In the talmud in Pesachim (68b) the rabbis engage in an argument about what the obligations are or various holidays. It comes down to two basic commandments is one obligated to sepnd the entire day instudy of holy texts? Or is one obligated to eat and drink and be festive? After quoting some sources and arguiing amongst themselves about Pesach and Succot, they turn their attention to Shavuot:Rabbi Eliezer says: All agree that in the case Shavuot (which they refer to as Atzeret) we are rquired to celebate festively as well as study - one may not fulfil their obligation only through study.. The talmud continues, "What is the reason?" It is the day on which Torah was given.
This does not strike me as a particularly complete answer. The chatam sofer offers some explanation: claiming that the obligation of festive celebration stems from the universal nature of Matan Torah. God did not give the Torah only to the scholars; it is bequeathed toall of the Jewish people alike. All segments of the population, therefore, must rejoice on this festival. However, if you are a regular Joe or Jane, if you don't read Hebrew - yet- or have someone with whom you can study and really begin to understand the tradition that you are a part of, how can you still be a part of the Jewish people? How can you fulfill your obligation to God and Torah? God does not ever demand the impossible of us: God sometimes asks what is difficult, but always we have a way to fullfil it. So the Torah instructs us not only is study mandatory, but physical celebration as well: spend timewith your family, eat and drink, don't spend money, refrain from the stresses of the world. Eating and drinking provides a means by which everyone can truly rejoice.
The Chatam Sofer reminds us that everyone is a part of the people and each of us is beloved by God. The Torah portion that we read today reminds us "You have seen…that I bore you on eagles wings (Ex.19:4). As we prepared to stand before Sinai, God told us that if we obey God faithfully and kep God's covenenat, we shall be God's segulah mikol ha'amim - a treasure out of all the people. It is worth noting that the wording of the Torah stresses that we aren't treasured by God for no reason, but because we are willing to do those difficult tasks that we are called to. The verse continues: Since all the earth is Mine. All people are God's people, but we have a special role - we have the Torah, and to do what the next verse requires - to be a kingdom of preists and a holy nation- means that we have to be willing to do more.
You may be thinking, well, hwat's the big eal about eating and drinking on Shavuot? What's so chosen about that? Anyone can do that.
This is true. Anyone could do that - but of all the people in Washington DC (let's say) how many are actually doing it. Even of all the Jews in this city, who has set aside time to honor the idea that Torah matters, that God has a plan for us, an that holiness and blessing make a difference in our lives?
Very near the end of what we read today, God says, "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you."
And truly, what is Torah and the gift of Torah, if not a moment where we make every place where we are a place in which God makes God's name remembered - for a person who receives the Torah, takes Torah with her everywhere she goes, and so everywhere she goes is blessed.
I have to admit, that Ezekiel is one of my favorite books - it' s full of incredibly bizarre details and reads like a hallucination.How many of us when we envision angels think of fat little pig-babies in renaissance paintings? Well, let Yechezkel set you straight. No pig-babies here: these angels have four faces and four wings per face and one straight leg - no knees; their faces are like a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle. Or take the ofanim, which also seem to be a sort of angel: they look like a wheel within a wheel, they have four sides and they don't turn, but just travel toward the direction of one of their -er- faces. Their backs are full of eyes.
With details like this, it's hard to even envision what this all must look like. And perhaps that's the point. Fat litle cherubs are a lot easier to picture - and much easier to dumb down. The recent trend of talking to angels that took over not long ago seems to me to be partially because angels as presented in Christian popular culture aren't majestic or hard to understand - they're sweet, they're like humans, thy're even -shudder- cuddly. But Ezekiel's angels are not. They're at best difficult to understand, and even harder to picture. How can a wheel within a wheel have a back full of eyes? That's not cuddly. It's not something you feel you can talk to. It's not particularly comprehensible for humans.
