Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger
Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger

From Censure to Sinai: A Fresh Look at Shavuos

Why are we doubling up so many parshiyos and why between Pesach and Shavuos? The answer takes us back to the time of Ezra, who reestablished the Jewish community in Israel and prepared the way for the rebuilding of the beis hamikdosh. Amongst much other legislation, Ezra and his beis din mandated that we read the tochecha (parsha of rebuke) of Bechukosai before the celebration of Shavuos, and this year we had to play "catch up" in order to maintain that rule (Megilah 31b). Interestingly this tochecha describes, according to the Ramban, the Diaspora between the two commonwealths, the Diaspora that Ezra was bringing to a close at that time.

Indeed our time honored custom to initiate the annual Torah reading cycle after Sukkos, is probably a result of various similar legislations of Ezra. It was Ezra who established that we read the tochecho of Ki Sovo, focusing on our present Diaspora, before Rosh Hashanah. Ezra's mandated timing of the two tohcecho readings together with the minhag of reading Va'eschanan after Tisha B'av works very well with beginning Breishis after Sukkos.

Nevertheless we should appreciate that Ezra most likely established the reading of Bechukosai before Shavuos much like the way that we read Zachor before Purim and Chodesh and Parah before Pesach. The gemara (Megilah 31b) explains that both Rosh Hashana and Shavuos are days of judgment and Ezra determined that we should read a tochecha, a lengthy rebuke, before a day of judgment. In doing so the community prays that any evil decreed on the last Day of Judgment should terminate with the end of the year governed by that day, and that the current Day of Judgment should usher in months replete with only blessings. It is not unlike the simanim that we eat on Rosh Hashanah night that symbolically enhance our prayers for a sweet year.

In order to establish that Shavuos is in fact a day of judgment, the gemara refers us to the practice of bringing the double loaves of bread in the Beis Hamikdosh (Rosh Hashana 16a). These two loaves were baked from the new wheat harvest and initiated its usage in the mikdash. Chazal understood this service as a prayer for the success of our upcoming fruit season. After all, in Gan Eden the wheat stood tall as a tree and delivered ready made fresh rolls, much as apples grow on the apple tree. By taking the initial harvest and dedicating it to the service of Hashem, explains Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim vol. 1), we present ourselves as people who will use every brocho in the service of Hashem. In that merit and with that kind of attitude we hope we will earn Hahsem's grace.

However, aside from decorating the shul in greenery, which according to some is to remind us of the impending judgment, very little focuses us on the yom tov as a Yom Hadin. There is no hinneni, no tal nor geshem, no kittel nor Yamim Noraim nusach. Perhaps this has led others to find a deeper connection between the judgment, the holiday, the censure and Sinai.

Truthfully, I had not in the past paid much attention to a very brief Rashi (26:4) commenting on the blessings that precede the rebuke in this week's parsha. Rashi, as is his wont, addresses a subtle change of nuance in the pesukim. There we are promised that the trees will give their fruit while when it comes to rain Hashem says He will give the rains without using the clouds or any other medium. Rashi remarks that this inconsistency records that all trees, even non fruit bearing trees will, if we merit, return to their place and state as if they were in Gan Eden. Indeed a remarkable medrash on these pesukim spells this out as well.

Consequently, the trees in blessing and rebuke, and therefore in judgment as well, not only convey Hashem's bestowal of commercial and agricultural success and not only the improvement of communal prosperity. Far more important, the trees, the non fruit bearing, and the wheat stalks stand witness to our lack of merit and readiness for messianic times which will return the world to its original Gan Eden purpose and profile.

Accordingly, the judgment of Shavuos should launch the most pervasive and piercing exploration. Do we really yearn to see Eden-like foliage, rolls on wheat trees and fruits on willow branches? Perhaps the greenery in the shul was meant to inspire that thought. Should the world once again stand still waiting to hear na'ase venishma, would it indeed endure? When we celebrate the day that gave creation meaning and purpose, do our attitudes and practices still hold that same promise that they did some three thousand years ago?

Thus we read Bechukosai to conclude the year governed by last Shavuos as our prayer that the judgment of last year which found us unworthy of those trees and its fruit should indeed be last year's decree and that this year, in the wee hours of Shavuos night when so many Jews are studying Hashem's Torah, He will find us all longing for and worthy of the greatest blessing of all.

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