The Completion of Our Exodus From Egypt
The Yom Tov of Shavuot, which begins this coming Sunday night, is unique among all the other Yomim Tovim in our yearly cycle of celebrations. All of our holy days are mentioned in Parshat Emor, Chapter 23 in Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus). All of them are described and a specific date for the initiation of the holiday is mentioned: the 15th of the first month is Pesach, the first day of the 7th month is Rosh Hashanah, the 10th of the seventh month is Yom Kippur, and the 15th of the seventh month is Sukkot.
However, with regard to Shavuot, the Torah does not give a specific date for its celebration. The Torah simply tells us to count 49 days and seven weeks from the second day of Pesach. Then the next day, day 50, we are to sanctify as Shavuot. Invariably, the date is the 6th of Sivan. So why is there this difference with regard to Shavuot? The answer lies in understanding the relationship of Pesach to Shavuot.
Apparently, neither Pesach nor Shavuot are stand-a-lone holidays. Pesach as we know celebrates the involvement of Hashem in our redemption and liberation from 210 years of harsh servitude in Egypt. While this miraculous event warrants our daily praise to Hashem and an annual celebration commemorating the exodus from Egypt, this experience was not the end of the story. Just to have another 3 and a half million people politically and socially free was not the goal of the Exodus.
Let’s go back and look back at the first encounter Moshe has with God at the burning bush. After God introduces the mission, Moshe asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” God answered, “For I shall go with you and this will be your sign that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.” (Shemot 3: 11-12) Clearly, the goal and fulfillment of the Exodus was the receiving of the Torah on Mt Sinai by the nation of Israel.
The rabbis of the Talmud say about that event of Mt. Sinai, “God suspended the mountain over the heads of the people and He said, ‘If you accept the Torah, it will be good, but if you reject it, this will be your burial place.’” What is the understanding of this Midrash? Are we to take it literally? What then was the greatness of the people in accepting the Torah if they had a “gun at their head.” Could it have been a real acceptance and commitment to the Torah?
While it is impossible for a person to first study the entire Torah before one can attest to the veracity of its entirety, these people, over the previous year, were first-hand witnesses to the 10 plagues the struck Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea which was the final blow to Pharaoh and his nation. Along the way to Mt. Sinai, aside from receiving food from heaven, they were also given some mitzvot. God does not remove a person’s free will. They had ample opportunity to reflect and learn. What then are the rabbis telling us with the metaphor of the mountain being suspended over their heads?
Slavery in Egypt was evil because the Jewish people were not free to think and practice their unique way of life. Only the tribe of Levi resisted all efforts to be enslaved. In order for the Jewish nation to exist, they have to be in a situation where they can study, teach and implement the true values of life. The antithesis of this situation was their circumstance in Egypt. Physical liberation was only the first step. It was not the ultimate goal.
At Mt. Sinai, the people did have a choice. This point is exactly what our rabbis are telling us. If we accept the Torah, our lives will have meaning, purpose and fulfill the reason for our existence. However, if we decide to reject the Torah, our lives will be empty and meaningless. We will suffer the worst possible human tragedy. Our souls will remain undeveloped. We will fail to reach the human potential with which God has endowed each of us.
One of our greatest Torah scholars, ben Bag-Bag, states in Pirkey Avot, “הפך בה והפך בה דכלה בה”, “turn it (the Torah) over and turn it over, everything is in it.” He means that the ancient Torah, given to our ancestors thousands of years ago, is as relevant for us today as it was for them. If we want true life, we must take the time to delve into it, learn its eternal lessons, and then incorporate them into how we live. The choice is ours. If we do and accept the Torah, it will be well for us. Our soul and intrinsic value as human beings will be fulfilled. But if we reject it, then our true worth and purpose for existence will have been stunted and curtailed.
As we enter this Shabbat, with our hearts full of prayers for our brethren in Israel, let us reflect upon this idea. The liberation from Egypt, the celebration of Pesach, only finds its fulfillment on Shavuot when each of us recommits to the acceptance of the life and values of our Torah. In this merit, God grants the Jewish people the Land of Israel. May Hashem continue His protecting care over our IDF soldiers, the citizens of Israel, and peace-loving people the world over.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan
(I want to thank my friend and teacher Rabbi Reuven Mann for sharing this idea.)