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The Process of Truth and impact of Time – Shavuot 5774

For a printable PDF version click here: Shavuot – time and process

Counting as a process

There’s a fabulous Winnie the Pooh book I was reading to my daughter the other day, that tells how Pooh and all his friends decide to plant seeds. They wait and wait but nothing happens.  Roo asks ‘What if the seeds don’t sprout and we run out of patience?” Rabbit responds ‘now now, you’ve got to give the seeds a chance. Everything grows in its own time’.  Each of the friends uses a different method to try and get them to grow, eventually they all start growing except Pooh’s.  He is sad, he says he has been so patient and still nothing happens. He realises that the ground where his seeds are planted was not getting any sunlight because Tigger’s flowers were covering them. Once he moves the flowers his seeds start to grow.  The story is so simple but immensely insightful, especially to the children in this generation.  It is a lesson in patience and the importance of time and process.  It teaches the value of light in any process of growth. Though only four, my daughter already knows that most things she will encounter in this world are instantaneous.  What she needs to learn is that the important things, the things that we attach the most value to are not.  They require time, patience and process.

Shavuot is the only Chag in the Torah that we are commanded to keep, but are not told the exact date of its falling. We are only told to count seven weeks or fifty days from the festival of Pesach when the Barley harvest occurs.  Its date is based on our counting the seven weeks, fifty days.  The very act of our counting ensures the festival will be kept. The goal/date is less important than the process we must undertake to get there.

And you shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall you number fifty days; and you shall present a new meal-offering unto the Lord.[1]

Seven weeks you shall number unto you; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn you should begin to number seven weeks.  And you shall keep the Feast of Weeks unto the Lord your God after the measure of the freewill-offering of your hand, which you shall give, according as the Lord your God blessed you.[2]

By bringing the omer of barley at the start of the count and two loaves of bread at the end we note the flow of process. Whilst God provided us with the raw materials – the wheat and barley, man must create the food to be eaten.  A lesson in partnership whose requisite is patience.  A true covenantal relationship between man and God requires that both parties be involved, that man recognises the worth of his freedom and time and uses it for creativity and goodness.  It is no surprise that though biblically there is no recollection of Matan Torah taking place at the time of Shavuot, Chazal link the two.[3]  Matan Torah was the time our freedom was imbued with meaning.  It is not enough to simply be given liberty to do as we wish, being free means being responsible and being responsible means finding purpose in time.  Counting days should lead to a personal introspection into what time means to me. Is time just a continuum into which random events occur or is each moment significant, a chance to change, redeem, move forward?  When we count we attest to the interrelation of events, two cannot come without one, three without two.  The future is a constituent of the past. To progress and reach the end I have to first go through the process of counting towards it.  I have to live through each day, recognise the value of the present moment, whilst keeping my eye on the end goal.

Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim also sees the counting as an expression of a process between Pesach and Shavuot – negative and positive Liberty:

The days are counted from the first of the festivals, up to it, as is done by one who waits for the coming of the human being he loves the best and counts the days and hours. This is the reason for the counting of the omer from the day when they left Egypt till the day of the giving of the Torah, which was the purpose and the end of their leaving.[4]

The Jewish view has always stressed the importance of time as process.  The word zeman that features in the Bible is used in relation to points in time or finite periods of time rather than  as a continuum. [5]  The fact that the first command given to the people was that of Rosh Chodesh shows that time represents process a central element in human freedom and experience.  It is not time or the counting that is significant, but what we choose to do with time that confers on it sacredness.  When we sanctify time in whichever way we do, we are taking a moment and imbuing it with transcendence.  When we learn Torah and bring about a chiddush, when we impart wisdom to our children, when we do acts of chesed, these are things that live on past our time, they move us towards a redemption of man and the world.  They create an eternity from time.

In the words of A.J.Heschel:

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.  Unlike the space minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogenous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time.  There are no two hours alike.  Every hour is unique and the only one given at that moment, exclusively and endlessly precious.[6]

The Omer count attunes us to this fact. The period between being free from slavery (Exodus/Pesach) to becoming free to serve God (Har Sinai/Shavuot) is one in which we must recall the value of time and process, become accustomed to the music of freedom and rejection of fatalism.