Perhaps that's why the rabbis chose this as the haftarah for the first day of shavuot. When we receive Torah, it's full of mystery and confusion. It's not cuddly. The people stood back from the mountain and struggled with synesthesia - they saw sounds, and they were afraid of what was happening.
Torah is the posession of Israel, but it is not a tame book, a collection of human platitudes and fun ideas for civil society. It is the wisdom not of humans, but of God,and we find it difficult to reconcile ourselves to obeying anything that we can't understand - but of course, when we do understand, or think we do, that becomes our excuse for ignoring, also. Once something is put into its little box of "explicable," then we are free to ignore it and chase after our comfortable lives.
So on Shavuot, when we stand before God and receive the Torah, we do want to remember that we are the possessors of Torah, that it is made for us and not for angels, and that it is so written that we will understand and do. But at the same time, it is also a work of God: God beyond vision, beyond human senses, beyond comprehension. God is not a human being, not a body, not a thing that we can say, oh God is just like us, defined and full of moods and well, you just have to know how to talk to Him.
And yet, we still have to have a way to enter into relationship with God, to love God and to understand what it might mean for God to love us.
Perhaps that's why the haftarah ends with a verse from two chapters later. Instead of trying to explain what Ezekiel sees, it says instead Then a ruach -spirit or wind- lifted me and I heard behind me kol ra'ash Gadol - a great noisy voice or sound, saying "Blessed be the glory of God in Its place."
Rather than trying to rely on our primary sense - vision, a sense which in reality is not so completely reliable, but a sense which our brains use as a filtering tool to try to make sense of a lot of different kinds of stimuli - instead of vision, our verse closes the haftarah with a sound, a voice. Of course, this reminds us also of when Elijah encounters God, and standing in front of the cave in which he had hidden from the troops of the queen, God sends reassurance to Elijah of God's power and presence: a great wind which tore up mountains and smashed rocks, and God was not in the wind, and then there was an earthquake, and God was not in the earthquke, and after the earthquake was a fire, and God was not in the fire, but after the fire came a kol d'mamah dakah - usually translated "a still small voice," but d'mamah which can mean "still," can also mean "silent:" a voice of thin silence.
Yet another paradox, of sound, and yet somehow, unlike the vision of Ezekiel, which floods us with an incomprehensible rush of images, Elijah's vision somehow speaks to us: a place of calm after a terrifying violence. And both Ezekiel and Elijah are pieces of the experience of encountering God. Today we stand before God to receive the greatest gift ever given to humans: the Torah. And the Torah is not a human document, but one of overwhelming power. Both Ezekiel and Elijah describe the confusion and un-humanness of an encounter with God - just as Israel at Sinai, they describe a confusion of the senses, something so beyond human that our bodies cannot really grasp what's going on - and so we experience it as terror or hallucination. But. Yet.
The wind lifted me, and I heard behind me a kol ra'ash gadol. An overwhelming sound. Close your eyes and don't try to look. Just take a moment and try not to be limited to the experience of your vision. Imagine the terror and awe of actually encountering God. Perhaps this is the real reason that we are commanded on Shavuot to eat and drink and celebrate as humans. In the moment of encountering God, truly reaching out to God in intimacy, there must be terror and awe. How could there not? And so, we are commanded to also remember our human-ness. Torah is awesome, but it is also meant for us. Every year, we return again to the moment at Sinai where we encountered God directly, and could not stand it. We fled and begged Moses to stand between us. Every year, though, we return to try again, to stand at Sinai and try to understand the incomprehensible, to open ourselves to something we know is beyond us, so that we can carry God's message into the world. How heroic is that?
As a nation we choose not to make God into a copy of ourselves, but try to meet God where God is, even knowing that the potential for our own destruction lies in the overwhelming otherness of God. No wonder God loves us. Even in human relationships it is incredibly difficult to be with another human and to understand them as they are, rather than as we wish them to be. And yet year after year, we return to Sinai, and try to become the one who is not only Beloved, but lover.