Torah Reading for Week of May 24 – May 30, 2009
“Shavuot Yom Sheini”
by Dr. Marvin A. Sweeney
AJRCA Professor of Bible
Prof. of Hebrew Bible, Claremont School of Theology & Claremont Graduate Univ.
Shavuot is a key festival in Jewish tradition that celebrates both the conclusion of the barley harvest that begins with Pesach and the revelation of divine Torah at Mt. Sinai. And so these two aspects of the festival remind us of divine sustenance for both body and soul. But Shavuot also reminds us of our own obligations to G-d and to human beings.
For the second day of Shavuot, we normally read Deuteronomy 15:9-16:17 and Numbers 28:26-31 as the Torah portion and Habakkuk 3:1-19 as the Haftarah portion in Ashkenazi congregations and Habakkuk 2:20-3:19 in Sephardi congregations. Because the second day of Shavuot falls on Shabbat this year, we expand the Torah portion to include Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17.
According to Rabbinic tradition, G-d revealed the Torah to Israel from Mt. Sinai on the 6th day of Sivan, the first day of the festival of Shavuot. And so it makes great sense to read Exodus 19:1-20:23, which recounts the revelation of Torah at Sinai and the Ten Commandments, in the third month of the year. The combination of concerns, the divine revelation of Torah and the human obligation for religious and moral observance, give expression to the nature of our covenant with G-d as a partnership in which each party has responsibilities.
But the selection of Deuteronomy 14:22/15:9-16:17 is also quite instructive. Although we might normally think that this passage was chosen because it presents Moses’ reiteration of the laws for festival observance, including Shavuot, in Deuteronomy 16:1-17 (see esp. vv. 9-12), Deuteronomy 14:22-15:23 places special emphasis on our obligation to perform acts of Tzedakah, not only on Shavuot, but throughout the year. Thus Deuteronomy 14:22-26 emphasizes the command to present the tithe, a tax of one-tenth of one’s annual income to support the holy Temple, and Deuteronomy 14:27-29 calls upon us to remember to support the Levites, the resident aliens (later understood as converts), the orphans, and the widows among us because they lack their own means for support.
Indeed, Deuteronomy 15:1-23 elaborates in great detail on the obligation to support the needy in our community. These verses include the commands for the remission of debts every seventh year, the regulations for the release of both men and women from debt slavery, and the obligation to present only healthy and whole offerings at the Temple. Such commands demonstrate an interest in applying and extending earlier laws concerning the poor in Exodus 21-23 immediately following the Torah portion for the first day of Shavuot. Whereas Exodus 23:10-11 calls for the provision of the poor by allowing them to glean from fallow fields every seventh year, Deuteronomy 15:1-11 calls for the regular remission of debt every seventh year. Whereas Exodus 21:2-11 stipulates that a man in debt slavery goes free for nothing after six years of service, Deuteronomy 15:12-15 stipulates that his master is required to provide him with resources from the flock, threshing floor, and vat, so that he might have a chance at economic self-sufficiency without ending up as a debt slave once again—and women are allowed to go free on the same terms as men. With these examples, we see a Torah tradition that allows for legal reform in order better to meet the needs of justice and righteousness in a living society.
But we must also consider the Haftarah readings. There was a debate in antiquity concerning which Haftarah portion should be read at Shavuot, viz., Ezekiel 1:1-28; 3:12, which recounts the revelation of the divine Presence to the prophet Ezekiel in Babylonian exile, or Habakkuk 2:20/3:1-19, which constitutes the prophet Habakkuk’s vision of G-d in response to his own plea for divine justice in the face of the Babylonian threat to Judah in 605 B.C.E. (see b. Megillah 31a). Whereas Ezekiel’s vision was unsolicited, much like the revelation of Torah at Sinai in Exodus 19-20, Habakkuk’s vision was solicited in the face of threat.
In Habakkuk 1-2, the prophet pleads with G-d to explain why the Babylonians were allowed to threaten Judah, only to learn that G-d was the One who had brought them (Habakkuk 2:6). Habakkuk’s demand to G-d for an explanation in Habakkuk 2:13, “Why do you countenance treachery, and stand by silently, while the wicked swallow the righteous?” anticipates the prophet’s renewed challenge in Habakkuk 3:2, “O YHWH, I have heard your reputation, I am awed, O YHWH, by your deeds! In the midst of (our) years, renew it; in the midst of (our) years, make (them) known! In anger, remember mercy!”
The rest of Habakkuk 3 relates a divine theophany in which G-d appears from Teman and Paran (interpreted in Rabbinic tradition as references to Sinai) to defeat the enemies that threaten Judah. Indeed, the Aramaic Targum Jonathan (an early Rabbinic translation into the vernacular meant for synagogue reading and study) to Habakkuk 3:17 interprets this theophany in relation to the many nations who threatened Israel throughout history, “For the kingdom of Babylon shall not endure nor exercise rule over Israel, the kings of Media (Persia) shall be killed, and the warriors from Greece shall not succeed, the Romans shall be destroyed and shall not collect tribute from Jerusalem.” Habakkuk anticipates divine fidelity to Judah, even in the face of threat.
As we celebrate the second day of Shavuot—and Shabbat—this year, let us remember the teachings of our Torah and Haftarah portions for the festival—that we are bound with G-d in a partnership in which both we and G-d have obligations. May we remember these lessons beyond Shavuot as well when we consider the threats posed to us by embezzlement from within our community which has done so much damage to the Jewish people and by nations from outside our community who deny our right to exist and threaten to destroy us. Both we and G-d must rise to meet these challenges.