Truth as process:

There is an often misconstrued belief that Matan Torah defines the moment absolute truth was given from God to Man.  However whilst revelation was of course an experience that possessed elements of absolute truth, we know that the notion of a received absolute truth is neither a biblical idea nor a Rabbinic one.  In a beautiful Midrash we are told that truth is something that grows from the ground.  The objective immutable truth is taken from the heavenly sphere and thrown into the ground from which it grows.

Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One was about to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and companies, some of them saying, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.”

Thus it is written, “Love and truth fought together, righteousness and peace combated each other” (Tehillim 85:11).  Love said, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love.”

Truth said, “Let him not be created, because all of him will be falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will do righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he will be all strife.”

What did the Holy One do? He took truth and cast it to the ground, as is said, “Thou cast down truth to the ground” (Daniel 8:12). The ministering angels dared say to the Holy One, “Master of the universe, why do You humiliate Your seal? Let truth arise from the earth.”

Hence it is written, “Let truth spring up from the earth.” (Psalm 85:12)[7]

Thrown to the ground, truth becomes fragmentary, multifaceted, limited.  It’s growth becomes dependent on man’s search and cultivation.  It can never be fully exposed since it is broken up into bits, growing from different points and perspectives. It becomes about our human search and quest.  It is a journey not a destination, a process not an immediate absolute answer.  It is about determining the weeds from the plants;  It requires patience, time and multiple approaches.[8]  In a brilliant book, ‘The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scriptures’, Yoram Hazony, a leading contemporary Bible scholar and Philosopher, points out that the word emet – Truth in the Bible does not mean ‘Truth’ how we define it today.  He writes:

In the Bible, the true is that which is reliable, steadfast, and sure, as in the English true heart or true friend. This understanding of truth is in fact closely related to the biblical conception of the good because the principle epistemological concern of the prophets is distinguishing that which can be relied upon to bring mankind well being from that which appears reliable but is not.  The search for truth in the Bible is therefore, roughly, the search for that which can be relied upon, or trusted, to bring about the good in this world.[9]

That search begins in Bereshit. Upon their banishment from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Chava are taught a lesson that must accompany them and mankind throughout the generations.  They have left the world of truth, the world of clarity and transparency to a world that is complex and ridden with a multiplicity of approaches to reality and truth.  The consequence of such a world is that they must work the land, creating a partnership with the Divine, as exemplified in the bringing of the fruits, omer and bread.  But the partnership is dependent on recognising that nothing, neither physical sustenance nor intellectual or spiritual growth, is clear or immediate.  Both require, patience time and process. [10]

It is no coincidence that the agricultural message of the festival of Shavuot/weeks, which is one of process, patience and the slow growing but developing grains, is called by Chazal – Zeman Matan Torateinu – The time of the giving of the Torah. In the same way material sustenance requires endurance and patience, so too with intellectual and spiritual fulfilment.  The attainment of truth is one that requires a lifetime to nurture and much patience and searching to unfold.  In addition the reading of Megillat Rut on Shavuot teaches us that emet  is not necessarily an adherence to propositional truths but rather as Hazony suggests, and the Tanach proves, a relationship based on covenant, trust, mutual respect and reliance.[11]

Rabbi Akiva and recovery as process:

The counting of the ‘omer’ period today has been obscured slightly by its association to the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, but perhaps this connection highlights even further the message it holds.  Of all the Talmudic personalities Rabbi Akiva stands out as the one who represents all elements of the ‘Omer’ count.

There are many stories of Rabbi Akiva, all of which in one way or another touch on this theme.  In the famous story in Avot De Rabbi Natan[12] of Rabbi Akiva’s beginnings, he is forty years old and never learnt anything.  One day he is sitting watching the water fall on the rock and notices that it had worn away. He asks ‘who scraped away the rock?’ he is answered ‘the water that falls on it daily’.  He creates a parable to himself saying, if water which is soft can wear away that which is hard, so too the words of the Torah which are hard as iron can be engraved onto my heart. He goes and learns Torah beginning in the class of children, learning letter by letter, eventually learning all the Torah. Integral to this narrative is the notion of process.  The water wearing away at the stones, the epiphany had by Rabbi Akiva, the process of learning one step at a time.  Nothing is immediate, everything is a process and Rabbi Akiva’s life becomes one which symbolises this theme.

