Parashat Shavuot: Joy to the world

What is the relationship between the giving of the Torah and the festival of first fruits in the Temple - the two names for Shavuot?

shavuot 88 (photo credit: )
shavuot 88
(photo credit: )
Why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot? What is the relationship between the giving of the Torah and the festival of first fruits in the Temple - the two names for Shavuot? And strangest of all, why was our Torah given in the desert, outside the Holy Land? Would it not have been more fitting to reveal it in Israel, especially since so many of its laws refer to the land (like tithes, the leaving of the corner of the fields for the poor and the sabbatical years). The Ramban (Nahmanides) maintains that Diaspora Jews observe general laws like the Sabbath and tefillin only in order not to forget them before they return to Israel - because he maintains that genuine fulfillment of the biblical laws can only be accomplished here! I would like to emphasize this last question. Why was the Torah given outside Israel? An astounding suggestion is made by Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, known as the Magen Avraham. It so happens that the actual days upon which Passover and Shavuot fall this year are identical to the days at the time of the Exodus - at least according to the major midrashim and the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. According to these sources, 10 Nisan, when the Hebrew families in Egypt were instructed to take a lamb (Exodus 12:3), fell on a Sabbath, known thereafter as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, because the Hebrews were demonstrating their commitment (unto death) to God by preparing the Egyptian lamb god (Aries, the ram) for sacrifice. That means they actually slaughtered the lamb - after having circumcised themselves - the following Wednesday, 14 Nisan. You will remember that Ezekiel envisions God as seeing the Israelites without merits, not yet qualified for redemption, and so He challenged them with the double "whammy" of both circumcision and the paschal lamb, and said unto them, "by your bloods shall you live, by your bloods shall you live" (Ezekiel 16:7,6). They then celebrated their first Seder and left Egypt on Wednesday night - as we all did this year - and began counting the days leading up to the revelation at Sinai (Shavuot) on Thursday night. The 49th day then falls out on Thursday, and so the 50th - Shavuot - is Friday. But all the midrashim, as well as our Sabbath liturgy, maintain that the revelation took place on Shabbat! Enter Magen Avraham with the ingenious hypothesis from which we learn that the second day of the festival in exile emanates from the Bible itself. The first Shavuot fell on Friday - the 50th day - whereas the revelation was not until one day later, Shabbat, the second day of the festival celebrated in the Diaspora. After all, Mount Sinai is not within the land. If the Magen Avraham is correct, the entire festival of Shavuot - the time of the Giving of our Torah - is based on its having been given in exile. Why? I believe that the answer is the same I have given as to why the biblical portion which presents the Decalogue - Yitro - is named for a Midianite priest. Our Torah - certainly the Seven Noahide Laws of morality, even the Ten Commandments and perhaps all 613 commandments - is meant for the entire world. Doesn't Maimonides exhort us to teach every human to keep the Noahide Laws (Laws of Kings 8,10), and insist that eventually "everyone will return to the true religion"? (Laws of Kings 12) Hence our Torah was given in exile because we must bring its life-giving waters even to the desert, and turn even the farthest corner of the exile into an outpost of Torah. My revered teacher Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik contrasts three personalities in The Halakhic Man: the man of science, ish hada'at, for whom this world of observable phenomena is the only important and relevant laboratory; the man of religion, ish hadat, for whom only the ethereal world of the spirit is worthy of consideration; and the optimal personality, the man of Halacha, whose laboratory is the world, but not as it is now. The man of Halacha must enter this world armed with the eternal truths of Torah, which must refine its edges and sanctify its marketplaces. For Rav Soloveitchik as well, Torah must affect - and transform - the entire planet. Obviously this is why we read Ruth on Shavuot. Torah must welcome every gentile into its protective tent. Abraham must realize his destiny as a father of a multitude of nations, and every convert must be seen as another Abraham and welcomed into the family. As Boaz replies to Ruth when she asks why he has shown her, "a stranger," so many kindnesses: "You left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have gone with a nation which you did not know yesterday or the day before..." (Ruth 2:10). Finally, this too is the connection between Shavuot and the festival of first fruits in the Temple. The major function of the Temple is to have all the nations flock to it to learn Torah, "For from Zion shall go forth Torah, and the world of God from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). As Isaiah teaches: "For My house must be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.