What the Israeli Mossad and the Holiday of Shavuot Have in Common, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

 In the recent few weeks, Mossad operations have generated considerable attention. From lifting hundreds of kilograms of the most classified materials in the heart of Teheran by dozens of agents to the mysterious assassination of a Hamas terror engineer deep in Indonesia, the Mossad is in the headlines.

So, consider the following description:

Job Description: N/A



Location: N/A

Sounds like a standard description of a Mossad operation, doesn’t it? And yet, it also happens to be the description of the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the only Jewish holiday for which the Torah does not give a set date, does not oblige individuals in any Mitzvahs, and does not inform us about the specific spiritual mission of the holiday.

The Torah mysteriously states:” From the day after the Sabbath… count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord . . . On that same day you are to proclaim a sacred assembly and do no regular work. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. (Leviticus 23: 15-21)

The Torah gives no date, just tells us to count 50 days. And when do we begin? What day after the Sabbath were we to count from? This mystery erupted into a full-scale fight between the Pharisees and the seduces as traditional Jews interpreted “the Sabbath” as referring to Passover while the seduces believed it was referring to the actual Shabbat following Passover. To make things worse we don’t count 50 days. We count 49 and celebrate Shavuot on the 50th day.

Furthermore, in the Shavuot prayers, the holiday is described as “zman Mattan Toratenu-the time we received the Torah”. Where was that? We know where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried, we know where Rachel is buried, we know where the Temple stood, where Jericho, Shechem, and even Mount Carmel are—we don’t know where Mount Sinai is. Not a clue. Why all this Mystery?

Rabbi Yaakov Meir of Ra’anana explains this mystery based on an idea of the 20th-century thinker and psychologist Erich Fromm. In his book Escape from Freedom, Fromm explains the difference between escaping from something and escaping towards something. Naturally, humans escape adversity. When we suffer oppression, we run towards freedom. This is the kind of freedom-seeking behavior that characterized citizens of many countries in the 16th to 19th centuries, from America to Germany.

When it comes to running towards something, humans are far more reluctant. In fact, needing to make meaningful decisions that share our destiny we often prefer taking a back seat. This is why millions of Russians and Germans in the 20th century gladly submitted to the most totalitarian creeds in human history. People preferred to find meaning outside themselves. Fromm writes:”We have been compelled to recognize that millions in Germany were as eager to surrender their freedom as their fathers were to fight for it; that instead of wanting freedom, they sought for ways of escape from it; that other millions were indifferent and did not believe the defense of freedom to be worth fighting and dying for.”
Fromm writes in another place:

“Escape from Freedom attempts to show, modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.”

When God took the Jews out of Egypt they were escaping from; escaping from slavery, attempted genocide, dehumanization, and epic suffering. When God brought us to Sinai, God wanted to see us escaping towards. By not giving a date for the holiday of Shavuot God is telling us: “I can take you out of Egypt, I can even give you the tools for spiritual growth, but for you to grow, you will need to put in the work on your own.”

The difference between Passover and Shavuot is the difference between a parent putting their child on a bike with training wheels and the parent taking those same wheels off. On Passover God tells us to recognize the freedom from slavery he has granted to us. On Shavuot God says: “I have given you all the tools you need, let’s see what you make of it.”

Shavuot is also the time of harvest—chag Hakatzir. It is the time the farmer gets the long-deserved fruit of his hard work. It is at this time that the Torah reminds us that while the money is ours, we need to decide what to do with it; how much will we give to the poor? How will we go about doing that giving? And will we remember the role of Hashem in all the material blessings that we have?

The Israeli Mossad and the holiday of Shavuot, lots of mystery, but all for a reason. The holiday of Shavuot teaches us that the Torah and spirituality are what we make of them. Our personal choices are very much up to us and life is what we make from it. Chag Same’ach!



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