The Medium and the Message

  • Rav Asher Meir

 

Chaim Bermant, the Anglo-Jewish humorist, was reported to have quipped that Shavuot is his favorite holiday. Why? On Pesach you can't eat WHAT you want; on Sukkot you can't eat WHERE you want; on Rosh Ha-shana you can't eat WHEN you want; on Yom Kippur you aren't allowed to eat at all!

Humor aside, the lack of specific commandments incumbent on the individual for Shavuot is conspicuous. There is the commandment of bringing the first fruits, which is connected to the agricultural aspect of the holiday. However, unlike Pesach, when we are commanded to eat matzot as a remembrance of the haste of the Exodus, or Sukkot when we are commanded to sit in sukkot as a remembrance of the booths in which we dwelt in the wilderness, Shavuot has no observances connected to its historical aspect as "Zeman Matan Torateinu" - the time of the giving of our Torah.

Perhaps it is precisely this absence of commandment which is connected to the historical aspect of the holiday. To appreciate this insight, let us examine carefully the relationship between the study and the performance of the commandments.

Ostensibly, the study of Torah is merely a means to an end. Study provides the information needed for proper performance of the commandments. At first glance, this approach appears to be borne out by the words of our Sages. The Tannaim asked which is greater - the learning or the performance of Torah? They conclude: "Gadol talmud she-mevi liydei ma'aseh." Learning is greater - only because it leads to performance (Kiddushin 40).

The Rambam, however, understood differently. In the first chapter of the Laws of Talmud Torah, he writes: "Study takes precedence, since study brings about performance - but performance does not bring about study." The fact that performance does not lead to study is irrelevant if Torah study were not an end in itself. According to the Rambam, therefore, the fact that learning brings about action is its unique advantage, rather than its sole significance.

Rav Hutner, in several places in "Pachad Yitzchak" on Shavuot, suggests an even more asymmetrical relationship between study and performance. He explains that study "co- opts" performance: the study of Torah transforms the fulfillment of the commandments into a dimension of the study itself, making it into "active study" - study directed towards action. According to this understanding, we could translate the epigram above: "Great is that study which brings about performance."

The continuation of the above gemara supports the view that study has independent, and paramount, significance. The gemara emphasizes that the Torah was given years before many commandments became obligatory. This demonstrates that God gave us the Torah in order that we study it and meditate on it, not only to serve as a tool informing us how to perform the commandments. Similarly, the expression "Torah u- mitzvot," which appears in several places in the gemara, and which we mention in the formula recited before Kaddish de- Rabannan, also demonstrates that talmud Torah and observance of the commandments are two distinct aspects of service of God. This is also evident from the edict "drosh ve-kabel sekhar" - "receive a reward for seeking the meaning" of the words of Torah, even in cases where these words have no practical application.

This performance-independent aspect of Torah study stems from the fact that the Torah is the word of God, received through a process of Divine revelation whose pinnacle was the revelation on Mount Sinai. The essence of that revelation was certainly not its "information content" - the knowledge that from now on one had to worship one God, to keep Shabbat, and so on; all of these imperatives were known beforehand. The power of the revelation was in the immediate experience of God's presence, expressed through the giving of the commandments.

When we study Torah, we relive the revelation on Mount Sinai. By learning Torah, we do not merely inform ourselves of the content of the commandments: we experience their transmission by the Holy One blessed be He. Rav David Rosen, the Rugochover, is reported to have said: "When I pray, I talk to God; when I study Torah, God talks to me."

Rabbi Josh Berman (in last year's Shavuot e-mail) suggests that it is for this reason that nowhere in Tanakh is Shavuot connected to the giving of the Torah, though there can be no doubt that the revelation on Mount Sinai as reported in the book of Exodus occurred on or about the date of Shavuot. Such a connection would suggest that the giving of the Torah was a one-time historical event which we commemorate annually, as opposed to an ongoing process which we constantly relive.

Similarly, we can suggest that this is the reason that there are no specific commandments relating to the historical event. The unique aspect of Matan Torah was the experience of the Divine Presence through the revelation of the commandments, and not the normative requirement to carry out specific laws. Therefore, we relive the experience through Talmud Torah, rather than through specific observances.

 

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