In another famous aggadah, Rabbi Akiva and his fellow chachamim, who lived through the destruction of the Second Temple, are walking up to Jerusalem, upon seeing a fox running out of the ruins of the Temple, the other elders start crying.  Rabbi Akiva starts laughing.  In shock they ask him “Akiva how can you laugh at such a vision?” He replies “Why are you crying? We are seeing the prophecy of Uria come true that the Temple is laying in ruins, but now that we have seen this vision fulfilled I know that we will see the vision of Zecharia, that old men and women will sit in a newly built Jerusalem, now that I see Uriah’s prophecy fulfilled I know that  Zecharia’s will be fulfilled too.”  The Rabbis respond “Akiva you have comforted us, Akiva you have comforted us”.[13]  Rabbi Akiva has the ability to see beyond the here and now, he has a vision that rises above time, that makes room for process but also within the journey is able to conceive of the end.  He does not ignore the pain and suffering, or deny that it is exists, he is just able to understand time as a continuum, a moment in a long series of moments, he is able to find meaning not just in the here and now but in the process that defines time.

In final immensely potent and haunting Aggadah we are shown Moshe going up to Har Sinai to receive the Torah:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe Rabeinu ascended to Heaven, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, tying crowns onto the letters of the Torah. He said to God: ‘Creator of the Universe, why are you delaying yourself with this?’

God answered: ‘There will be a person several generations from now and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name. He will extrapolate innumerable halachot from each of the crowns.’ Moshe responded: ‘Master of the Universe, let me see him!’ God: ‘Take a step back(lit. return back to yourself – i.e. go forward in time – or back in time)’  Moshe thereupon went and sat at the back of the eighth row – and when he listened to Rabbi Akiva’s class, he did not understand the content of what was being discussed. He became exasperated. At one point during the class, however, a student asked Rabbi Akiva: ‘What is the source for that law?’ To which the teacher responded: ‘It is a halacha transmitted from Moshe on Mt. Sinai.’ Moshe was relieved.

Moshe came before God and said ‘Master of the Universe you have a man like this and you are giving the Torah to me?’.  God replied ‘Be silent’.  Moshe then said ‘Master of the Universe – You have shown me his Torah – now please show me his reward’…Moshe stepped back (lit. returned back to himself) and was then presented with an image of the Romans raking Rabbi Akiva’s flesh with hot combs…Moshe said: ‘Master of the Universe – this is Torah and its reward?’ God responded: ‘Be silent, this is what has arisen in my mind!’

The narrative touches on many issues, evil and suffering, the written and oral law.  What I believe is a prominent theme in this aggadah is the concepts of time and truth.  The Torah here is conveyed as a truth that exists in the realm of heaven, but it is imperative upon man to interpret it through the process of history according to the subjective truth and reality in which he lives. The movement in the aggadah between past and future, crisis and redemption, the known and unknown is at the very core of our existence as a nation.

Rabbi Akiva lived through an immensely tumultuous period in Jewish History.  Following the destruction of the Temple the Jewish people were unsure whether there would be a future for them.  Everything they had known, their entire religious framework and categories of reference had been destroyed. Despair pervaded their reality.  Yet Rabbi Akiva knew that the end would only come if we learnt how to live through the pain of the process. We can only imagine the devastation and complete crisis that must have endured when his students died.  It would lead even the greatest human to utter despair.  Would there be a future generation of students to pass his learning onto? Would his efforts to imbue others with knowledge be in vain? The counting of days, weeks, months is a due process to any recovery from tragedy, and as a nation we have had to endure such recoveries many times.  Day by day week by week. Counting each day, each week holds the very key to our survival as a nation. It was a law given to us at the birth of our nation and one whose conservation has reaped benefits in every generation.

