Shavuot: Under the Mountain and Dreaming

For Shavuot, I am posting something I wrote many years ago, apparently just before Shavuot 2003, and shared by email at that time to some family and friends. I was finishing my first year of YU at the time.

Shavuos: Standing Under the Mountain

LEVEL 1: Where Yirah Fights Ahavah

THE APPARENTLY WILLFUL nature with which the Jews accepted the Torah at Har Sinai was only goat-skin deep. “Na’aseh v’nishma,” they told Hashem, “we will do [first] and only then hear [your explanations; i.e., we accept Torah unconditionally and without the need for prior justification or explanation]” (Shemos 24:7). But commenting on the Torah’s statement that the encamped Jews, in waiting for the Torah’s revelation by G-d, stood “underneath the mountain” (Shemos 19:17), the Gemara (Shabbos 88a) reveals another side to their acceptance: “Kafah Hakadosh Baruch Hu aleihem as ha’har ki’gigis,” “Hashem held Mt. Sinai over their heads like an overturned barrel,” and provided them an ultimatum that they accept the Torah or be buried inside the mountain. Their “decision” was thus predetermined; it was Torah or death. What, then, was the great merit in the nation’s accepting lives of Torah? And what of our own obligation – how can we be considered responsible for a commitment made through apparent blackmail?

The Gemara proceeds to ask this very question and responds that in the time of Purim the Jews reaccepted the Torah wholeheartedly and without coercion (see Esther 9:27 and Rashi there). From then on, and continuing forever, the Torah has and will be the responsibility of the Jewish people.

But there is still a question: what of the Jews’ keeping of the Torah – and punishments for not doing so – from the time of Sinai until the time of Purim? How could Moshe exhort them throughout the rest of the Torah that they must safeguard a Torah whose acceptance would not be binding until the time of Purim hundreds of years later? Indeed, we were exiled from our Land before the Purim era for not keeping the Torah! Furthermore, the Jews reaccepted the Torah twice prior to Purim – first at Har Grizim and Har Eval (see Devarim 27; see also 29:8-28) and then again at the end of Sefer Yehoshua (see Chapter 24). Why does the Gemara skip to Purim as the earliest reacceptance? Furthermore, the “acceptance” in Megillas Esther (9:27) is actually the acceptance of their institution of Purim as a holiday which the Gemara extrapolates to be the larger reacceptance of the whole Torah. Surely this is not more indicative than the blatant reacceptance of the Torah found at the end of Devarim! It would seem that both problems – the problem of their being subsequently exiled from Eretz Yisroel (after Devarim but before Purim) and the problem of the Purim declaration being only an indirect reaffirmation of the truth of the Torah – could be solved by pinning the Jews’ reacceptance of the Torah on the end of Devarim. Why, then, does the Gemara put so many feathers in the cap of Purim, as opposed to Har Grizim and Har Eval?

Tosafos to our Gemara (Shabbos 88a) answers that the acceptance of Devarim is less consequential because there, like a merciful master, G-d was giving us the opportunity to reaffirm our faith on our own – but the guiding impetus was still His and the reacceptance thus less impactful than that of Purim. (Tosafos also points out that the reaffirmation in the time of Yehoshua was merely that they would not worship idols but not that they would worship G-d alone; we see throughout Tanach that these two are mutually exclusive; the Jews needed to state both in order to please Hashem.*) The acceptance of Purim, it appears, was the first truly independent, non-coercive, self-guided declaration of kabbalas haTorah in the history of the Jewish people.

In fact, though, this answer of Tosafos is difficult to take. While the reacceptance by the Jews at Har Grizim and Har Eval was in fact not of their own volition, as Tosafos notes, nor was Purim! At Purim time, as the Gemara and Rashi explain, the Jews saw the miracle, fell in love with Hashem, and reaccepted the Torah – but then that miracle was no less an impetus to their reacceptance than was the request by G-d at Har Grizim and Har Eval; both were brought forth by G-d, and we can accept that no acceptance has ever been acceptable.

