Shavuot: When the Final Countdown Fades Away, By Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz

The process of Matan Torah occurred in two stages. Both of these stages were subject to unintended consequences which severely detracted from their impact. The issue of time was a significant factor in the difficult outcome of these stages.

The first stage of Matan Torah was God’s revelation at Sinai and His transmitting the Ten Commandments to Israel. There is a controversy in the Talmud between Rav Yosi and the Rabbis whether this process was of a six or seven day duration.

Rava stated, “everyone agrees that they (Israel) arrived at the wilderness at the first day of the month (Sivan) . . .and all agree that the Torah (Ten Commandments) was given to Israel on the Sabbath . . .they argue about when the new month began. Rav Yossi believed that the new month began on the first day of the week (Sunday) thus the Ten Commandments were revealed on the seventh day of the month, . . .and the Rabbis believed that it (the beginning of the month)was on the second day of the week (thus the Ten Commandments were given on the sixth day of the month.” Shabbat 86b-87a.

In the intervening days between Israel’s arrival and God’s revelation, Moshe conveyed to them (Israel) both God’s covenant and the restrictions that they were to observe before the revelation could occur. If they were to heed God’s word and observe His covenant, they would be His special treasure, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus, 19: 5-6. The people were thrilled by this pronouncement and immediately answered in unison, “everything which God stated, we will do.” Exodus 19:8.

When the revelation occurred, however, matters quickly changed. Upon beholding the sounds, flames, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain enveloped by smoke, the people were stricken with terror and started to run away. According to the Ramban, Moshe had to run after them and reassure them to remain. At most, they stood at a far distance and refused to hear God directly for they feared for their lives. See Ramban on Exodus 20:15.

“They said to Moshe, you speak to us and we will listen, but let not God speak to us for we shall surely die.” Exodus, 20:16. According to Rashi, Moshe stressed to the people, that God was attempting to prevent them from sinning by demonstrating His power. Moreover, this was His way of raising their stature in the eyes of all the nations of the world for He only spoke to them alone. Rashi, 20:17.

All however, was to no avail. They remained at a far distance and would not come closer to God. The confidence which they exuded at the start of this process quickly dissipated and they remained in a state of total fear.

In the second stage of Matan Torah, the exact opposite occurred. Moshe returned to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments inscribed by the finger of God, and to receive instruction about the Torah as a whole. Exodus, 31:18. Before he returned to the mountain, he told the people that he will return in forty days within the sixth hour of the day. The people thought that the day that he went up was to be part of the count. But he really said, forty complete days, forty days and forty nights. See Rashi, 32:1.

When the people saw that Moshe was late in returning, they took the opportunity to reject Moshe and his teaching. They clamored for other leadership or indeed other gods. All this culminated in the infamous incident of the golden calf.

How can we explain the downfall of Israel at the end of both stages of Matan Torah? What they both have in common is the factor of time. During the first stage of Matan Torah, the timeframe was too short. And during the second stage, it was too long.

In the first stage, they had six or at most seven days to prepare themselves for a direct encounter with God. Since the moment of the Exodus, they were preoccupied with avoiding the Egyptians who pursued them and the Philistines that awaited them, crossing the Red Sea, securing food and water and battling the Amalekites. They did not fully understand or had the time to prepare for direct interaction with God. For that, they would need time to study and learn, and develop their minds to acquire an inkling of the Divine. Moshe required the time to teach them. Even after that, the experience would be overwhelming. This is especially true for people who were immersed in superstition for many generations.

Moshe returned to the mountain right after the first stage of revelation and had no time to teach or prepare the people to receive the Torah. After waiting for forty days without true preparation, the effects of the first stage of revelation were beginning to wear off. The people lost their fear of God and their respect and appreciation for Moshe. Once boredom set in, they were ready to dispense with God and the moral structure to which they were introduced. In this case, time was their enemy.

The counting of Sefira is important because it enables us to focus our minds on the passage of time. Each day is seen as an individual unit which is counted as a separate event. At the same moment , it is part of a greater whole which leads in a certain direction. It creates a sense of anticipation that a major event will occur in our lives as we ready ourselves to relive the moment of revelation and ultimate learning.

The Torah becomes the only means through which we can relate and understand the most that the human mind is able to grasp about the nature of the one true God. We count time, but it is not meaningless time, but one which has a definite direction and is able to awaken our minds of what is possible for us to achieve.

It is for this reason that Shavuot is the only holiday or festival that is not declared by the Torah as occurring on a certain month and on a certain date. The festival Shavuot is entirely established as the result of the meticulous daily counting of the people which occurs on the fiftieth day following the seven week counting after the first day of Pesach. It is true that no event today can compare with the revelation at Sinai. Nevertheless when we relive that experience albeit in a much more limited way, we are still reminded that acceptance of the Torah requires much thought that is coupled with a profound sense of preparation and anticipation.

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