Shavuot:A Divine Invitation

Nov 17, 2014

by: Rabbi Francis Nataf,
Teacher, Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya

The Beit haLevi asks an interesting question on the nusach of our Shavuot prayers: We speak of Shavuot as “zman matan torateinu,” yet the Torah was actually given on the seventh day of Sivan, the day after we celebrate Shavuot (ed note; make reference to gemara that discusses this point-see Shabbat 86B-88A).

He answers by pointing out that Moshe extended the purification prior to the giving of the Torah by an extra day. According to the Beit haLevi, this means that while the written Torah was given on the seventh, G- d’s agreement to Moshe’s idea (on the sixth) was a transmission of the Oral Torah. In other words, the Oral Torah is epitomized by G-d’s granting the Jewish people the right to apply our intellect to his words, thereby formulating the Divine Will. Thus, “zman matan torateinu” refers to the giving over of “torateinu,”our Torah, as opposed to the written Torah, which belongs uniquely to G-d.

The Midrash explains how the angels wanted the Torah to be given to them, and not to mankind. On this the Beit haLevi writes that the angels wanted the right to formulate that which we just described as the Oral Torah, in place of the Jewish people. While this may make the midrash more palatable, it remains difficult to see what the angels would have done by applying their own intellect to the Torah. Presumably, angels have no independent will or thought and would only apply G-d’s own intellect in understanding the Torah.

This difficulty could, however, be the precise point of the Midrash. In the Drashot haRan, the Ran points out that the Torah commands us to follow our sages “whether they agree on the truth or its opposite.” This is how the Ran understands the Talmudic dictum “lo bashamayim hee,” that it is not part of the Divine plan that we should apply our intellect and then be corrected by a bat kol or other Divine intervention. Instead, it is G-d’s will that we follow our intellect even if it leads to the wrong conclusions. The midrash illustrates the tension created by such a situation, where angels cry out that the Torah should only be given over to beings that have no independent intellect, and that the Torah should be “bashamayim,”or understood according to its true objective meaning.

The Gemara Kiddushin 32b concludes that the Torah studied by a scholar becomes his very own possession. The Gemara implies that this parallels G-d’s own ownership of the Torah. The ownership being spoken about comes about by the creation or formation of something as opposed to its mere acquisition. Were halacha to be determined by angels or the like, any human effort involved in making the correct application at the correct time would simply be an intellectual exercise. The outcome would be the same whether we applied ourselves or not. Thus man could not truly be said to own the Torah that he creates. Apparently, in creating man, G-d desired the greatest possible incentive to doing His will out of free choice: partnership in the realm of thought.

Along the lines of the Beit haLevi, we have much to celebrate on Shavout. Anyone who has been involved in serious learning has felt the tremendous joy of formulating a chidush or an original Torah thought.

Knowing the nature of Torah requires us to use the greatest possible effort and caution when actually formulating chiddushim. At the same time, realizing the auspicious gift represented by the Divine permission to create chiddushim should elevate us greatly. On Shavout, our elation for literally being given the Torah should know no bounds.

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