What Tosafos likely mean, however, is that if, as the Gemara relates, the Jews accepted the Torah on Purim out of love, then it is impossible that their acceptance of the Torah was predicated on the miracle before them. The miracle may have brought them to such a state, but it was not the miracle itself – whereas it had been the request itself at the end of Devarim – which prompted this reaction from the Jews. True love mandates that one relinquish all extrinsic elements of that love in favor of the purest object of that love. The Jews’ seeing the miracle was irrelevant in light of their falling in love – the miracle was thence nullified in favor of the love which they had for G-d because of the miracle. By this definition, then, Purim was a proper reacceptance of the Torah, Har Grizim was not, and the Gemara appears understandable in its jumping so many centuries.

But we have not answered our other initial question: how could the Jews be held to task for not keeping the Torah between Shavuos and Purim? The answer to that question is also the solution to this next puzzle: with Purim codified and the Torah reaccepted in so definitive a way, the further need for Shavuos (which commemorates only our earlier acceptance of the Torah) is hard to understand. After all, why have a date on our calendar which marks only an event whose importance was later obfuscated by a better event? It would seem that Purim should have replaced Shavuos; our forced acceptance was uprooted by our willing one.

Yet we cannot do away with Shavuos so quickly – for it gave us the push which allowed the Jewish people to go forward and eventually get to that happier point of Purim; without the mountain over our heads, we could never have arrived at our own communal realization of Torah’s importance on Purim. The Gemara tells us that mitoch shelo lishma, bo lishma: we do not stop a person from learning Torah for external reasons since he MAY come to more later come to correctly learn Torah for the right, intrinsic reasons. The Jewish people exemplified this principle in their march from Shavuos to Purim.

SHAVUOS, THE HOLIDAY commemorating that original acceptance of the Torah, is notably different from the rest of the yearly holiday cycle in its lack of notability. It has no laws indigenous to itself and almost no minhagim (not even any chumros!). It contains no separate Tractate of Gemara and almost no mention at all in Mishna; it is barely spoken of in Shulchan Aruch (the code of Jewish law) and has almost no laws or customs of its own. Hard to pass by just weeks after Pesach, the subject of eight perakim of Mishna, 120 pages of Gemara, most of a volume of Mishna Berurah, countless laws and customs, and often thousands of dollars per year. What happened to Shavuos? Why such silence? Surely the holiday noting our acceptance of the Torah warrants more discussion.

The Rambam, in Hilchos Teshuva (10:1-3), utilizing the Gemara’s teaching mentioned above that mitoch shelo lishma, bo lishma, teaches that the uneducated should first worship G-d on the easier level of fear (yirah) so that they will later worship correctly, out of love (ahavah). Between Shavuos and Purim, that personal odyssey became the communal destiny of the Jewish people which worshipped first out of fear (with a mountain over our heads) and only later out of true love of G-d (after seeing the miracle of Purim). While this earlier acceptance sufficed to hold us over until Purim, it is nothing to celebrate – and so we preserve Shavuos, but without the fanfare and accolades of Purim. G-d realized that this fear was the only way in which these early Jews could have any acceptance of and share in the Torah, but this was not the ideal. It was when this glum Shavuos acceptance of fear was replaced by the preferred Purim acceptance of love that it was truly time to celebrate. Any acceptance of Torah is worthy of a holiday, but Purim is a much greater cause of celebration – it marks our newfound communal love of G-d which replaced our fear of Him marked by Shavuos. Truly a reason to drink! (And drink and drink!)

What emerges is that Shavuos, the holiday without a paradigm, contains a very important one. Shavuos is the holiday not of acceptance of Torah but of growth through Torah. On Shavuos we accepted the Torah out of fear. This would have been a tragic day had it not been the harbinger of a much greater day to which it would lead. Shavuos teaches us that being on the path from Shavuos to Purim, from lo lishma to lishma, from yirah to ahavah, is not just valuable for the destination but for the journey as well. This journey, too, is a reason to celebrate.

