The rabbis called Shavuot – the Festival of ‘Weeks’ – z’man matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah.’ They took a feast, which was purely agricultural in nature – Yom Ha-bikkurim, ‘The Day of First Fruits’ (Numbers 28:26) – and transformed it into the celebration of Revelation. Without this radical transformation, Shavuot would have disappeared when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Nevertheless, the rabbis’ inventiveness was rooted in the narrative of the Exodus: the seven weeks between early Pesach and Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15ff.) is mirrored by the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. As we read: ‘In the third month after the Israelites went out of the land of the Egypt, the same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.’ (Exodus 19:1).
So, the Torah teaches us that the Eternal One spoke to the ex-slaves in the ‘wilderness’. The Hebrew word is midbar. Significantly, the word midbar is connected to the Hebrew root, Dalet Beit Reish, to ‘speak’. A familiar noun, also based on this root, is davar, meaning ‘word’ – and also, ‘thing’: The wilderness, or more precisely, the desert; a barren, empty place – devoid of words and of things. Interestingly, the same consonants that make up midbar, can also form another word – if you substitute the vowels: mi-davar, which means, literally, ‘from a word’ – or ‘from a thing’. As we read in the opening verses of the Torah: the Eternal One spoke the world into existence out of tohu vavohu – ‘formlessness and void’ (Genesis 1:2ff.).
Of course this begs the question: Why did the Eternal One address the Israelites in the empty desert? Classical rabbinic midrash offers an explanation: ‘The Torah was given in public, openly in a free space. But had the Torah being given in the land of Israel, Israelites could have said to the nations of the world: “You have no share in it”. But now that it was given in the wilderness publicly and openly in a place that is free for all, everyone wishing to accept it could come and accept it.’ (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Vol. 2. Ed. Jacob Z. Lauterbach, JPSA, p.198-200 – on Exodus 19:2). In addition to this explanation, there is another one, rooted in the language. If once again, we take the consonants of midbar, and substitute the vowels, we can read another word: m’dabbeir, a verbal form of the same root, which means, ‘speaking’: In the midbar, a place devoid of words and things, nevertheless, the voice of God ‘speaking’ to the people. Why did the Eternal One address the Israelites in the empty desert? Because it was only there, in the barren desert, that they could hear the voice of the Eternal. Perhaps, God is speaking to us here and now, but we are too caught up in the noisy, busy, cluttered world we inhabit to hear the Divine voice, and too distracted and preoccupied to listen.