This short one-day holiday in Israel - two days in the Diaspora - is laden with many layers of history, meaning and influence. The holiday as recorded for us in the scripture of the Torah itself is one of agricultural bounty and the beginning of the season of bringing the first fruit offering to the Temple. It is a celebration of the bounty of the Land of Israel, of appreciating the variety and quality of agricultural produce that this country produces. Sitting at the edge of a desert, blessed with only a few months of the year of possible rainfall, this remarkable little country produces fruits, vegetables, wine, olive oil and milk products of remarkable variety and superb taste. The rabbis in the Talmud taught us that when the Land of Israel produces such agricultural bounty in variety and abundance it is a harbinger of the eventual complete redemption of Israel. One need only venture into the shuk here in Jerusalem to become thrilled with what has been accomplished here by Jewish labor and ingenuity in the field of agriculture. So even though there is no Temple yet extant today and the obligation of bringing the first fruits of the year to the Temple and to the priest is not applicable now there still is this spirit of thankfulness to God for the bounty of the Land of Israel that exists within us and is especially highlighted in our observance of the Shavuot holiday. The deep connection of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people is a focal point of thought and influence on this holiday. More than any of the other holidays which had their origins outside the Land of Israel - Pesach in Egypt and Succot in the desert of Sinai - Shavuot is the quintessential holiday of the Jewish people in and with the Land of Israel
A second layer of Shavuot naturally concerns itself with it being the approximate anniversary of the revelation at Sinai and the granting of the Torah to the Jewish nation. "Today - the day of the granting of the Torah to Israel - we have become a people," declared Moshe and so it is. "Our nation is only a nation because of the Torah," Saadia Gaon famously declaimed. The Torah, its study, its values, its commandments, its way of life and thought patterns has been what has shaped and preserved the Jewish people throughout our long and very difficult history. Thus the rabbis declared that if it were not for the day of Shavuot we would have no unique identity as a faith and as a people. Shavuot is therefore really our Independence Day. Because of that long ago Shavuot everything else became possible and we emerged as a special people entrusted with Godly mission and universal eternal truths. It is no wonder therefore that the study of Torah in night long sessions and other sorts of programs are the hallmark of this festival. Nations can celebrate and commemorate their independence in various fashions - fireworks, parades, etc. - but only the Jewish people do so with study, debate and gaining additional knowledge from the endless sources of Torah learning.
Another layer of understanding and appreciating the holiday of Shavuot deals with our treatment of the stranger, the alien, the convert in our midst. The Book of Ruth is traditionally associated with the holiday of Shavuot. In its poignant story of tragedy and redemption we are taught that the Lord demands of us an attitude of compassion and friendship for those who live in our midst but are strangers or newcomers to our society. It is this layer of understanding that helps elevate the holiday of Shavuot from being a particular holiday for Jews alone to one that has a universal message for all humans. The "other" in society is to be treated kindly and not persecuted. The Torah always bids us to remember that we were also strangers - the "other" in the Land of Egypt. Is it not ironic that from the womb of Ruth the Moabite - the ultimate "other" in Judean society at the time of the Judges - should come forth the royal line of Davidic monarchy in the Jewish world? And what practical and moral lesson are we to draw from that paradoxical situation? Again, Shavuot comes to underline for us the importance of a proper attitude and behavior pattern towards strangers and converts who live with us in our land. Shavuot bids us to remember Ruth and her travails and the blessing that all of Israel received through her being part of our people. Shavuot truly has much to teach us and may we be inspired and uplifted by all of its marvelous layers of meaning and commemoration.
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