Shavuos is supposed to be the celebration of the receiving of the Torah. However, looking closely at a calendar reveals that the first Tablets were received on the 17th day of Tamuz, and the second Tablets were received on Yom Kippur. In fact, important laws, such as Shabbos, were instructed prior to the giving of the Torah. So, what are we actually celebrating on Shavuos? The verse states “And all the people saw the thunder and the torches and the shofar sound and the mountain smoking. And when the people saw it, they moved and stood from afar.” (Exodus 21:15). Rashi explains the meaning of “Seeing the thunder” – They saw the audible, which cannot be seen under any other circumstances. Rashi drew his comment from the Midrash Mechilta that quotes two opinions: Rabbi Akiva says, as Rashi wrote, “They saw the audible and they heard the visible,” and Rabbi Ishmael that argues, “They saw the visible and they heard the audible.” This discussion needs to be explained, as Rabbi Ishmael states the obvious, but Rabbi Akiva states the incomprehensible. So why did Rashi chose Rabbi Akiva’s statement? The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendle Schneerson, zt”l offer a tremendous explanation. In our lowly world seeing is believing. Judges can only statute upon a testimony of witnesses that have seen. The month can only be sanctified upon the testimony of witnesses that have seen the moon. Basically, the entire Jewish calendar, including the Holidays, is based upon the actual vision of the moon’s position.
The reason being, seeing is a clearer sense than hearing. A deaf person who can see has a much better sense of the world than does a blind person who can hear. So, sight is superior to hearing as a means of experiencing the world.
On the other hand, hearing has its own advantage. One can hear ideas, one can think of abstractions that were received through hearing. In short, vision is an advantage in the physical world while hearing is superior in the world of the abstract and the spiritual. This is so because man is essentially a physical being – albeit with spiritual attributes, but his physicality commands what is the greatest ability. Since, the sight enables him to evolve best in his home territory, this world, the Torah based many of its commandments upon the sight. Though, there are also many commandments based upon the hearing, such as Shofar, the reading of the Torah, as despite this sense having “less value”, any Mitzva affecting the soul is mostly done via the hearing. Rabbi Akiva said that the Sinai experience took man out of his physical limitations and thrust him (momentarily) into a higher spiritual realm, where he saw what is heard; that is, one had a clarity of understanding (with the clarity of seeing) of the spiritual reality. And he heard what is visible, that is one had an abstract, deeper, understanding of the physical reality. In short, man was raised to higher level of awareness and sanctity at Sinai.
Rabbi Ishmael, on the other hand, believed the Sinai experience did not raise man up to different, ethereal reality; rather, its purpose was to bring the Divine down into this world. At Sinai, God came down to meet man. Thus, man remained the same – he saw what is visible and heard what is audible. In short, he lived normally in this world.
The Zohar explains that both approaches are true and represent two different levels a person can reach. Some want to bring the Divine to sanctify the physical, others thrive to raise the physical to the Divine. They are not contradictory as the first level can be used to attain the latter one, which is Hashem’s ultimate goal for creating Man in this world. Since one believe more what he sees, he must overpower this sense to follow Hashem’s word. This was the purpose of the Giving the Torah at Sinai, to experience a new dimension of sight. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (commentary to Vayikra 23:21) suggests that the essence of Shavuos is not the giving of the Torah but the preparedness of man to accept the Torah. Just as the Jews in the desert prepared themselves to accept the Torah, so must we. This date is not necessarily the day the Torah was given, but was, in fact, the day the People of Israel prepared themselves to receive it.
The discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael provide us a better understanding of the required preparedness. According to Rabbi Ishmael, who was the High Priest, one should be ready to bring the Divine into every aspect of his life, as stated in Proverbs (3:6) “In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths smooth.” Rabbi Akiva differed and believed the main purpose of the Torah given in such an extraordinary way, was to inform of the tremendous spiritual powers Hashem instilled in the person via his Divine Neshama. The Neshama is a Godly part that could raise the person to a level higher than angels, into a world where there are no laws of quantum physics limitations. A world where one can see sound and hear light.
The Zohar stating that all the other Holidays are encompassed in Shavuos can now be understood. All the other Holidays bring the Divine into the physical, Pesach with the Matza, Sukkos with the Lulav, Rosh Hashana with the Shofar, Yom Kippur by fasting, and hence each provide different virtues. Shavuos does not require any mean because it enables us to raise the physical to the Divine, to a world of “abundance of blessings and virtues”. May we all deserve a complete acceptance of the Torah and deserve the immediate coming of the Mashiach.
By Rabbi Fridmann * email@example.com * 305.985.3461
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