The Jewish holiday of Shavuot/Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Law at Sinai. Last year at this time I wrote about the validity of the Oral Law/traditions. (See “The Traditions of the Elders” in the June 2003 issue.) In that article I concluded that tradition is not, in itself, a bad thing, but that one is wrong to put tradition above the written word of God. That brings up the primary remaining practice on the holiday of Shavuot—reading and studying the Law. How, after all, can one know what is in God’s direct revelation to man without studying that revelation?
On Shavuot no constructive work is to be done. A person is not to light a fire, carry anything in public, or even pack bags for a trip to Texas the following day. Yet in a very real sense, constructive work is done every year on Pentecost. One just has to make the distinction between what realms the work is done.
In the worlds of the mind and of the spirit, study of God’s word is the most constructive thing that can be done. Concentrating on a job, a livelihood, or enhancement of the physical is actually somewhat “destructive” work. As one rabbi put it, “Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness if profitable unto all things.” (1 Tim 4:8) Spiritual construction makes enjoyment of the physical more sweet.
The psalmists, as may perhaps be expected, celebrated the virtues of study. Psalm 119, besides being the longest chapter in the Bible, makes mention of the Torah in every verse. The first psalm begins by saying the upright man meditates on God’s law “day and night.” (1:2) Another psalm extols the constructive value of the law. “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” (Ps 19:7) Yet another calls constructive study a blessing. “Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O LORD, and teachest him out of thy law.” (Ps 94:12)
The law itself mandated constant study to build up the nation and its children. After the statement of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel”), Moses told Israel:
And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut 6:6-7)
He continues by telling them to keep God’s word between their eyes and on their doorposts. This advocates study more often than once a year, but shows how important it is, even once a year.
The same rabbi quoted earlier said study built up a man. “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15)
I have known congregations that were very good at throwing a “pot luck” dinner. Much time and effort is devoted to feeding, or overfeeding, the body. This is an important and enjoyable thing. At least it is enjoyable until you realize that you have eaten too much. How much better would be a day reserved to the feeding of the soul. The greatest thing about such a day, devoted solely to the study of God’s word, is that it is impossible to overeat. The spiritual man never gets overstuffed when feeding on God’s Torah.
Of course, we must not limit our study of God’s word to one day a year. We are lessened if it occurs only once a month, or even once a week. We are certainly increased, though, if we take one day a year and devote it to more intense study than is possible on most days.
Pentecost is Wednesday, May 26, 2004.