Saturday night begins the Holiday of Shavuot. This festival, which is counted among the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot and Passover, is unique in many ways. Most interesting to me personally, coming on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, means that it is not linked to either the full or the new moon (which would be aligned with the 1st or 15th of any Hebrew month). In the Torah, Shavuot is known by many names which say something of its origins. It is called the Festival of Weeks (חג השבועות, Ḥag ha-Shavuot), Festival of Reaping (חג הקציר, Ḥag ha-Katsir), and Day of the First Fruits (יום הבכורים, Yom ha-Bikkurim).
Shavuot, the plural of a word meaning "week" or "seven," alludes to the fact that this festival happens exactly seven weeks (i.e. "a week of weeks") after Passover. So perhaps one could argue it is most closely tethered to the full moon of Nissan, as one begins counting the 49 days of the Omer on the 2nd night of Passover concluding with this harvest festival. But it still feels rather strange to mark such a significant moment on the rather anticlimactic 6th day.
Upon further reflection, I realized that rather than being connected to a prominent lunar cycle, it is connected to a significant moment in our Torah cycle. Every year we begin the 4th book of the Torah, known in Hebrew as Bamidbar and in English as Numbers, the Shabbat before Shavuot. In her new book, Avivah Zornberg explains,
"The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of (lit.) In-the-Wilderness. Although the Israelite wilderness experience begins in Exodus and concludes in Deuteronomy, the book of Numbers claims the interior of this world of wilderness as its peculiar territory. It evokes not only geographical terrain, but also an inner landscape, an 'inscape' as it were--a world of imaginative being" (xi).
Every year, beginning this book calls our attention to the fact that Torah was given in the wilderness. And every year it leads me back to the same question, why in the wilderness? This is a question that the rabbis have been asking for hundreds of years. And it is perhaps the only question where every possible answer is resonant. Perhaps my favorite midrash, which many of you have heard me teach, is that Torah was given in the wilderness so that no one could say it was theirs and in this way Torah would belong to everyone.
This year, I am captivated by a powerful midrash that teaches "...Wilderness [midbar] is, in essence, language [dibbur]. [Ein midbar ela dibbur.]" (Shemot Rabbah 2:5). And it is not just any language, but the Aseret HaDibbrot, the 10 Utterances of Sinai, known as the 10 Commandments. Which begin with the silent, ineffable aleph of "Anochi - I am." So say that from this place of vast uncertainty we call ourselves into existence. This is what it means to experience revelation. Lest we think our deepest teachings are in our control, Torah was given to us in the wilderness. Torah itself is a wilderness.
May we have the courage to journey to the wilderness this Shabbat and Shavuot, whether the landscape or the inscape. And to listen for the still small voice that is eager to reveal to us the Torah that is uniquely ours.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.