In its quietude, Shavuos shares something in common with one more holiday – Chanukah. While Chanukah’s loud, Rabbinically-ordained partner Purim boasts its own Megillah, a Tractate of Talmud, a host of mitzvos and customs, and much annual fanfare, the more sedate Chanukah contains one law and a few pages of Gemara (Shabbos 21b-24b), but little else. We light the candles – and that is all. What is the nature of Chanukah, and why is the one holiday specifically marked for “pirsumei nissah” (wide-spread publicity of the miracle) kept so secret? Purim, with its public reading of the Megillah and masquerading, could be a better marketing tool! Chanukah is hardly noticed (and many try to restrict its publicity even further).

Perhaps the publicity demanded of us on Chanukah is of a different sort. If quiet Shavuos and loud Purim represent, respectively, our public coerced and self-generated acceptances of the Torah, perhaps Chanukah, both in its simplicity and in its conceptual individuality, marks each individual’s rekindling of his own inner desire to learn Torah each year – what is required of us is a more personal pirsumei nissa. On the bookends of time, Shavuos, a low-key festival, and Purim, a most public one each mark our communal acceptance of the Torah. But within the nation as a whole, how do individuals show their own acceptance? When can individuals express their own longing and desire to simply, quietly learn Torah? Enter Chanukah, the festival of rekindling par excellence.

And what do we publicize on this hidden holiday of Chanukah? How are we to understand the paradox that this secret festival is the one which is supposed to be the most open? Consider one pivotal difference between Purim and Chanukah: on Purim (and most other holidays) it is perfectly legitimate to fulfill one’s obligation through another person – one’s reading of the Megillah may exempt as many people as are present in the Shul. On Chanukah, the holiday of individual acceptance, each person must light for himself. The Gemara (Shabbos 21b) says that “mitzvas Chanukah, neir ish u’veiso; vihamihadrin, neir lichal echad v’echad …” – the mitzvah of Chanukah is that each household light one candle; the better way to perform the mitzvah is for each person in every household to light one. The greater the observance of this mitzvah, the more personal and personalized the mitzvah becomes; ideally, every Jew in the nation has his own light and nobody lights for anyone else. For Chanukah is the holiday in which every Jew must take a role – no general, communal acceptance will suffice in the manner of Shavuos or Purim. The pirsumei nissa is to take place within each and every home, or ideally within each and every Jew. Each and every one of us must be reminded by the sight of his own candles that he is an important and unique member of the Jewish nation. Perhaps this is why the tool of the holiday is a candle, often analogized as the quintessential module of continuity: one candle can light others ad infinitum; so, too, each Jew must be reminded on these days that it is his responsibility to share his Torah with as many others as possible. **

Let’s go back to the Rambam cited above (Teshuva), that dealing with life as a process of growth from Yiras Hashem (fear of G-d) to Ahavas Hashem (love of G-d). In the words of the Rambam (10:2), ahavah “is the level which is exceedingly great and which every smart man does not reach – and this is the level of Avraham Avinu who was called G-d’s beloved because he served only out of love.” Yet the Rambam goes on to teach that yirah is to be instilled only in “foolish, unlearned people; [medieval] women; and children” (10:1) who should use this yirah merely as a stepping-stone in getting to ahavah. Where, then, does that leave the “ideal” Jew? Is he condemned to selecting between the simplicity of a child or the impossible heights of the progenitor of Jewish leadership?

Perhaps Rambam is saying that just the opposite is true. No one is destined to make such a choice – all of life is a continuum, a journey from the lowest to the highest levels of avodas Hashem. True, the peak is set very high, the bar is raised noticeably above our heads; but our mission is only to climb as high on that ladder of faith as possible: as the Mishna in Avos says, “Lo alecha haMelacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin lihibatel mimena.” True, it is exceedingly difficult to reach the level of Ahavas Hashem of Avraham Avinu, but it is only the climb up the ladder which is sought by Hashem anyway. If He wanted our feet to land squarely on the highest rung, our life would be both hopeless and eventually pointless – what would be our job after that? Game over, with years or decades left to live? And so the journey from Shavuos to Purim plays out in each of our own lives every day, as we strive to climb from the ranks of the uneducated to the heights of greatness, knowing all the while that we will probably, and even ideally, always be somewhere in the middle.

