Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Muse: Emor

This parsha, among other things commemorates the festival of Shavuot. While all three biblical festivals (oleh leregel) Passover, Sucot and Shavuot are agrarian based holy days, Passover and Succot are also free standing and date specific. Shavuot is the only one of the three festivals that isn’t free standing, or date specific. Passover was designated in the Bible to fall on the 14th of Nisan is a spring festival as well as marking the exodus from Egypt. Sucot was designated by the Bible to fall on the 15th of Tishre, celebrating the fall harvest as well as the exodus story. Shavuot on the other hand isn’t date specific and is a nature-agrarian celebration with no reference to any historical event. The dating of the festival is based upon the counting of the omer which begins “mimacharat hashabbat”, interpreted by the Pharisees to be from the second day of Passover. From the second day of Passover every day the omer was to be brought for forty nine days and on the fiftieth day, Shavuot, two loaves were to be brought. Thus, the dating of the Shavuot holiday was dependent upon Passover. It was only during the tanaitic period that the date was set to be the 6th of Sivan.

The end of the second temple period was witness to many controversies between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. One watershed disagreement was interpreting the words “mimacharat hashabbat”. The Sadducees interpreted it to mean the Sabbath of Passover, while the Pharisees understood it to mean upon completion of the holy day of Passover. The difference was not only significant but also symbolic of how these two competing interests understood Judaism. The Sadducees understood Judaism to be integrally linked with temple ritual and in fact understood their status as linked to the Temple and the state. Thus their concern was strictly managing the festival of Shavuot as an agrarian holiday giving a literal translation to the text. The Pharisees, on the other hand understood the state and temple cult to be subordinate to the torah. Their interpretation of Shavuot thus went beyond the narrow confines of an agrarian holiday. They understood it as the culmination of the covenantal process beginning on Passover and culminating on Shavuot with the receiving of the Law. Shavuot would not have a non specific date based upon the Sabbath following Passover, but would have a definite date of its own, 6 Sivan, which would always come 50 days after the first day of Passover.

The Pharisees appropriated to Shavuot an identity of it’s own in that it became the festival which celebrated the Giving of the Law at Sinai. So even if the agricultural character of the holiday would be phased out, the covenantal nature and the holiness of the festival would continue. Passover and Shavuot still remained linked by the omer. Passover was the Exodus and the culmination was the giving of the Law on Shavuot. Remarkable however is the “offering” in the Temple on Shavuot. Whereas on Passover we are forbidden to eat chametz, on Shavuot the two loaves must be made from chametz. In fact this is the only time that an “offering” is to be made from chametz.

There are references in the Talmud that equate chametz symbolically to the evil inclination or the bad side of a person. The Zohar too makes the same references. Just as Israel was liberated from the shackles of slavery we celebrate on Passover that we too are liberated from the evil inclination. We burn the chametz prior to the beginning of the Passover festival to metaphorically allude to our impending liberation from the ever present evil inclination that pollutes the soul. Exorcising the evil inclination permanently from our being isn’t necessarily desirable. Our tradition points to the value in dualism. Midrash Rabbah (9:7) comments that had it not been for the evil inclination man wouldn’t have married and built a home for his family. In other words, in spite of the unseemly side man was able to do the right thing and create a stable society. A similar midrash on Deuteronomy suggests that when we were commanded to love God “with all our heart and all our soul” this refers to loving God with both the good and evil inclination.

There is an interesting Midrash that refers to the angels who petitioned God not to give the Torah to people but to give it to them. Moses argued that giving it to the angels would be counterproductive; their perfection renders the Torah irrelevant to them, while it was necessary to give it to people who were in need of perfection. Thus, on Passover we burn the chametz and try to liberate ourselves from the evil inclination. But, in fact there is a dualism that our tradition recognizes and understands that without it Torah would no longer be relevant. Introducing the chametz back into our lives on Shavuot in the Temple service is intended to do so with the intention that it will be in a delicate balance with the good inclination and keep us worthy of receiving the Torah.