TIME AND TRANSCENDENCE: SIVAN, SHAVUOT and SINAI
By Ariella Bracha Waldinger
Rosh Chodesh (the new month) of Sivan, began this year on Thursday night, May 29th. Rosh Chodesh is considered a minor holiday and according to Jewish tradition, was the first mitzvah (commandment) given to the Jewish people in Egypt. The counting of the new month was extremely significant to the Jews in Egypt, as it put time into their control. Not only that, but due to G-ds gift, they became aware of the spiritual transcendence of time. Counting the new month means honoring it through special prayers and activities but more so it means tapping into the channels of transcendence embedded in the time itself. HaRav Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Derech Hashem 4:7) taught that the cycle of the Jewish calendar year is more than just a series of anniversaries commemorating historical events. “Each month of the Hebrew calendar represents a unique expression of G-dliness and a concrete spiritual reality that is channeled into the world. A deeper understanding of each month allows us to enter into it with a sense of spiritual guidance and historical connection. The greater our awareness, the more we can savor its depth, beauty and meaning. Additionally, the enhanced awareness touches a deeper part of our soul and holy contact is made thereby eliciting a spiritual charge.
The Jewish calendar is based on a lunar cycle. Jewish tradition teaches us that the Jewish people are actually compared to the moon. Like the moon itself, that receives its light from the sun, so too the Jewish people receive their light directly from G-d and His Holy Torah (Book of Instruction). The most significant aspect of the moon in relation to the Jewish people is its ability to wax and wane which relates to renewal. The ability to renew ourselves each month is a vital message of hope for the Jewish people, who have experienced great suffering, calamities and turmoil throughout their history. Thus each month is precious because it reminds us to renew our spiritual selves and our enthusiasm to serve G-d. It challenges us to light up our own world and the world around us.
Month of Sivan
The name Sivan has several meanings such as; “rays and heat of the sun” which alludes to the warmth and light of Torah, and “to see” which alludes to the fact that the Jews at Mt. Sinai were able to see G-d. The numerical value of Sivan is 126 which is equivalent to the word anov which means humble. It is taught that a Jew must possess humility in order to truly learn Torah. A Midrash states that Mt. Sinai was chosen as the site for G-ds Revelation due to its small size, thus teaching the Jewish nation to always be humble. The tribe corresponding to Sivan is Zevulun which means a “permanent residence.” This refers first and foremost to the Temple but additionally refers to Jews creating a permanent residence within themselves for G-dliness to dwell. The tribe of Zevulun was sea merchants, who were involved in maritime business. Their success enabled them to support the tribe of Yissachar, who were Torah scholars. Their flag is white and bore the emblem of the ship. The ship reminds us of our mission as Jews, as we learn to navigate the waters of life utilizing our Torah compass and map. Zayin is the letter associated with the month and it means ornaments. At Mt. Sinai, each Jew received two crowns as a gift from G-d. The crown, which is worn on the head, represents the Jew’s need to transcend his rational mind, in order to accept the Torah as his guide. The crown itself represents wisdom and Torah is divine wisdom. The zodiac sign of the month is twins and this alludes to the two identical tablets of the covenant given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. The physical sense is walking which represents moving forward, making progress and developing. The Torah was given so that mankind could progress and progress is advanced only through movement. The Torah is the pre-eminent instrument of progress as it relates to the ability to lead oneself first and then others.
The highlight of the transcendent month of Sivan is the revelation of G-d to the Jewish people. Shavuot, celebrated on the 6th day of Sivan, commemorates the anniversary of the day G-d gave the Torah to the entire Nation of Israel assembled at Mt. Sinai. The Torah testifies that the Jews were “united like one man with one heart” and as a result of their unity and spiritual refinement, they received two spiritual crowns. The Torah teaches that just as great spiritual powers were given to the Jewish nation when they camped at Mt. Sinai 3000 years ago, the Heavens make these gifts available to us every year on this date. According to Rav Ovadia Yosef OBM, in his book, Yalkut Yosef on Shavuot, he states the following, “The revelation at Mount Sinai was an exalted moment when each member of the entire nation of Israel achieved a special attachment with his Creator. The Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1) teaches that Rabbi Yohanan said, “An angel delivered the message of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. It brought each statement individually to every person, asking him, “Do you accept upon yourself this commandment? Allow me to explain to you its halakot, the reward for fulfilling them and the punishment for noncompliance.” After the person replied in the affirmative, the angel kissed him. Rav Moshe Alshikh explained that the “KISS” means that the person’s soul became intimately attached to G-d and His Torah.”