The Gemara tells us that rachmana liba ba’ey – Hashem desires to see that we have placed our heart upon the task of climbing ever higher. That is how the nation’s challenge of Shavuos and Purim is represented by each person’s life-long challenge of Chanukah, that quintessential holiday of personal rekindling of the drive to be on that path, to climb higher from the yirah of a small child to the ahavah of Avraham Avinu, but all the while to remember that being on that journey is more integral to one’s examined spiritual life than ever reaching the final destination.

And so Chanukah finds a friend in Shavuos, both quiet holidays of renewal and reacceptance. And Chanukah, a time of personal, love-based acceptance serves also as a counterpart to Purim’s communal, love-based acceptance. We need the rejuvenation of a Purim to remind us of the most proper derech in serving Hashem – out of love – and the dimmed catharsis of a Shavuos to instill in us the understanding that even an acceptance of a lower level, one of fear, is important if it leads us on the road to a Purim worthy of real celebration. And for the lonely man in each of us just wanting to serve Hashem simply and without fanfare there is Chanukah, renewal of the individual’s fire for G-d and His Torah.

LEVEL 2: Where Yirah Becomes Ahavah

THIS IDEA OF a life-long journey from ahavah to yirah is in need of its own exploration if it is to serve as an instructive and useful barometer of growth in Avodas Hashem.

Consider a Mishna in Sotah (5:5) in which a discussion ensues as to whether Iyov served G-d out of fear or out of love. Initially, Rebbe Yehoshua Ben Herkonus asserts that Iyov served out of love as exemplified by the posuk that “even if G-d were to kill me, TO HIM (“לו”) would I yet gaze” (Iyov 13). But one short word, “lo,” causes a problem in the Mishna: if spelled lamed aleph (“לא”), the verse would carry quite the opposite message. An alternative posuk is supplied as proof that Iyov indeed served out of love, a final posuk is brought to counter the former, and the matter is left dramatically unresolved.

Several problems emerge from this Mishna:

(1) The second verse, brought in to defend the argument that Iyov served out of love, contains the same ambiguous “lo” as the first verse! It could be read, as the Mishna does, “until I die I WILL NOT remove my innocence,” or it could be read “should I die, I WILL remove my innocence TOWARDS HIM.” Why is this any more solid a conjecture on the part of the Mishna?

(2) The only posuk actually containing either word – ahavah or yirah – is the final verse, which contains a clear reference to Iyov’s serving out of fear. Why is this posuk not conclusive proof, and why is it not brought at the beginning to make the same point made at first by a more ambiguous reference?

(3) In explaining the two ways of understanding the first posuk, the Mishna should have used the two variances of “לו” or “לא,” but the Mishna does not. It instead lists the two possibilities as “לו” or “איני” (lit., I will not). Why this further ambiguity in explaining the original ambiguity of the posuk?

Commenting on this Mishna, the Rambam asserts that the two variations “לא” and “לו” are interchangeable and that either word can take on either meaning (“not” or “I will”) at any point in time. This would beg the argument that this Mishna’s discussion is irrelevant from the get-go – regardless of the spelling, either verse could have either meaning! The Rambam, understood in this way, would be positing that the Mishna’s early question is intended to lead to a Tannaic black hole. It is unlikely that the Rambam is asserting this.

Perhaps the best way to understand this Rambam is in consonance with the Tiferes Yisroel (Yachin, 20) on this Mishna who understands the spelling differential differently. To him, both spellings could be expressions of negativity, with לא retained as we understood it: “I WILL NOT gaze,” and לו a note of rhetorical exclamation: “TO HIM I would gaze?!” The inconsequential nature of the spelling pointed out by the Rambam is not a product of their random interchangeability but of their intrinsic interconnectedness: the Mishna is not saying that their two meanings must be equally considered but that their two meanings are really one and the same.