Being part of the Redemptive process in the History of the Jewish Nation: On Bikkurim and Megillat Rut

In the ceremony of the first fruits (bikkurim) that could be bought to the Temple from the time of Shavuot each person must recount the following:

And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and dost possess it, and dwell therein; 2 that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land that the LORD thy God giveth thee; and thou shalt put it in a basket and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. 3 And thou shalt come unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: ‘I profess this day unto the LORD thy God, that I am come unto the land which the LORD swore unto our fathers to give us.’ 4 And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the LORD thy God. 5 And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 7 And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. 9 And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.’ And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God. 11 And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee.[14]

In a more modern version of this account Prof Ze’ev Magehen, in one of the most humorous philosophy books I have ever encountered, writes the following (it’s long but trust me it’s worth it!):

If you reach out and grasp your people’s hands – you were there. You participated in what they did, in all those places at all those times, you fought their battles, felt their feelings and learned their lessons.  You tended to the flocks with Rachel and slaved in Potiphar’s house with Joseph; you sang in the wilderness with Miriam, and toppled the walls of Jericho with Joshua; you carried first fruits to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and were mesmerized by Elijah on the slopes of Carmel; you bought the house down on the Philistines with Samson and bewailed your virginity in the mountains with Yiftach’s daughter; you fought the chariots of Hatzor under Deborah, and danced before the ascending Ark with David; you went into Exile with the prophet Jeremiah, and hung your harp and wept by the rivers of Babylon; you defied the divinity of Nebukhadnezzar with Daniel and vanquished the might of Persia with Esther; you sought communion with the infinite you sought communion with the infinite with Shim’on bar Yohai, and studied law and lore in the vineyards of Yavneh with El’azar ben Arach; you were with Judah the Maccabee at Modi’in, with the Zealots at Masada, with Akiva in the Roman torture chamber and with Bar-Kochva at Betar; you devoted your life to Tora at Sura and Pumpedita, and philosophized by the Nile in Fustat with the circle of Maimonides; you were crucified for refusing the cross in the Crusades, and were turned into ashes for your stubbornness at the autos-da-fé; you were exiled from the shores of Spain by Isabella, and chased down and raped by the hordes of Chmielniki; you went out to Safed’s fields to greet the Sabbath bride with Luria, and went in to Galicia’s huts to seek the ecstasy of the fervent Ba’al Shem Tov; you fled the Black Hundreds across Russia’s taiga, and were welcomed by Lazarus at the gates of Ellis Island; you filed into gas chambers at Bergen Belsen, and were hurled living into the flames at Matthausen and Sobibor; you parachuted into Hungary with Hanna Senesh, and fought back at Warsaw with Mordechai Anilewitz; you were shot with your family in the forests of Poland, and dug a mass grave and perished there at Babi Yar; you revived your dead language, you resurrected your sapped strength, you returned to yourself and renewed the lapsed covenant, you arose like a lion and hewed out your freedom on the plains and the mountains of your old-new land……

I am a Jew, and I am tied to teleology as well as to history. I live not just “for today,” and not even just for all that has led up to today—I also live for a thousand tomorrows. I do not know what will be in ten centuries from now, but I know that Jews will be. How do I know? Because I will work for it, because I will see to it—and I believe in myself as much as I believe in my people. Yes, Jews there will be. And through them, I will be, and through them, I will touch what will be, and through them, I will create what will be. You and I are members of a unique, extended family, extended in time as well as in space, extended into the future as well as into the past…… you partake in a four-thousand-year-long journey of savage struggle and jubilant exultation, of unimaginable sacrifice and ineffable beauty, an adventure recently rekindled in a phoenix-like flash of incandescent splendour the likes of which human history has never seen; and eventually you burn, my brother and sister, you burn with the light and the fever and the strength and the passion of the magnificent and undying people of Israel, the bush that burns, but is never consumed.

Try getting that from bowling.[15]

The story we relay on Shavuot and Prof Magehen animatedly expresses is a story of our long history, we affirm not only our connection to that history but the central role we play both in its past, present and future.

