah)
It concludes with a blessing for those listening and following the Ten Commandments and then a paraphrase of the blessing recited over the Torah.
“Shavou’ot (Pentecost) Guide for the Perplexed”
Yoram Ettinger, Israel Ambassador (ret.)
1. The Shavou’ot (Pentecost) holiday commemorates the receipt of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), which enshrines liberty and morality, as demonstrated by a whole night study on the eve of Shavou’ot (the “Enhancement of Shavou’ot” – Tikoon Shavou’ot in Hebrew):
* The liberty of the Land of Israel, which was initially pursued by Abraham the Patriarch 3,500 year ago;
* The liberty to embrace the Torah of Israel, which was transmitted through Moses;
* The liberty of the People of Israel, who were united by King David.
The acronym of the Hebrew spelling of Abraham (אברהם), David (דוד) and Moses (משה) is Adam (אדם), which is the Hebrew word for “human-being.” It is, also, the root of the Hebrew word for “soil” – אדמה, a symbol of humility.
Shavou’ot (the Hebrew word for “weeks”) is celebrated seven weeks following the second day of Passover, and constitutes a historical, national, agricultural and spiritual extension of Passover. While Passover highlights the liberty from slavery, Shavou’ot highlights the liberty to embrace the Torah, in preparation for the liberation of the Land of Israel. The harvesting season starts with Passover and concludes with Shavou’ot, which is also named the Holiday of the Harvest. Shavou’ot is one of the three Jewish liberty-oriented pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
Shavou’ot highlights reality as documented by the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, forty years in the desert and the litany of wars and destructions: liberty – just like the Torah – is acquired through willingness to sustain tribulations (blood, sweat and tears). The steeper the hurdle, the more critical the mission, the deeper the gratification. Thus, adversity and challenges are opportunities in disguise.
2. In the US, the Early Pilgrims and Founding Fathers were inspired by the Biblical concept of liberty, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt (Britain), through the Parting of the Sea (the Atlantic Ocean), and the return to the Promised Land (the early Colonies). The Biblical concept of liberty impacted the US Constitution with its Separation of Powers and Checks & Balances, the Bill of Rights and the Abolitionist movement.
3. The Jubilee – the cornerstone of the Biblical/Mosaic concept of liberty, which is celebrated every 50 years – inspired the US Founding Fathers. Hence, the inscription on the Liberty Bell (Leviticus 25:10 – the essence of the Jubilee), which was installed in 1752, the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Jews study that portion of the Five Books of Moses two weeks before Shavou’ot. Moreover, according to ancient Jewish Sages, the globe was created through 50 gates of wisdom, and the 50th gate was the gate of jubilee/liberty/deliverance. Also, the USA is composed of 50 states. Thus, Shavou’ot – which is celebrated 50 days following Passover - sheds light on the Judeo-Christian values, which contributed to the foundation of the US legal and moral ethos, underlying the unique covenant between the American people and the Jewish State.
In addition, the British philosopher, John Locke, who was involved in the early days of the Carolinas, wanted the 613 Laws of Moses to become the legal foundation of the Carolinas. Moreover, President Lincoln’s famous 1863 quote - "government of the people, by the people, for the people" - paraphrased a statement made by the 14th century British philosopher and translator of the Old Testament, John Wycliffe: “The Bible is a book of the people, by the people, for the people.”
4. Humility. Shavou'ot commemorates the receipt of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and its 613 statutes - an annual reminder of essential values. The Torah was received in the desert, on Mount Sinai, which is not a very tall mountain, highlighting humility, a most critical value of human behavior and leadership. Moses, the exceptional law-giver and leader, was accorded only one compliment: "the humblest of all human beings."
5. Human behavior. Personal liberty mandates respect toward the liberty of fellow human-beings. It is customary to study - from Passover through Shavou'ot/Pentecost – the six brief chapters of The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkey Avot in Hebrew), one of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah) - a compilation of common sense principles, ethical and moral teachings, which underline inter-Personal relationships. For example:
*"Who is respected? He who respects other persons!"
*"Who is a wise person? He who learns from all other persons!"
*"Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his own share!"
*"Who is a hero? He who controls his urge!"
*"Talk sparsely and walk plenty;"
*"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"
*"Don't be consumed with the flask, but with its content."
*Conditional love is tenuous; unconditional love is eternal."
*"Treat every person politely."
*"Jealousy, lust and the obsession with fame warp one's mind."
6. Jubilee/Constitution. Shavou'ot has seven names (Pentecost is celebrated on the 7th Sunday after Easter):
The holiday of the Jubilee/fiftieth (חמישים)
The holiday of the harvest (קציר)
The holiday of the giving of the Torah (מתן תורה)
The holiday of the offerings (ביכורים)
The rally (עצרת)
The assembly (הקהל)
The Hebrew acronym of the seven names is חקת שבעה, which means “The Constitution of the Seven.”
7. Seven. Shavou’ot reflects the centrality of 7 in Judaism.
• The Hebrew root of Shavou’ot (שבועות) is Seven (שבע - Sheva), which is also the root of “vow” (שבועה – Shvoua’), “satiation” (שובע – Sova) and “week” (שבוע – Shavoua’)
• Shavou’ot is celebrated 7 weeks following Passover
• The Sabbath is the 7th day of the Creation in a 7-day week
• The first Hebrew verse of Genesis consists of 7 words
• According to Genesis, there are 7 beneficiaries of the Sabbath
• God created 7 universes – the 7th hosts the pure souls, hence “Seventh Heaven”
• 7 monumental Jewish leaders – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aharon, Joseph and David (representing 7 human qualities)
• 7 Jewish Prophetesses (Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Abigail, Hulda and Esther)
• 7 major Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles, Chanukah, Purim, Passover and Shavou’ot)
• 7 species of the Land of Israel (barley, wheat, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive and date/honey)
• The Jubilee follows 7 seven-year cycles, etc.
8.Agriculture. Originally, Shavou’ot was an agricultural holiday, celebrating the first harvest/yield by bringing offerings (Bikkurim-ביכורים) to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, following the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the exile in 70 AD, the focus shifted to Torah awareness, in order to sustain the connection to the Land of Israel and avoid spiritual and physical oblivion.