For Shavuot

For Shavuot


Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild

Beit Warszawa. 28th. May 2020. (6th. Sivan 5780) 

All major Jewish festivals have different layers reflecting different historical periods within and outside the Land, agricultural and post-agricultural activities, and more. Shavuot, as well as being traditionally a harvest festival for the new year’s wheat, is also considered to be the time at which – seven weeks after the Liberation of Pesach – Israel received the specific revelation from God on Mount Sinai, through Moses as the intermediary. The story is (hopefully) well-known – but it is interesting how few people ever actually read it carefully, for the text of the Torah throws out many challenging questions for us all. Nothing, but nothing is as simple as it seems at first sight.

For the moment I shall put to one side the fact that in the Torah we actually have two versions of the initial Commandments – known in Hebrew as the ”Asseret HaDibrot”, the ”Ten Words” – one in Exodus chapter 20, where the event happens within the chronology of the flight of the Israelite slaves from Egypt, across the Sea and into the Wilderness – and once in Deuteronomy chapter 5 when, forty years later, Moses is trying from memory to describe to the next generation what happened and what was said. For fundamentalists it is a major problem that the two versions are not word-for-word utterly identical; for elderly rabbis it is TOTALLY understandable why Moses remembers things differently several decades on.

But even looking at Exodus 20: Before accepting the Revelation the Israelites were told to go into self-isolation for the ‘Shelosh yemei hagbalah’, the three days of keeping apart, they had to wash and avoid intimate contact. Just like now, in fact! Then Moses was summoned by God to ascend the mountain and – well, the text is confused, it cannot be in chronological order, there were a lot of exciting sound effects and clouds, but: Something Happened.

What exactly? We cannot say. According to the text, A Voice gave Moses a set of laws, of instructions, sometimes with a reason attached and sometimes very bluntly, in just two words. We have been analysing these words ever since, dividing them into five that should regulate our relationship to God, and five that should regulate our relationship to others, trying to understand the nuances and interpret the words used. But the concept of Law is vital. The text implies that These Laws were given by This God to This People at This Time – it is an intriguing theological question whether they were ever intended to be universal! But they have effectively become so in all societies that are based upon the biblical traditions.

A Law can work in two ways; It can be imposed from outside, from above, by the collective authority upon the individual, with the threat of terrible punishments for any infringement; Or it can be adopted internally, internalised by the individual who decides that this is how they wish to behave.

Why are these commands given now, on Sinai? Because the people are now freed from slavery and it is precisely when you are free that you need laws. When you are not free all you get are commands and instructions – ”Do this, do that, work now, stop now!….” – all is external and pressure and often with the threat of severe, brutal punishment for non-compliance. But when you are free there is a danger of anarchy and so you need to learn the rules to live by – how to relate to others (even to your parents) or to people you dislike but should NOT murder, or people whom you find attractive but you should NOT ruin their marriages, how to arrange your own calendar, how to treat your animals and give them, too, a day of rest, how to relate to other people’s property (ignore it, don’t envy them, don’t get jealous, just accept that this belongs to someone else)…. and so forth. The Law is to be INTERNALISED so that you apply it for yourself and to yourself, employing self-discipline rather than external threat. The Law becomes in many respects a matter of personal choice – albeit there may be social pressure, but that is different from pressure from a dictator, a tyrant, a king, a Pharaoh. Society will expect you to control yourself and to integrate into the values of mutual respect, respect for private and public property, respect for shared communal time (when to open your shop, when to make music, when to cut the grass, when to keep quiet), respect for morality, respect for the generation before you, and more.

A law-abiding society is one which barely needs any law-enforcement because the people keep to the correct behaviour automatically, at their own wish. Laws of course have a double working; they prevent you doing something unpleasant to someone else but – just as important – they act to prevent someone else doing unpleasant things to you. You can go out on the street and feel safe, you can park your car and feel confident it will not be stolen or vandalised, you can send your children alone off to school without worrying, you can take time for your own spiritual needs without being penalised by your employer (for whom you will work faithfully on the working days), you can grow gently older knowing that your children will take filial responsibility for your needs, and everything is mutual. This should never be ignored, never be underestimated. There is a basic trust in the system. When I grew up in England you were told as a child to go to a policeman if you got lost. I can think of quite a few countries where that would nowadays be the LAST thing a defenceless lost child should do.

So a concept of Law should underlie any successful society. One knows what is permitted, what is encouraged, what is tolerated even if not really approved of, and what is forbidden. One knows where the law protects you and your rights, and where it protects your fellow citizens and their rights. In the nature of things there is usually plenty of scope for discussion and interpretation, which is why we have legal systems in which jurists play out the questions that constantly arise, bringing cases to the courts to test what level of evidence is required, what flexibility may be pleaded for, what punishments are appropriate. Can an old law applying to a donkey, a pack animal, be applied now to a motor vehicle? Can a law that refers to Slaves be applied to Employees? Can a reference to ‘work’ be interpreted only as physical labour or are other activities to be included in the definition too? How does the command to honour one’s parents apply in a patchwork family? Is a new law required for a new situation and who may make it? Almost from the outset Moses will be plunged into decades of debate and argument, about Chukim and Mishpatim and Mitzvot, about how laws of Shabbat apply to a man picking firewood, how laws of inheritance apply if there are no male heirs, and so forth. First the Torah, with the need to appoint judges to handle some issues, then the Mishnah and then the Gemara and then the Codices illustrate the process as the ripples caused by the stones of Real Life grow in the pond of Abstract Law and this is good because Real Life keeps changing and keeps throwing up new legal challenges as new situations are created. Define ‘being alive’ in a time when people can be kept in coma for years; define ‘murder’ when people ask others for help to die…..

On Shavuot, therefore, we celebrate (amongst other things) the concept of Law. Not of oppressive law, not of brutal commands or inflexible instructions, but the very idea that there IS such a thing as ‘Right’ and there IS such a thing as ‘Wrong’. (Something which, remarkably, even many educated people still seem to have difficulty understanding). And the most important person in the whole process is not the tyrant (or Council) who makes the law or the government agent who imposes them or the spy who checks for signs of secret disobedience; No, the most important person is the one who accepts the idea and does their best to live, not by the Laws, but by Law.

And – I hope – this means All of Us.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

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