The festival of Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals when Jews are required to bring their offerings to the Temple. Shavuot was the initial opportunity for individuals to bring their first fruit—called bikurim—to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a special time of great celebration when farmers would bring the first fruits of the seven species: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates in baskets woven of gold and silver to the Temple. The baskets would be loaded onto oxen whose horns were decorated with garlands of flowers and led in a wonderful procession to Jerusalem. They would pass through towns where the residents would accompany them with music and parades.
The evolution of Shavuot observances has been enhanced by the custom of staying up all night studying Torah which has becoming increasingly popular. The custom began in 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Shulkan Aruch, then living in the Ottoman Empire, invited Rav Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz and other Kabbalists to study throughout the night. The custom is called a “tikkun” which means a correction, rectification or repairing. It is taught that our ancestors at Sinai slept through the night and had to be awakened to go to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. The Arizal, a leading 16th century Kabbalist arranged a special service for the evening of Shavuot called the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Rectification for the night of Shavuot). It consists of excerpts from the Tanakh, the Mishnah, Sefer Yetzirah, passages from the Zohar and other mystical books. The mystics had the idea that staying awake on the anniversary of G-ds Divine Revelation and studying holy texts could enable them to tap into special spiritual blessings and bring rectifications on a deep level.
However, a more contemporary and realistic assessment of this practice, according to Jerusalem Rabbi David Bar Chaim, head of Machon Shilo, is to carefully evaluate one’s true ability and need for this practice. He advises each person to be extremely cautious in their choice of burning the midnight oil, so to speak. He reminds us that the Kabbalists were men of extremely great piety and lived a life of spiritual vastness, we cannot conceive of. He suggests that one should take into account the fact that staying awake until the morning can dramatically impact the effectiveness of morning prayers and hearing the portion of the Ten Commandments and Megillat Ruth which are crucial to the festival. It can ultimately harm the enjoyment of the entire holiday and create a rift in family relationships if not handled appropriately. He also reminds parents that the special emphasis of the day is family time spent together related to receiving the Torah anew. The Rabbi also reminds us of the impact on our body clock which is thrown off requiring take time to reset. One must explore their motivation and reach a place of truth as to what is best for him and his family because the Torah is TRUTH. The truth of Torah is how we relate to other human beings especially our spouse and children. Sweetness in Torah study is a function of refinement of character.
Having said that, I am reminded that tens of thousands of people finish off their nighttime study session by walking to the Western Wall before dawn and joining the sunrise minyan. Wikipedia notes that this practice began in 1967 when one week before Shavuot that year, the Israeli army captured the Old City in Jerusalem and on Shavuot day, the army opened the Western Wall to visitors. Over 200,000 Jews walked from far and near to see and pray at the holy site that had been off limits since 1948. Thus, the custom of walking to the Western Wall has been ongoing ever since.
Sivan, Shavuot and Sinai—Intertwined
Friends, Sivan, Shavuot and Sinai are intertwined in a brilliant array of golden strands of knowledge, inspiration and transcendence. Sivan, whose every nuance relates to the giving of the Torah at Sinai and its deeper meaning provides a “Divine Channel of Time” that carries the transcendence of Shavuot out into the world. Sinai is the receptive space for the channel to flow. Thus, we see from Sivan, Shavuot and Sinai, that they are really one package deal and who doesn’t love a package deal? Remember the Jewish soul and the Torah are a match made in heaven but the match must always be ignited to truly burn brightly. Shavuot is all about reclaiming your essential self through allowing the beauty of Torah to light your fire!
I bless all of Am Yisrael that we may truly appreciate the Divine nature of our souls and nourish them with the finest soul food available on Shavuot. May each of us reach our true spiritual potential and take on the yoke of Torah in a deeper fashion…..like the fashion of an exquisite, multi-colored shawl wrapped around our soul covering it with love.