Answers to the three questions above illustrate this point more fully. If the Mishna was, ultimately, interested in bringing out a point about the similarity between ahavah and yirah, then there is no problem with bringing up another לא / לו ambiguity – for it was not this ambiguity which concerned the Mishna in the first place. Perhaps this sheds light on the second question as well – had we found a conclusive proof immediately, the idea that ahavah and yirah are interchangeable could not have been brought out. The Mishna, perhaps, was so chiefly interested in expressing the similarity between yirah and ahavah that it did not even bring up as obvious a source as the final one until the point had been brought out lest it forfeit that very point! And as to the third question: the Mishna is not discussing variant spellings of two homographs but is teaching a larger, more conceptual point about the interconnectedness of their ideas which was more explicitly brought out by the inclusion of the otherwise irrelevant “aini.”

But can the Mishna really mean that ahavah and yirah are interchangeable, as the Tiferes Yisrael (and perhaps Rambam) assert? Let’s see the Gemara to that Mishna.

The Gemara (31a) offers a statement written one way (לא) which must necessarily be understood with its opposite spelling (לו) in an apparent agreement with our surprising understanding of the Mishna that the two possibilities are interchangeable. Then the Gemara explains this mystery of interchangeability between ahavah and yirah by pointing out that Iyov, like Avraham (the oheiv par excellence), served G-d in both ways! “Just as fear of G-d as exemplified by Avraham was a service of love,” says the Gemara, “so too was the fear of Iyov.” Yira as ahava – a strange idea.

Rashi explains: Love is to be separated from fear. These (ideas under discussion) are love of reward and fear of pitfalls, curses, and punishments. (In such a case, both love and fear are wrong.) But here (in reference to Iyov) we have love of the Omnipresent and fear of He Whose fear is great and placed on all the creations.” A remarkable upgrade from the limited understanding we developed earlier: Fear and love are indeed both right and wrong. Fear of punishment and curse is always wrong, but love of reward is equally always wrong. Fear of G-d Himself, or love of G-d Himself, are equally and always proper and not at all at odds – though, as we have seen, the former must lead to the latter in order to be useful.

The Jews at Har Sinai with the mountain over their heads are to be pitied not for their fear per se but for the misplacement of their fear – for their fear of the mountain over their heads, for their fear of not measuring up to the high standard which was being metaphorically and physically set up for them. Love or fear would have been acceptable – Purim may have happened right away – had their love or fear been aimed at the One above the mountain. But, then, if Purim had been achieved so soon and so easily, what fun would have been the unfurling flag of history for us to watch? The journey of two thousand years begins with a single gift.

“If people are good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”                                 – Albert Einstein

* This latter statement of Tosafos is not understandable to me given the Jews’ explicit statement in Yehoshua 24:21 and 24:24 that they would serve G-d alone. Indeed, the statement immediately preceding their explicit acceptance of Yehoshua’s covenant (24:25) is one of solidarity with G-d (24:24).

** For a startling discovery of the nature of the fusion between Purim and Chanukah check out the actual (k’siv) wording (NOT its kri correction) in Esther 9:27. Kimu vikibeil – It’s singular, just like Chanukah! Gevalt! If you’re so inclined, check out Minchas Shai there.

Bonus question: One which has been bothering me since I went through the Gemara about Chanukah this year. The Gemara (Shabbos 21b) asks an elusive question about Chanukah which we do not find in relation to any other holiday (as far as I know): “Mai Chanukah” – what is Chanukah? One would expect the Gemara to launch into a discussion either about the original two miracles or of our lighting candles today, but it does not. Instead the Gemara answers that Chanukah is “… timanyah iynun d’lo limispeid bihon udilo lihisanos bihon,” eight days on which we neither deliver eulogies nor fast. Apparently, searching for the paradigmatic element of Chanukah, this is the most fitting answer the Gemara could find. Why might this be so?

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