Parashat Emor includes the most concentrated list of festivals in the Torah. Despite its length, it lacks some details regarding Shavuot. First, the Torah does not set a date for holiday; it does not say, “In the third month on the sixth day of the month,” or anything similar. Second, there is no mention, neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible, of Shavuot as the holiday of Matan Torah.
The Torah does not set a date for Shavuot because it can’t. In ancient times, the calendar was not predetermined according to astronomical data. Rather, the beginning of each month was determined by a court, on the basis of testimony given by people who had actually seen the new crescent moon. Therefore, the months did not have a fixed number of days, and the 50th day after Passover could have been on the fifth, sixth of seventh day of the third month.
This ambiguity is especially well-suited to the connection between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah. If we read Exodus 19 carefully – only the text, not in the commentaries – it’s actually unclear on when the revelation at Mount Sinai occurred. The text says: “In the third month after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai” but it doesn’t state on what day of the month. Moreover, it’s not exactly clear how many times Moshe ascends and descends the mountain, and how long he remained where he was each time.
The number of preparatory days also changes. In Exodus 19:10, the Eternal says: “Go to the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow.” But Moses says, “Let them be ready for the third day” (verse 15). The Talmud (Shabbat 86b-87a) suggests, “Moses added a day of his own accord.” Apparently, Moses felt that the people needed a little more time to get ready and delayed revelation by a day. God accepted his decision and waited. According to this understanding, presented by Rabbi Yossi, the sixth of Sivan is “the day of the giving of our Torah,” the day designated for revelation, but the seventh was “the day of our receiving Torah.”
This situation is very different from the Exodus from Egypt which occurred according to schedule (perhaps even a little before), whether or not the Israelites were ready. Could it be because the Exodus was a process of physical redemption. It is a much more challenging process to “move” an unprepared soul, than an unwilling body.
The rapid exit of Egypt did not yield the expected result. The people continued to complain and revolt. It is possible that the purpose of waiting before the giving of the Torah was to ensure greater success. If so, it’s far certain that the goal was achieved. Shortly after Sinai, came the golden calf.
Let us return for a moment to the words “on that very day” in Exodus 19. On this verse Rashi explains: “It ought to have said only ‘on that day.’ What does ‘that very day’ mean? That the words of Torah should be new to as they were given today.” Acceptance of Torah is a continuous action that requires us to learn, teach, interpret and observe.”
This Saturday night is Lag BaOmer, a day our national memory connects people to Rabbi Akiva, his students, and their role in the Bar Kokhba revolt. However, we should also remember Rabbi Akiva as a person who began his studies at an advanced age.[*]
If we want to be an active part of the Jewish tradition, to renew it and pass it on to future generations, we need to turn the holiday of giving the Torah into a holiday of receiving Torah. We must take our Torah study seriously, and remember that it is never too late to begin.
[*] How did Rabbi Akiva begin? He was 40 years old and an ignoramus. One day he was standing by a well and he saw a stone with grooves in it. When he asked who had made the grooves, he was told that it was the water that fell on it day after day. He thought for a while and asked himself: “Is my heart harder than a stone? If water can make grooves in this stone, the words of the Torah can surely inscribe themselves on my heart.” Immediately he began to learn. – Avot deRabbi Natan 6