Unlocking Sefer Vayikra – Mysterious Majesty

29 Apr 2010
OU Press

Questions and answers about the weekly parsha that will open up the text with questions and various approaches. The material is excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s new book Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha on Vayikra.

Mysterious Majesty


As Parshat Emor continues with its description of the festival cycle, we encounter a holiday shrouded in mystery.

A series of enigmas surround both the festival of Shavuot, intro­duced for the first time in this parsha, and Revelation, the historical event with which Shavuot is associated.

1. Although the rabbis identify Shavuot as Zman Matan Torateinu, the anniversary of the giving of our Torah, no actual connection be­tween the holiday and Revelation is made in the text. Shavuot, in fact, emerges as the only one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) for which no historical foundation is recorded in the Torah.

2. At no point does the Torah mention an independent calendar date for the festival of Shavuot. Most often, this holiday is identified as the endpoint of the Omer count (see previous study). The festival’s very title, Shavuot (literally “Weeks”) derives from the celebration’s position as the culmination of the seven-week Omer period.

On one occasion (Bamidbar 28:16–39), in a series of passages clearly identifying the holidays by their calendar dates, Shavuot is again the glaring excep­tion, with even the festival’s relationship to the Omer period omitted. In that case, Shavuot is mentioned without any calendar reference at all.

3. The Torah also fails to pinpoint the specific date of the onset of Revelation at Sinai. The text, in fact, seems to deliberately go out of its way to avoid any clear dating of this event.

4. Finally, in contrast to other festivals, no unique observance is associated in the text with the holiday of Shavuot (all-night learning sessions are a minhag, a custom, and not biblically or even rabbini­cally mandated). This festival is governed only by the generic laws common to all biblical holidays.


Why does so much mystery surround the festival of Shavuot and the com­memoration of Revelation?

Shouldn’t the single most important formative event in Jewish history be clearly dated and uniquely celebrated?



The Torah’s identification of Shavuot as the culmination of the Omer count, as opposed to a holiday with a separate calendar date of its own, may well reflect and expand upon lessons learned from the Omer period itself (see the previous study in the book).

As discussed, many authorities see the mitzva of Sfirat Ha’omer, the counting of the Omer, as an act linking Pesach to Shavuot. In this light, Shavuot is best understood, not as a totally autonomous festival, but as something of a “hybrid” – a continuation of Pesach, yet also a commemo­ration with its own unique identity and message. Shavuot stands as Pesach’s goal, a reminder that the physical freedom achieved with the Exodus is incomplete without the spiritual freedom granted at Sinai.


Another distinct message is conveyed through the Torah’s identification of Shavuot as the culmination of the Omer period: the value of a goal reached is directly dependent upon the quality of the journey that takes you there.

Every life milestone derives its significance, in large measure, from what comes before: the days of study leading to the bar/bat mitzvah; the personal maturation that sets the stage for courtship and marriage; the years of shared love that give rise to an anniversary…

Life’s special occasions would be much emptier without the struggle, growth and rich experience leading to them.

Each year, therefore, we do not return to Sinai without first passing through the Omer. To arrive at the anniversary of Matan Torah without a prior journey would have little meaning. Each year, forty-nine days of preparation, replicating the original forty-nine days of anticipation that led from the Exodus to Revelation precede our arrival. By defining the festival of Shavuot specifically in relationship to those preceding days, the Torah informs us that the most significant moment of Jewish history, like all milestones, draws its significance from the prior journey.


While the approaches outlined above address some of the mysteries sur­rounding the festival of Shavuot, the Torah’s obfuscation concerning the date of Revelation itself remains a puzzle. Why does the text deliberately avoid pinpointing the most significant moment of Jewish history, to the extent that its date remains the subject of dispute to this day? Why, as well, does the Torah fail to associate this event with its apparent anniversary, the festival of Shavuot?

A fascinating, far-reaching answer is hinted at in a well-known Mi­drashic observation and elaborated upon by later authorities.

The Midrash focuses on the previously mentioned Torah passage, de­scribing the arrival of the Israelites at the site of Revelation: “In the third month from the Exodus of the children of Israel from the Land of Egypt, on this day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”

This text, maintain the rabbis, is even more puzzling than it first seems to be. Not only is the Torah ambiguous concerning the nation’s arrival at Sinai, but the terminology actually used by the text is inherently problem­atic. The Torah does not say, as we would expect: “on that day (bayom hahu), they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.” Instead, the text reads: “on this day (bayom hazeh), they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”

Why does the Torah refer to a millennia-old moment as “this day”? Because, suggest the rabbis, the text means to convey an overarching message: “As you study Torah, [its words] should not be ancient in your eyes, but as if they were given to you ‘this day.’” Or as Rashi puts it: “At all times the Torah’s words should seem as new to you [variant: as dear to you] as if they were given to you today.”


There is, I believe, much more to these rabbinic observations than meets the eye. In essence, the rabbis are emphasizing that Revelation is not a his­toric event.

The Patriarchal Era, the Exodus, the wandering in the wilderness, the entry into the land of Canaan and so much more, are periods and inci­dents rooted in the past. They are meant to be learned from, reexamined, re-experienced, even seen as prototypes for the present; but they are all past events.

Revelation is different. Matan Torah is a process that continues to this day and beyond. Every time we study a text, ask a halachic question or share a Torah thought, we stand again at Sinai receiving the Torah. Every time the rabbis apply the law to changing circumstance, suggest new in­sight into an age-old text or enact new legislation to protect the commu­nity, we participate in Revelation. When concerns ranging from in vitro fertilization to stem cell research to the definition of death and its impact on organ donation are actively addressed and debated within Jewish law, Matan Torah unfolds.

Points to Ponder

While each of the lessons derived from the mitzvot of matanot la’evyonim are relevant for our times, one point resonates with particular power.

As indicated in our study, the Torah’s demand that the landowner relin­quish ownership over portions of his produce is designed to benefit not only the poor but the landowner himself. By forcing the farmer to “let go,” the Torah reminds him that he does not really need to “have it all”; happiness will not be found in that last piece of grain, that fallen stalk of wheat.

This paradigm should move us to ask ourselves: do we really need to “have it all”? Will the next acquisition, the next addition to the house, the next technological gadget, make the difference that we look for in our lives?

A study performed in the University of Rochester and published in the June 2009 Journal of Research in Personality yielded surprising results concerning the relationship between happiness and wealth. Dividing goals into two categories, extrinsic (e.g., wealth, fame and personal image) and intrinsic (e.g., meaningful relationships, health and personal growth), the study surveyed 147 recent graduates concerning their central life objec­tives. The researchers discovered that those subjects who focused on and achieved intrinsic goals attained higher levels of self-esteem and a greater sense of well-being. Those who focused on and attained the extrinsic goals of wealth and fame, on the other hand, experienced higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness.

In a similar vein, highly acclaimed University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, who has been doing research on happiness for more than two decades, maintains: “Materialism is toxic to happiness.” Even rich mate­rialists, he concludes, are not as happy as those who care less about get­ting and spending.

Excerpted from Unlocking the Torah Text – Vayikra by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin. Learn more about the book here: link.