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Shavuot: Awe vs. Love of God: Part One

Transcribed by Daniel Goldman from a shiur delivered on 18 May 1999 : I want to begin with the text and how it relates to what took place in the Garden, and in our own relationship with God.  Think about this:  Would Revelation lead to Awe or would it lead to Love?  That is, if you had Revelation on one hand and Matan Torah on the other, which would you associate with Awe and which would you associate with Love?  Revelation would certainly be a relationship of Awe and the Giving of the Torah would be that of Love.  In chapter 19, where we will begin, we’ll see that God lays all of this out for them.  The Jews are in front of Mount Sinai.  They are to begin with Awe and then to Love.  This would mean the if this is at the moment that they are fixing the sin, that means that before the sin they also began with Awe and then Love.  That is what we would think.


Q: Does fear play a part in this?

RSW: Not really.  Fear is part of the process of developing Awe.  There is no commandment to fear God.  There is a mitzvah to be in awe of God.  Ramban calls Fear one of the lowest levels in the service of God because it means that I serve God for the sake of reward.  But Rambam says at the end of the book of Madah, the Book of Awareness, or Knowledge, in the last chapter of Teshuva, that Love leads to Awe, but Love is the highest level.  Rashi explains that when the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai, they arrived in a state of Teshuva.

Gerald August: How do you translate Yira’at Hashem?

RSW: Ahh!  It’s the same root as in “to see.”  That is, you are so in awe of God, you grasp your insignificance.

“On the third month, after the Jews left the land of Egypt; on this day, the came to the desert of Sinai.” (Exodus 19)  Quoting the Midrash, Rashi is bothered by two things.  Why is it necessary to say “on this day,” and why does it say ba’yom ha’zeh, when the usual words used in the Torah are ba’yom ha’hu?  Rashi quotes the Gemara in Shabbat saying that this day was Rosh Chodesh.  Wait.  The day that they arrived at Mount Sinai is Rosh Chodesh.  So lets go back to their first stage when they are leaving Egypt, that is, when the Jews are beginning the process of the Exodus.

God speaks to Moshe and gives him the first law of the entire nation.  That law is the law of Rosh Chodesh.  Interesting.  How do we begin the Asert Ha’dibrot, the Ten Statements? – “I am God your Lord who took you out of the land of Egypt.” And how does the Exodus begin? – with the laws of Rosh Chodesh.  What is so special about the beginning of the new month?  Rosh Chodesh represents the Oral Law.  This is because we sanctify the New Moon.  We decide when Rosh Hashana is, and we decide when God sits in judgement.  We decide when Yom Kippur is, we decide when Pesach is, we decide when Sukkot is, and we decide when Shavuot is.  Because we determine Rosh Chodesh.  Within the very first mitzvah that God gives us, He is saying, “I am not interested in obedience.  I am interested in a relationship.”  Revelation at Sinai is not about the Oral Law.  That’s why in all the Kabbalistic writings about Shavuot, they all refer to the Oral Law.  Written Law is not a relationship, it’s imposed.

“And God the Lord commanded the primordial human being saying: From all the trees in the Garden you must eat.  From the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat.  Because on the day you will eat of it, you will die.” (Genesis 2:16)

The first mitzvah is to eat.  Is God interested in obedience, or a relationship?  Clearly, God is interested in a relationship.  God is saying, “You must understand at the very beginning (which is not coincidentally on Rosh Chodesh) before you start the process, what the goal is.  The goal is that I want a two-way relationship with you. Not one that I have given you, but a real, practical relationship.  Keep that in mind, Adam.  We will have to reach that goal one way or another.  I’m going to give you a choice that we will talk about later.  But first what I want is a relationship.”

At that moment in the Garden, and 2500 years later at the moment that begins Revelation at Mount Sinai, we see that God says the same thing – “I want a relationship.”  That’s why on Shavuot night we are supposed to learn Oral Law, not Written Law.  We can study Written Law only to understand the Oral Law that is derived from it.

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