Shavuot: receiving and accepting

The festival of Shavuot delineates the nature of the event at Sinai as being one of giving. On the other hand, the receiving and acceptance of the Torah is something that has been in perpetual development throughout the generations.

Torah scrolls [illustrative] (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah scrolls [illustrative]
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shavuot is first and foremost Hag Matan Torah − the festival of the giving of the Torah. Note that the emphasis is on the giving rather than the receiving of the Torah. The Ethics of the Fathers includes the concept of receipt only in the context of Moses: “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and gave it to Joshua.” When Moses went up alone to receive the Torah from the Creator, the Children of Israel remained behind and were described as being a “stiff-necked people.”
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The Torah was “imposed” on the people − kafa aleihem har kegigit (“The mountain was held over them like a barrel”). Every single Israelite heard the Ten Commandments and all would proclaim na’aseh ve-nishma (“we will do and we will hear”). Indeed, they recognized the need to respond to commands from on high without reservation, and to leave any questioning for later. Yet still, they needed time to understand and internalize what exactly it was that they had undertaken.
Receiving the Torah and accepting its tenets fully, which include both God-centric (bein adam laMakom) and socially oriented (bein adam l’chavero) commandments, was therefore subject to a delay. And this stall was no accident and neither was it short lived.
The Talmud tells us that the process continued until the time of Mordechai and Esther. In the Book of Esther we read that “[t]he Jews established and accepted upon themselves.” That is, they finally internalized and fully accepted the Torah that had been given generations earlier at Sinai.
The process by which the Jewish tradition developed is illustrated by a Talmudic aggadah or “legend” in which Moses asks the Creator for a vision. God shows Moses the generation of Rabbi Akiva (the rabbinic sage of the Mishnaic period) and Moses is perplexed by the arguments raised by Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. When the disciples ask Rabbi Akiva to explain how he arrives at certain conclusions, the latter responds that it is in accordance with the “law given to Moses at Sinai,” − highlighting how the body of Jewish law had become established in the time leading up to Rabbi Akiva's generation.
The Torah was thus accepted − and not merely received − by the Jewish people only once its interpretation was also accepted as an integral part. Until that happened, it was the province of only a select few - including the Men of the Great Assembly. But all this changed following the destruction of the Second Temple. In the academy of Yavneh, when Rabbi Eliezer purported that differences of opinion should be settled directly by Heaven, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and, quoting Deuteronomy, said “The Torah is not in heaven […] The Torah states that the halakha is decided by the majority.” In other words, God left it to us to interpret the Torah - explicitly and not implicitly.
According to the Sages, God’s reaction to Rabbi Yehoshua’s declaration was unequivocal: “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me!” This is the source of the vitality that characterized the development of Jewish law, as observed by Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller in the 19th century: “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels but to man, with his human reason, even if his apprehension falls short of the truth as apprehended by the higher spiritual intellect.” The Torah is not in heaven’s dominion alone; rather, it is understood and shaped by Torah scholars using the faculty of human reason.
Just as scientific inquiry is constantly enriched by new thinkers − Einsteins who place our everyday world under the spotlight of scientific principles − the same is true for Judaism. Every generation has halakhic luminaries who elucidate Jewish law in the light of changing realities.
This developmental process takes courage, the kind that was inherent in the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the preeminent posek (adjudicator) of our generation. Rabbi Feinstein notes that there is a different kind of truth than the one objectiveness espouses: “Truth for purposes of halakhic ruling, the truth that it is the work of the sage to instruct and for which he is rewarded, is that which the sage determines after striving to the utmost to comprehend the matter − despite the fact that the actual truth may be otherwise.”
This is the secret of how the Jewish tradition has managed to survive over the course of three and a half millennia. Since we are not ministering angels it is incumbent upon the Torah giants of every generation to arrive at rulings in such a way that the Torah will remain a Torah of life, as is written in Leviticus, "ve-chai bahemlive by the commandments.” Adhering to this principle will insure that the tradition will continue to survive for generations to come.
The writer is President of Bar-Ilan University.