Shavuot Dvar Torah: Revelation through Intimacy
By: Shifra Elman, Jewish Studies Teacher
In a post agrarian society, the rabbis connected the holiday of Shavuot to the Israelites receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. The classic telling of the tale in Exodus 19 is that Moses went up the mountain, received the tablets inscribed with the Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Utterances or better known as the Ten Commandments) and they are given over to the Israelites who stood at a safe
distance from the foot of the mountain. There was thunder, lightning, and smoke! It was all very dramatic and the Israelites accepted the Ten Utterances, which has some of Judaism’s greatest hits, Do Not Kill, Do Not Steal, Remember the Sabbath Day, Honor Your Parents, etc.
But, we recall that there is another telling of the Revelation on Mount Sinai as there are two sets of tablets that were preserved and placed in the Ark of the Covenant, a set of broken tablets and a set of whole tablets. We have the broken tablets because there were two attempts made to give the Torah to the Israelites, the stiffnecked people.
Having recently been freed from slavery in Egypt (Passover), the Israelits are in the desert and Moses leaves them with his brother, Aaron, and goes up Mount Sinai to commune with God and learn the Torah. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered to Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him…he [Aaron] took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:1-4)
Now this is a pretty extreme reaction! After all the miracles they had just witnessed in Egypt and the parting of the Reed Sea which saved their lives, they doubt Moses and God and create an idol. “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain!” (Exodus 32:19)
This was a major breach of trust between God and the Israelites. But, there was already a familial covenant in place between the family of Abraham and God and when God wanted to destroy the Israelites for this breach of trust, Moses implored YHWH on their behalf in the name of the Patriarchs. This is what saved them from total annihilation in that moment, invoking the Patriarchs who came to God as fully fledged and flawed individuals. “When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on his finery. YHWH said to Moses, “Say to the Israelite people, ‘You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you!” (Exodus 33:3-5) The Israelites saw their transgression and repented.
But here is where it gets interesting! Moses is told to carve a second set of tablets, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered…So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai, as YHWH had commanded him, taking the two stone tablets with him. YHWH came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name YHWH. YHWH passed before him and proclaimed: “YHWH! YHWH! a YHWH compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:1-7)
Moses doesn’t proclaim the Ten Utterances as they are written! Instead the verses say Moses, supported by God’s presence, spoke the Thirteen Attributes/yud gimmel middot of God. These thirteen attributes are what we say over and over again on Yom Kippur to remind God to be compassionate towards us by invoking God’s multifaceted character traits. So why are they mentioned here?! I offer this as an explanation, intimate relationships are built between individuals who have explored themselves as individuals and the intimacy is created when the Other is able to experience all of the multifaceted individuality in their partner AND themselves. In the fullness of life and relationships, we hurt one another, we repent, we forgive and are hopefully forgiven, while working towards an ever growing future together. The Israelites left Egypt by the grace and might of God, not of their own merit or volition; they had not yet
individuated and thus could not come to God as a full-fledged partner in their relationship. They were led into the desert and then seemingly abandoned by Moses and God. This moment is where they begin to individuate, left alone with themselves they make the choice to create a new god and take their lives into their own hands. They are now coming into their own, the stiffnecked people are individuating, a key component of a mature relationship. This does not negate the fact that it was a sin to create and worship the gold calf, we all misstep and “sin” in our relationships and we will continue to do so. The mark of deep intimacy is to be able to recognize your own hurtful behavior, experience your partner’s anger and rage, ask for forgiveness, hopefully be forgiven, and come together in deeper union. Once that process is worked through, we can then recognize the multitudes that live within our partners and ourselves.
This is why Moses proclaims the yud gimmel middot! Because in this dance of individuation, repentance, and forgiveness, deeper bonds of intimacy were formed and the Israelites were able to experience many more aspects of the God they knew. And in turn, God gained a partner in the Israelites that had grown in maturity. The Israelites were privy to the multitudes that live within God and thus the Covenant was formed. The Torah was given and it is an everlasting contract between the Jewish people and God. Chag Sameach!
Kehillah’s Shavuot Observance
As a community we came together virtually to observe this special holiday with teacher-lead discussions & activities in the following breakout rooms…
Dairy on Shavuot
Conversation about Conversion
Shavuot and Civil Religion
Click to expand images below
Tikkun Leil Shavuot study sessions you can go to:
Revelation and Innovation: Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot Sunday 3-11:30pm.
JCC East Bay Sunday 3-10pm. Various classes, services, and celebrations.
Re at Palo Alto JCC Saturday 7:30-10pm. Gathering in people’s houses for text study.
DAWN Sunday-Monday 6pm-6am. Food, entertainment, and learning all night.
Shavuot is the time for cheesecake, so here’s 27 recipes!
Don’t forget about blintzes, another dairy dessert!