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The Human Condition and the Giving of the Torah

By: Rav Chaim Kanterovitz

The Talmud tractate Pesachim (68:b) records a dispute between two major schools of thought represented by the two sages, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer.  How are we meant to celebrate Yom Tov? Rabbi Eliezer taught that a person has two options before him. The first is engaging in eating and drinking the whole Yom Tov long, whilst the second is to devote oneself to prayer and study of Torah.

Rabbi Yehoshua however stated that one should spend the holy day in a split manner. Half of the day should be spent eating and drinking whilst the second half of the time should be spent engaged in Tefilah (prayer) and Torah learning.

The basis of these two opinions is based on how two verses in the Torah are understood. The first verse in Devarim Chapter 16:8 states: “Atzeret (a day of assembly) to the Lord your G-d”. Yet there is another verse in the book of Bamidbar 29:35, also in relation to the festivals, which states: "Atzeret (a day of Assembly) shall be for you".

Accordingly, the sages saw these verses as setting out the emphasis of the conduct of the Jew on the festivals, either spent in their entirety engaged in Godly matters or entirely engaged in physical enjoyment based on whether or not the Torah states it is for you or for the Lord your G-d.

Yet the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua is that it is not one or the other but that one has to engage in both aspects. Whilst Rabbi Eliezer opines that it is a choice and it may be or the other.

However, the Gemara goes on to set out a conclusion which is accepted across the board but which I find really perplexing. The above is true in regards to all the festivals except for Shavuot!

On Shavuot all agree that there is an obligation to partake in a Seudah, a festive meal, eating and drinking. This is so even according to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer who initially gave the option of one or the other. Why is this so asks the Talmud?

It is because it is the day on which the Torah was given! It then follows in the text and concludes that there must be a Seudah a festive meal!

Now, on the surface of things, if I were learning the logical progression of the Talmudic text I would have concluded that on Shavuot it is indeed different from the other festivals. However it would make sense at least to me that on Shavuot one is obligated to engage in prayer and study and not in a Seudah eating and drinking. Especially since the rationale offered by the Talmud is that it due to the day being the day of the giving of the Torah!

This text has been elaborated on by many, and much ink has been spilt in its explanation, yet I believe within lies the secret of Matan Torah and how we should relate to the Torah.

So what can this text mean?

The Talmud Shabbat (88: b) records a phenomenal Midrashic text. I heard this from my master and teacher, the late Rav Lord Jonathan Sacks T”ZL,  several times over the years and believe that this is in effect the answer to our above question.

When Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah the Ministering Celestial Angels came before the Almighty and challenged the entire event. What is a man born of a woman flesh and blood doing amongst us?

The Almighty replied he has come to receive the Torah!

They were aghast; the sought-after precious treasure that was stored away for nine hundred and seventy-four generations shall be given and handed over to flesh and blood? It should remain in the heavens and not be given to mortal man.

At this point in the midrash Hashem turns to the great leader and prophet, Moshe himself, and says: Moshe answer them!

I can’t, Moshe responds. I am afraid they will consume me with the fire of their breath! To which Hashem says - Grab on to my heavenly throne and answer them.

This Moshe does and asks the following questions of the Heavenly beings.

Did you descend to Egypt and suffer there as slaves? In the Torah it is written There shall be no other G-ds. Do you live amongst people and nations that serve other deities? It says Keep the Shabbat day to make it holy. Do you work or labor all week so that you can rest on Shabbat? It instructs us to honor our Father and Mother - do you have parents?

Do not Steal, Do not Murder, Do not Covet; you who have no evil inclination, how does this apply to you? The Angels conceded and the Torah was given to Mankind.

Rav Sacks pointed to this text to show that the Torah was given to mankind with our frailties, weaknesses and downfalls. It was not meant for Angels but for man and human beings err, mankind sin and make mistakes.

The revelation at Sinai and its ensuing covenant was and still is revolutionary. The Torah was never intended for the heavens, there is great value in physical existence and our physical lives, for that is the primary mode of serving G-d and sanctifying the world.

This then could be the meaning behind the conclusion of the Talmudic text. Shavuot is the festival of the giving of the Torah and were it not for our physical bodies and humanity the Torah would never have come down in to the world at all. Hence, we celebrate with eating and drinking extolling our physical beings and sanctifying the day by celebrating our humanity. Even if we are less than perfect!

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

Praying for peace and serenity across Eretz Yisrael at this difficult time:

Rav Chaim Kanterovitz




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