Parsha Ponders: Shavuot - Torah is a Gift, No a Burden
by Rabbi Rafi Wolfe
In our calendar, Shavuot always occurs on the sixth day of the month of Sivan. Something not mentioned explicitly in the Torah is the event that Shavuot commemorates. As noted in our prayers, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is why we read the Ten Commandments on Shavuot morning. There is actually a disagreement in the Talmud about on what day the Torah was given (Shabbat 86b). The Chachamim say that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan, whereas Rabbi Yossi says that it was given on the seventh of Sivan. Due to the underlying basis of their disagreement, we actually rule like Rabbi Yossi (Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 494:1). If so, how can we say that the Torah was given on the sixth, when the ruling is that it was given on the seventh?
On Seder night we recite the questions of the four children. The “wise son” asks: “What are the laws and statutes that Hashem commanded us?” It’s interesting that he’s called “wise” if he doesn’t know the basics of Judaism. Therefore, some explain his question as follows: Other nations have only seven commandments that they are required to follow, yet we have 613. Why were we given this apparent burden? An answer: “Hashem gave us all of these commandments for our good.” (Ibn Ezra to Deuteronomy 6:20) They are in fact not a burden. Our Sages say that Hashem gave us an abundance of mitzvahslezakot et Yisrael. This is usually translated as "in order to give us merit," but it can also be read to mean "to purify us.” Our soul is so great that it’s like a diamond, which needs more polishing than the average precious stone. That’s why we have so many mitzvahs.
The Talmud recounts a fascinating drama that occurred when Moshe went to Heaven to receive the Torah. The angels wouldn’t let him take it since they wanted it for themselves. Moshe then showed them how the mitzvahs in the Torah apply only to humans. (Shabbat 88b-89a) If so, what were the angels thinking? They wanted to give Moshe a message: If the Torah would indeed be applicable to them, they would jump at the opportunity to get it. It may seem daunting, but it is not a burden. The Torah is actually an opportunity.
We are taught that Hashem offered the Torah to the entire world. He went to each nation and offered it to them, but they all rejected it. He offered it to the Eisav, and Eisav asked what was in it. Hashem gave an example: “Don’t murder.” They responded that we had already received a blessing that “By your sword you shall live.” (Genesis 24:40) Therefore, the Torah is incompatible with us. Hashem then offered it to Yishmael and they asked what was in it. Hashem said, “Don’t steal.” They responded that a prophecy was said about them that, “Our hands will be in everything and everyone’s hands will be in us.” (Genesis 16:12) This meant that they were suited for theft and they therefore likewise rejected the Torah. Hashem eventually offered it to the Jewish People, who gladly accepted it. (Sifrei Devarim 343)
What’s confusing about this story is why Hashem did not explain to them that there was really no contradiction? True, Eisav was destined for killing. However, there are permitted ways to kill. Perhaps they’ll be hired as soldiers to protect the Jewish People. Yishmael interpreted “Our hands will be in everything and everyone’s hands will be in us” to mean they were suited for theft. Another explanation is that they would be dependent on everyone, and everyone will be dependent on them (Targum Onkelos). No need for theft.
We can say that Hashem knew that the other nations had the wrong attitude about what Torah really is. As a result, there was no convincing them. If someone asks you to do them a favor, no matter how giving you are, you’ll ask what it is. The other nations thought Hashem was asking them to do Him a favor, and accept His Torah. They thought He had this burden called 613 mitzvahs, and that He “needed” someone to observe them.
In contrast, when someone offers you a present, you don’t ask what it is. The Jewish People knew that the Torah was a present and therefore accepted it without asking.
One problem with this approach would seem to be a comment made by Rashi. He describes the Torah as a yoke on our necks. We are also taught to toil in Torah (Rashi to Leviticus 26:3), and that there are harsh consequences if we don’t. This would make the Torah to sound more like a burden and not like a present. In fact, however, this is not really a question. If someone were to offer us a treasure map, which would require traveling the globe and excavating deeply into the Earth, would we call it a burden? It sure would not be easy, but the immense treasure at the end would provide tremendous joy. The Torah isn’t always easy, but it’s so sweet that it’s well worth it. It’s a “burden” for our sake, for our betterment. And that provides true joy!
And now, let’s head back to our initial question. Even according to Rabbi Yossi, the Torah was meant to be given on the sixth of Sivan. However, Moshe realized that the Jewish People weren’t ready. They needed one more day of preparation. Hashem agreed, and the Torah was given on the seventh. (Shabbat 87a) If the Torah was a burden, would Hashem really wait until we were ready? He would give it to us anyways, ready or not. But, since the Torah is for our good, Hashem pushed the date off for us. When we stress on Shavuotthat it’s the day of the giving of our Torah, the word matana, gift, is quite apropos. It may not be the day that when we received the Torah, but it’s the day we realized that the Torah is a gift. Even after the Tablets were broken, we understood that the Torah is not a burden but is for our betterment. It is for our benefit.
This essay is based on a lecture given by Rav Zev Leff