Standing Together at Shavuot

Shavuot Dvar Torah

“Standing Together at Shavuot”

Professor Marc Zvi Brettler


“We” is a funny word.  I understood this best when I visited an elementary school, and saw on a bulletin board children’s pictures related to the U.S. Constitution, under the heading of that document’s first words:  “We the people.”  The pictures were quite lovely—of the young and old, men and women, people of all colors.  Yet, as historians have pointed out, the framers’ understanding of “we” was much narrower, representing white, land-holding, Protestant males.


If that is the original “we” of the Constitutions, who is the “we” of Shavuot?  How inclusive or exclusive is it, or should it be?


I remember attending many years ago my daughter’s chumash play as a young father.  You can imagine my excitement as I waited for her to receive her own chumash, the most important Jewish text. To my chagrin, the children were dressed up as mountains and various nations, reenacting one of the most famous – and problematic – midrashim concerning the giving of the Torah, the rejection of the Torah by various other nations, until Israel gladly accepted it, saying na’asheh venishma.  A long and early version of this midrash, found in many forms in rabbinic literature and in medieval commentaries (including Rashi), is in Sifre Deuteronomy (443, to “The LORD comes from Sinai”).  It offers base stereotypes of the nations, suggesting that the children of Esau are murderers, the Ammonites and Moabites are permanently tainted by their ancestor Lot’s incest with his daughters, and that murder is a fundamental value of the Ishamaelites (for a translation see, e.g. Bialik and Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah,  78-79).  The version in Sifre claims that these nations cannot even uphold the basic Noahide laws, and are thus light-years distant from (Torah) worthiness!  I spoke about my distress of the choice of this particular midrash to the teacher, who did not understand my concern, and I saw a “repeat performance” two years later with my son’s class.


Decades later, I remain upset by the choice of this midrash for the chumash play.  It is insidious, suggesting to young children that all non-Jews are lawless and fundamentally marred by the actions of their ancestors.  Israel is the only law-abiding society.  “We,” namely only Jews, are people of law, and all others are antinomian, and should be shunned.  I know the realities of Jewish history in certain periods, and that people create and reinforce their own identity by demonizing the “other,” especially the proximate or threatening other – and this helps to explain the origin of this midrash.  Yet, I wonder: Of all the midrashim concerning the giving of the Torah, why choose to highlight this one?  Is this very narrow definition of “we” so important that it must be impressed on the minds of second graders?  Indeed, is it a fundamental part of Shavuot, which must be understood as an exclusive zeman matan toratenu, “the time when ‘our’ Torah was given”?


The Torah in Devarim suggests a very different picture of Shavuot. Shavuot is never explicitly connected to the revelation of the Torah; like other festivals, it has an agricultural basis, and celebrates the divinely ordained success of the grain harvest.  In this connection Devarim 16:11 states:  “You shall rejoice before the LORD your God” (all translations are mine).  This “you” (the verb is grammatically masculine singular, though such constructions may imply a collective group as well) presents the same issue as our earlier “we”—who is included?  The continuation of the verse makes this quite clear, explicating: “you (masculine singular—but likely including females as well, as is typical of this construction), your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite who lives with you, the foreigner (ger always means “foreigner,” and never means “convert” in the Bible), and the orphan and the widow who live in your midst.”  This verse is realistic in that it distinguishes between the Levite “who lives with you” (literally “in your gates”) and the disenfranchised foreigner, orphan and widow, who are not really part of your community, but simply live within your community (bekirbecha), and are not generally well-integrated.  This legislation, however, makes it clear that the disenfranchised as well are part of the “you” that must rejoice.  In fact, Rashi glosses this verse “if you make my people (the disenfranchised—Hebrew sheli) happy, I will make your people (shelcha—your [Israelite] family, the son and daughter mentioned) happy.”


There is thus a certain tension in Shavuot, as there is in much of Judaism, between the universal and the particular.  For example, is Shabbat a reminder of creation, as in Shemot, or does Shabbat commemorate the exodus, as in Devarim, and is it for Jews only?  There are particularistic tendencies within Shavuot—it is zeman matan torateinuthe time when our Torah was given, and thus suggests an insular festival, for us only, and many midrashim reinforce this notion. Yet, we must not allow these to trump what the Torah suggests, that the “we” of the festival is universal.  The only way to fulfill the mitzvah to be joyful on Shavuot is if this “we” is includes also women (“your daughter”), and various types of “outsiders” as well—the Jewish widow and orphan, and the non-Jews in our community. By broadening our definition of “we,” “we” merit divine blessing. Only by remembering this do “we” merit a chag sameach.


Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.  He is author of How to Read the Jewish Bible, and co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible, both published by Oxford University Press.