Standing at Sinai
Posted Sun, Jun 5, 2011

I would venture to say that most people reflecting on the upcoming festival of Shavuot would identify it principally as “zeman matan torateinu,” the time of the giving of the Torah. It might even be suggested that God delivered the ancient Israelites from Egypt not simply to free them from the yoke of oppression but specifically to present them with the divine law.

There is, however, nothing explicit about this connection in the Torah, itself. The Torah, rather, refers to Shavuot, the second of the shalosh regalim, as an agricultural festival, the climax of sefirat ha-omer, marking the transition between the barley harvest and the start of the wheat-ripening season. The Torah refers to Shavuot as hag ha-katzir, the feast of the harvest, as hag hashavuot, the festival of weeks, and as Yom ha-bikurim, the day of first fruits, when farmers brought their produce to the temple as an offering.

It was only later in history that the rabbis did the calculations to determine that Moses’ descent from Sinai to reveal the holy law corresponded to the biblical date of Shavuot, which is set by counting seven weeks from the second day of Passover. Shavuot, already linked temporally to Pesach, was thus connected thematically and spiritually as well.

This helps explain why Shavuot is the only major holiday in the Jewish calendar that is not observed on a specifically identified date. Shavuot is considered as “atzeret”, that is, the completion, of Passover, the spiritual birth at Mount Sinai following the physical birth of the exodus. The Hebrews of the exodus were to discover that while they could live freely without gods, they could not live without God and his law, the powerful moral and ethical set of guidelines that to this day lie at the core of our way of life. The message was clear: Liberty without law and responsibility was chaos and anarchy.

In the words of one commentator, the giving of the Torah represents the first fruits of Israel’s freedom. The traditional offering of two loaves on the altar represents our material harvest; the two tablets represent our harvest of God’s gifts of law, faith, values and the life of the spirit.

A Midrash makes it clear that the law of God was intended specifically for humankind as a code of conduct and moral behaviour. It seemed that at one point the angels tried to keep this precious gift for themselves. Moses then went through each of the Ten Commandments and in turn the angels readily recognized that it did not apply to their heavenly realm.

As for having no other gods, Moses said, “Are you living among the non-Jews, who worship idols?” As for remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy, Moses asked “Do you angels do laborious work that you should have to be warned not to do it on Shabbat?” Similarly they had no parents to honour and needed no divine admonitions not to steal, kill or act immorally.

So the divine law was meant to bring order, civility and justice to our world. And just as the Haggadah impels us to imagine that we, ourselves, were liberated from Egypt, so, too, do we have the opportunity today to experience the revelation. By our own conduct and actions we can imagine that we were at Sinai.

We have just begun reading from the book of Bemidbar, Numbers, a book of the Torah that focuses on community, from the census taken at the outset to determine the size of the population, to the wanderings in the desert that forged a people with a common destiny, united in spirit and national purpose.

In this week’s parsha, Naso, we will read the beautiful priestly blessing that extends the guardianship, grace and peace of God to the people. Interestingly, the object of each blessing is “thee”, may the lord bless thee and keep thee and so on. From this we take two contrasting lessons: Every individual in the community is important and a valuable contributor to the greater whole. At the same time, the prerequisite for this blessing for Israel is unity, that all Israel is to be one people, the collective “thee.”

So let us take to heart the lessons of Shavuot and Naso. Let us conduct ourselves individually and as a community in ways that honour God’s law and that recognize both the inherent worth of every member and the essential obligation of communal unity.

In this way we can truly imagine ourselves to have stood at Sinai and make ourselves worthy of God’s blessings.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.