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The meaning of Shavuot

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Fifty days pass quickly, especially if one counts them individually. It seems that it was just yesterday that we were preparing ourselves to sit down at the Pesach seder table and here is Shavuot looming at the end of the week. Though the holiday has a number of other names associated with it – the Festival of Bikurim/First Fruits, the festival of the granting of the Torah – the proper name assigned to it is Shavuot – the Festival of Weeks. The emphasis that the name gives us is that of the passage and counting of time. In its description of the festival itself, the Torah repeats a number of times this passage of weeks from the holiday of Pesach to the celebration of the holiday of Shavuot. It is apparent that this passage of time is deemed to be an important part of the significance of the holiday itself. In the Talmud as well as in the Bible itself the holiday of Shavot is referred to as being atzeret - an adjunct and bookend, so to speak, to Pesach. Somehow it completes the process of redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. It illustrates for us the purpose of that redemption and the true goal that freedom points us to in our personal and national lives. It is as though the revelation at Sinai and the granting of the Torah is the strategic goal of the entire story of the Jewish people in Egypt while the actual Exodus from Egypt is the necessary tactic to allow this strategic goal to be attained. Only by connecting Shavuot to Pesach with this seven-week counting does this message become clear and cogent to us.

The connection of Shavuot to the bounty and blessings of agricultural produce is also emphasized in the Torah and is the backdrop to the drama of the book of Ruth, which by custom is read publicly in the synagogue on Shavuot. Humans cannot live by bread alone but they cannot live without bread either. Therefore, we are reminded on Shavuot of the daily miracle of nature that provides food and sustenance for us all. In our blessed current circumstances of plenty we often think that our food is from the supermarket and that we are somehow entitled to enjoy the quantities and varieties of food available to us. We always look for the hand of God, so to speak, in unusual and unforeseen circumstances. However, in the regular every day mundane activities that we are engaged in, we find it more difficult to sense the Divine Presence in our lives and activities. The agricultural nature of the holiday of Shavuot comes to remind us of the constant presence of God in our lives every time we sit down to eat the food produced by our earth. There was a time in the world when not only Jews said blessings of thanksgiving before and after their meals. The modern world has swept that antiquated custom aside in much of the Western world today. However in Jewish life it remains a vital part of our daily activity and a necessary reminder as to the blessings that God has bestowed upon the agricultural toils of man. Freedom without food is a calamity. Shavuot reminds us of this obvious but often neglected truth.

Finally, Shavuot comes to reinforce our belief in the primacy of Torah study and observance in our life, both as an individual and as a nation. Rav Saadyah Gaon’s famous statement that "Our nation is a nation only by virtue of our Torah" has been proven true by the millennia of Jewish history and its events. Those who forsook any connection Torah, they and/or their descendants eventually fell away from the Jewish people. It is the Torah and the revelation at Sinai that binds all of Israel together – Ashkenazi and Sephardy, Yemenite and Lithuanian, black and white and in all shades in between, politically liberal and conservative and old and young. It is the Torah that crosses all lines and groupings within Israel. This is the idea that the Torah itself expresses that at Sinai we were all "of one heart and one being." Shavuot is therefore the holiday of Jewish unity, of the acceptance of our individual differences within the framework of the goal of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. There was a seven-week process that led from the slavery of Egypt to the glory of Sinai. We are also in the midst of a process of rebuilding the Jewish people, strengthening the Jewish state, and revitalizing the actual Land of Israel. This process takes time and will not be accomplished in only seven weeks. But the example of the seven-week wait for Shavuot should stand us in good stead.





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