Friday, May 18, 2007

Sivan (Months)

For teachings on Bamidbar and Shavuot, see the archives to this blog at May 2006. For the other parshiyot, from Naso on, see June 2006.

Sivan: the Month of Revelation

Sivan has always seemed to me the most mysterious month of the year. Nissan celebrates what is essentially an event of human liberation, the Exodus from Egypt. Tishrei is either about teshuvah—the confrontation of the individual human being, in the depths of his soul, with his own shortcomings and failures; or about the acceptance and “coronation” of God as King. Sivan, at whose heart is the festival of Shavuot, commemorates the meeting between man and God. Let us imagine a clear, crisp spring morning in the desert: a lone figure, Moshe, ascends the craggy mountain peak; the people—some say, with the sands of sleep still in their eyes—standing at the foot of the mountain, having been cautioned to keep their distance; dark clouds, obscuring and surrounding the Divine presence, descend upon the mountain peak—and suddenly, something strange, uncanny, frightening, electrifying happens. The people know that they have heard the voice of God.

Some will ask: how is such a thing possible? In truth, we do not know to explain it in ordinary, rational, conceptual terms; and yet, the reality of this moment stands at the core of our faith as Jews. Upon this desert mountain peak, a place both of this world and not of it, belonging both to heaven and to earth, the eternal and the mortal, the finite and the infinite, somehow met—and the world was changed forever.

The zodiac symbol for Sivan is Gemini: the twins. Figures which may be seen as symbolic of meeting, of perpetual encounter and dialogue. For, we are told, the voice heard at Sinai was kol gadol velo yasaf, “a great voice that never ceased,” one that echoes down to this very day.

Gemini: a meeting of brothers or sisters, of friends, of lovers. In a certain sense, not only the meeting of man and God, but every true meeting of two souls, is shrouded in mystery. But most of all, the two twins may be seen as emblematic of the love between man and woman—represented, some say, also by the two cherubim whose wings hovered over and protected the Holy of Holies—and this love, we know, is a metaphor for the union between Israel and its God. The Sinai covenant is not so much a treaty as it is a wedding. Hence, the Shabbat before Shavuot is known as Shabbat Kallah—the Shabbat of the Bride. And perhaps this, too, is the reason for the choice of Hosea 2 as the haftarah for Shabbat Bamidbar, which always precedes Shavuot—a prophetic text about the ambiguities of Israel’s relationship to God.

The image of Sinai as a wedding canopy suggests that the emphasis in the Torah is not so much on Law, in the sense of obedience, authority, imperatives, penalties for violation, and heteronomy—though that is also surely part of it—but of union, of relationship, of mutual caring and love. The Torah and mitzvot are an instrument of love, for “walking together” with God. Ahavah Rabbah: “With great love have You loved us… place in our hearts [the ability] to intuit and to intellectualize and to hear and learn and teach all the words of Your Torah with love…”

Thus, in a certain sense it seems to me that it would be equally or even more appropriate to read Shir ha-Shirim, the great and holy book of love, on Shavuot rather than Pesah. The Song of Songs shows the lovers bound together, but also a process of hide and seek. For the relationship of Israel and God is a ambivalent one: there are moments of great closeness and wholeness and intimacy; and then there are times of faithlessness and betrayal, of “whoring” with pagan “non-gods” and empty images; and, if one may be so bold, also of God hiding His face in terrifying ways, in which the whole world seems bereft of any order or sense.

The Torah readings of the month of Sivan express this duality, of wholeness and of betrayal. The first two parshiyot of the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar and Naso, read respectively just before and after Shavuot, give a kind of flash photograph of the encampment of the people Israel before the mountain, arranged in a kind of idealized, static, four-square mandala formation around the Tent of Meeting. It is a kind of counterpart to the chapter read on Shavuot, which describes the initial arrival of the people at Sinai. The encampment at Sinai which began with the great and awesome event of Matan Torah continued for almost an entire year—and it is that which is depicted in these Torah portions.

But the portions read later this month–Beha’alotkha, Shelah Lekha, and Korah—are a quintessential portrait of human weakness and failure. The people murmur and rebel over one thing after another: the food is no good; they’re frightened to go into a land populated by such gigantic, powerful people; they want a new, charismatic leadership; Moses is too haughty and above the ordinary person.

The second half of the month, after the pitched expectancy of seven weeks of counting, of attentiveness to time, is thus a return to drab, humdrum human existence. And is not that the test as to whether anything really happened to us on Shavuot? Interestingly, in olden days, fir many centuries, European Jewish communities observed a fast day on the 20th of Sivan, commemorating both anti-Jewish rampages in the Rhineland in 1171, and the Chmielnicki pogroms in Poland and the Ukraine in 1648-49 (To which one might add: much of Hungarian Jewry was deported and murdered within slightly more than one month during the Nazi aktionen in Sivan 1944)


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