The holiday that started it all.
Most people get excited, or at least know about, the festivals of Passover and Sukkot. GREAT NEWS: there are three Jewish festivals! And the third one is, in many ways, the one that started it all: Shavuot.
This year Shavuot is celebrated from sunset on May 28 until nightfall on May 30.
So why doesn’t it get the same love as the other two? For most people, at best, Shavuot is the holiday where we eat dairy. Ho-hum. It’s only two days (and only one in Israel), doesn’t have a super special meal (like the Seder), and we don’t get to sit inside fancy decorated huts for festive meals (like Sukkot). It’s not hard to understand why most people don’t get as jazzed about it.
So what is the big deal?
Everyone knows about the Exodus and the trek to Mr. Sinai. G-d freed us and took us out of Egypt. That’s exciting stuff. We have an eight-day holiday that commemorates it. But without Shavuot, it would have been an unfinished story.
Shavuot celebrates the culmination of that event: the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people by G-d. It was the event that forged a bunch of freed slaves into (queue dramatic music): The Jewish people. That’s very exciting stuff.
It has other significant characteristics too. The word “Shavuot,” means “weeks.” It celebrates the completion of the counting of the Omer. In ancient times, two wheat loaves were offered in the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) and the people would bring “bikkurim,” the first, and best, fruit to Jerusalem.
But “Shavuot” also means “oaths,” and traditionally the holiday has been compared by the sages as a wedding between G-d and the Jewish people. It is on that day that He swore eternal loyalty to our people and we, in turn, pledged everlasting loyalty to Him. That was accomplished through the giving of Torah. That key event took place on Shavuot.
According to Chasidic philosophy, “matan Torah” (the giving of the Torah) wasn’t just a “transactional event,” but a transformative moment that made the Jews into the Jewish People. It was an extremely dramatic moment.
From “What Happened At Matan Torah” by Eli Landes:
“The Jews awake to thunder and lightning and a deep, powerful horn blast. As they approach Mount Sinai, they see it ablaze, a thick cloud at its peak. Trembling in awe and fear, they gather at the foot of the mountain as Moses ascends alone to the top.
Against this incredible backdrop, G d speaks the first two of the Ten Commandments. With each one, the entire Jewish people die from the intensity of the Divine voice. G d subsequently brings them back to life. After the first two commandments, the people decide that it’s too much for them, and they ask Moses to transmit the remaining eight commandments.”
That’s heavy stuff. It is the event that unified the spiritual realm with the physical realm. The Torah is the device that allows us to accomplish that astounding feat.
Tradition tells us that there were even some Jews who already observed Torah law before the giving of the Torah. Those few had learned the law as passed down through their families going back to Abraham. While that was nice, it did not have the same effect. The mitzvot weren’t “plugged in” yet.
What changed at Mt. Sinai was the acceptance of the Torah by the entire Jewish nation. It was no longer optional. The Jews were, forevermore, connected to G-d’s essence through the observance of the mitzvot.
After that point, doing a mitzvah wasn’t just a matter of personal preference. When we perform a mitzvah today, as the Rambam (Maimonides) wrote, “we do them because G d commanded us to at Sinai, not because our forefathers did them.”
In other words, the commandments were no longer merely a gesture, but a way to connect with the Divine by fulfilling the contract between ourselves and G-d. Each of the 613 mitzvot became a tool that connects our physical world with the Divine, allowing a spiritual “pipeline” that brings spirituality into the physical realm.
We became plugged in.
Exactly as we are commanded to experience leaving Egypt as though we ourselves had left Egypt, during Shavuot we are commanded to renew our acceptance of the Torah as though we ourselves had been at Sinai accepting the Torah (in fact, tradition tells us that the souls of every single Jew to ever exist was present at Mt. Sinai and witnessed the giving of the Torah).
So remember that Shavuot isn’t a minor holiday where we eat some dairy, wonder what the rest of it is all about, and call it a day. It is a key moment that forged our people as a nation with purpose, created the bond between the physical and the Divine, allowing us to bring the spiritual into the physical world, and put the human race on the path of fulfilling its mission in this world.
Like I said: heavy stuff. Happy Shavuot!
JOSH NAMM is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.