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From the Rabbi

Simcha 2015What Does the Holiday of Shavuot Teach Us?

In late spring, there is Torah-mandated holy day, celebrated by lactose-tolerant Jews eating of cheese blintzes and ice cream.  Know which holiday I am referring to?

On this holy day, temples and synagogues confirm teens, hold consecration ceremonies for their youngest students, honor their teachers and hold all-night study events.

Getting warmer?  (Yes, outside it is getting warmer and the sun came out… for a few minutes.)

What is the name of this Jewish holiday?  What is it about?  When is it?

If you can’t remember, I don’t blame you.  It is so easy to pass over (pun attempted).

So Passover has something to do with it?

The holiday is Shavuot.

Shavuot (lit. “weeks”), the Jewish Pentecost holiday, is observed as a Sabbath day of rest on the 50th day following the first day of Pesach  (Passover), and is generally regarded by scholars as atzeret, the conclusion of Passover, rather than an independent holiday.

How odd it seems that Shavuot, which suffers from a nondescript name, a vague calendar date (as opposed to a specific date), and no unique Torah-mandated Mitzvot (commandments) was granted the status of a full-fledged Pilgrimage festival like Pesach and Sukkot in the Torah.

What are the common characteristics of the Jewish pilgrimage holidays?

Each the three pilgrimage festivals in the Torah corresponds to a time of harvest.  It was only at the conclusion of a harvest that farmers could be expected to take a break and make the journey to Jerusalem.  Thus, each festival is grounded (pun intended) in the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel.

In the spring, when barley emerges in Israel, Pesach commemorates the birth of a nation.  Sukkot (booths) in the autumn recalls both our 40 years of wandering in the desert under G-d’s divine protection, then reaching and putting down roots in a promised land abundant in all manner of produce.

And Shavuot?  Shavuot also corresponds to a harvest–a very important one for an agrarian economy, wholly dependent on its winter rain; Shavuot corresponds to the early wheat harvest.  Compared to barley, which was considered animal fodder and food fit for slaves, wheat was a superior grain, the food of freedom.  While “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3), it is also true that where “there is no flour there is no Torah” (Ethics, 3:21).  Wherever bread (the staff of life) is missing, physical and spiritual accomplishments are not possible.

Looking at the other names Shavuot carries in the Torah–“the Cutting Holiday” (Chag Hakatsir) for the aforementioned cutting of the wheat, and the “Holiday of First Fruits” (Chag Habikurim)–one can appreciate its strong agricultural orientation.

Beyond the agricultural, there are other characteristics pilgrimage festivals share:  They have an historic dimension overlaying their agricultural base.  By honoring our history, we are asked to remember not only what our forebears did on a specific date in the past–but more than that–to make an effort to recreate the same events in our own day–to live them, concretize them, personalize them–in short, to breath new life into them.  When the past informs the present and the future in a meaningful way, we join hands with our ancestors and continue to be what we have been through the centuries: a living people in living communities.

When a people lives most of its existence in exile from its homeland, dispersed to the four corners of the globe and disconnected from the land as the Jews have been, being able to recreate history wherever we live in a hands-on way is imperative.  At Passover we make Seders.  At Sukkot we make booths and dwell in them.  One day per week we “make” Shabbat.  Make is the  operative verb.  And it really doesn’t matter where you live.

What historical event overlays Shavuot?  We are told it was the giving of the Ten Commandments and Torah by G-d to the Israelites thorough His servant Moses at Mount Sinai.

In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.  They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.  Ex. 19:1-2.

Essentially, the math works.  50 days after Pesach puts the children of Israel in the Sinai desert opposite the mountain.  Is “the Mountain” referred to Mt. Sinai?  Which day of the third month does “this day” refer to?

Not quite enough information to call Shavuot an historical event?

We know what to do on Pesach.  We know what to do on Sukkot.  But how does historical memory inform Shavuot?

Shavuot is observed on the 6th of Sivan by common consent, on the assumption that “this day” referred to in our text is the 1st day of Sivan.

When the Torah wants to add specificity to a story, it surely knows how to do that.  In the case of the giving of the Ten Commandments, however, it appears that the Torah’s account of its own origins is purposely vague to underscore the importance of its message.

Torah would be given in a barren wilderness, a no man’s land, at an undisclosed time.

Understood this way, the Ten Commandments and Torah given to Israel through Moses would not be bound to a specific time, a specific place or to a specific people.  It would be universal.

The people of Israel was given the privilege of teaching the Torah.

To become effective teachers, Israel was asked to study the Torah and pass it on to their children in every generation, to study its words, and to study the commentaries of the people who devoted their lives to trying to understand it up to the present day.

Shavuot is our annual promise to transmit Torah’s messages as our ancestors did before us. to transmit Torah in written word, through the telling of stories and through the personal example of its teachers.

Our Sages called Shavuot z’man mattan torataynu, the time when the Ten Commandments and Torah were first given to a slave people to teach them how to transform their new freedom into a blessing for all humankind.

On Shavuot we recall the ever renewing gift of Torah and its inexhaustible potential to bring goodness wherever its message reaches, every day of the year.

On Shavuot we don’t eat Matzoh.

On Shavuot we don’t build Sukkot.

On Shavuot we remember the power of Torah.

The power of Torah to give renewed meaning to the eating of unleavened bread.

The power of Torah to give relevence to the building of temporary huts.

The power of Torah to help us see the image of G-d in the face of a neighbor.

Hashem, we thank you for the gift of Torah, for the opportunity to honor the holiday of Shavuot… and for a wonderful community where Torah study matters.

—Rabbi Simcha Prombaum