The Bikkurim ceremony comes on the heels of the Omer count.  Even when we have finished counting, even when we feel we have accomplished our goal, we are reminded that we still have to work towards future redemption. On the journey we each take to truth, sustenance, human progress, spiritual fulfilment, there are moments we feel like giving up. The road seems long, the goal far off. When we bring the bikkurim, finally returned to our land, reaping the fruits of our labour, we are given the gift of perspective.  By relaying the story of our ancestors we are attesting to our part in the very long and tumultuous history of our people and their dream and journey to redemption.  It teaches us poignantly the message of time and process.  Especially the national dream. Rav Hirsch expresses this idea beautifully and almost prophetically when he writes about sefirat Haomer in Sefer Vayikra:

Every member of the people and not just the representatives are commanded to count. ממחרת השבתfrom after the shabbat: you have already celebrated the Festival of freedom and remembered before God your independence gained by possession and enjoyment of one’s land, it seems that you have attained your liberty and the prosperity of freedom which in general are the aims which all national desires and national efforts are directed towards.  At that point you are to consider yourself not at the goal but only at the beginning of your national destiny and only then begin to count for the acquisition of another goal.  Thus the command to count is expressed in Deut in these terms ‘when the sickle begins at the standing corn, begin to count’.  When others stop counting (because they have reached their goal of material sustenance), you begin your counting……Political freedom can be received passively by us as a gift from the Grace of God.  But this moral freedom, only beckons to us an acquisition to be acquired only by the sevenfold inner work on ourselves. 

The idea he is expressing though written more than a century and a half ago, could have been written by a contemporary writer since it resonates deeply in the State of Israel today. The need to acknowledge that we are still undergoing a process, that nothing is immediate but requires time, effort and a deep desire.  On Shavuot these sentiments express themselves through another book that we read: Sefer Rut. The book reflects all the themes of the Chag as we have delineated above.  Nothing in the book is immediate, everything requires time and action; both human and divine. It is about truth lived not truth set out.  It is about relationships not propositions. It is about multiple perspectives and approaches.  It is about the dynamacy and flexibility of the oral law, that in the end allowed Ruth to be a part of our nation even though the Torah forbade it.  It is about the complexity of reality and the determination of the human spirit in spite of that complexity.  It is about not knowing what will be, but believing in a happy ending. It is about faith in others and redemption from below.  If Matan Torah is the paradigm of absolute truth through Divine revelation  and redemption, than Megillat Ruth is the paradigm of truth lived and reality redeemed through absolute loyalty to the ‘Other’.[16]  One moves from above to below, the other from below to above.  Both are important, both are central to our understanding of reality and together they form that which we call our covenantal relationship with God.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

[1] Vayikra 23:9

[2]Devarim 16:9-10

[3] Chazal do a calculation of dates that show Matan Torah must have taken place on the 6th Sivan (Shabbat 86b) but I suggest here there is a deep thematic link between the two as well.

[4] Maimonidies: Guide to the Perplexed 3:43

[5] For a comprehensive and in-depth study of this theory see Sacha Stern: Time and Process in Ancient Judaism

[6] A.J.Heschel: The Sabbath p8

[7] Midrash Bereshit Rabba 8:5

[8] There is a beautiful insight by Rabbi Areye Leib Hakohen Heller (eighteenth century posek and rosh yeshiva on Galicia) in the introduction to his book הקצות החשן where he interprets this midrash as the idea that emet – truth exists in its Divine absoluteness in the heavenly sphere, but down on earth it is given to man to uncover, and when he does so it becomes a chidush – something new and unique, since in the eyes of the chachamim.  Hence the bracha: אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת וחיי עולם נטע בתוכינו meaning that there exists a realm of emet but it is our hands to uncover and dig out the emet in this world.

[9] Yoram Hazony: The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture p343

[11] For a in depth analysis of the idea that Judaism is not a Dogma based (propositional truth) religion see Menachem Kellner: Must a Jew believe anything. For the opposing view see J. David Bleich: With Perfect Faith.  See also Hazony: The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture chapters 7 and 8

[12] Masechet Avot De Rabbi Natan Nusach aleph chapter 6

[13]  Masechet Makot 24b

[14] Devarim 26

[15] Ze’ev Maghen: Imagine John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage p75-78

[16] The loyalty of Ruth to Naomi and the legacy of her husband, Naomi to her people, Boaz to the widower and the poor.

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