Ilana looked yet again at the long list in her hand, already wrinkled from being handled and consulted so much. Preparing for her oldest daughter's wedding that night was no small manner. The list included many different jobs that she still had to do, or make sure that others did, before the first guests would arrive. It was very important to her that everything go smoothly, so that the wedding would be truly joyous, and the entire experience would be perfect. It was already two months that she had been running around for these preparations for the big night, and here, with only minutes, she still had to ---
Suddenly, a small, inner voice whispered to her: Calm down! If you want to truly experience the wedding within your heart, you have to stop for a moment and leave the small details behind. Better that some details get forgotten, as long as you can really "be there" for the happy occasion!
The inner voice continued to speak with Ilana: Settle down! Close your eyes and breathe deeply! Think about the upcoming greatest moment in your daughter's life! Greet all the guests happily, not with half an eye on some unfinished detail!
And this is the message before the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, marking the Giving of the Torah to Israel 3,333 years ago. For the Mishna teaches us that when Song of Songs talks about King Solomon's wedding day (3,11), it is referring to the day on which the Torah was given. And to commemorate this great "wedding" every year on this day, we prepare a full 49 days, the Counting of the Omer period. Shavuot is in fact the holiday with the longest preparation period.
The Torah and the Sages frequently emphasize the importance of the preparations for receiving the Torah. We know that the Children of Israel were commanded at Sinai to get ready for three days before receiving the Torah (Exodus 19,11). Unfortunately, however, the Medrash tells us that the Israelites overslept that critical morning of the Giving of the Torah, thus detracting from the proper preparations for the great occasion. To rectify this, the custom for generations has been to study Torah all night long on Shavuot, thus making up for our lack of sufficient preparation way back then.
One might think that in light of what happened that morning, we would have taken upon ourselves a different custom: to accept the Shavuot holiday even earlier than usual. But fascinatingly, we do the opposite. In order to fulfill the literal meaning of the Torah's command to "count seven complete weeks" before Shavuot, we wait for the seven weeks to end completely – that is, until the sun has clearly and definitely set on the end of the 49th day of the Omer period, and only then do we accept the holiday.
Thus, what our soul experiences at the exact moments of the entry of Shavuot are feelings of waiting, of calmness, of serenity. We are not rushing. Precisely as the holiday begins – similar to the onset of the wedding above – we stop and try to internalize its meaning and significance. Thus we integrate two types of soul experiences: Rushing and preparing to receive the Torah, and then slowing down to internalize it.
This mental process of "stopping" in order to undergo the experience in a deep and personal manner, is very important particularly for our generation, immersed as it is in externals and constant racing.
This soul movement is also the basis of the Rabbinic name of this holiday: Atzeret, which stems from the same Hebrew root as the word for "stop." The Torah itself uses the word Atzeret to refer to two other holidays: the seventh and last day of Pesach, and Sh'mini Atzeret after Sukkot – but not Shavuot. Yet the Rabbis choose to call it Atzeret – and exclusively so, in that the Rabbinic term Atzeret refers only to Shavuot and not the holidays that the Torah calls Atzeret! Why did the Rabbis differ so radically from the Torah's holiday nomenclature?
The famous Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explained as follows: Every Jewish holiday features both a ban on creative work and one or more special mitzvot. For example, on Rosh HaShanah we blow the shofar, on Pesach we eat matzah, and on Sukkot we build a Sukkah. Only on the last day of Pesach and Shmini Atzeret is there no special mitzvah – other than "stopping" from work. This is why these days are called Atzeret, for that is their specialty: a full stop from work.
The Torah's special mitzvah for Shavuot is the bringing of a special sacrificial offering known as Sh'tei HaLechem, the Two Loaves of new grain. (We know that this is a special Shavuot mitzvah because it is not listed in Parashat Pinchas with the list of holiday sacrifices, but rather in Parashat Emor with the holiday mitzvot.) But nowadays, without our Holy Temple, we no longer have this mitzvah of the Two Loaves, leaving us on Shavuot only with the prohibition of doing work. This is why the Rabbis gave the name Atzeret to Shavuot - to show that today, its essence is "not to work."
We therefore see that Shavuot has this important dimension of stopping, of pausing to internalize and experience the Torah that we have received.
Ancient Israeli olive press
The word atzirah also means the act of "squeezing olives." We note that squeezing grapes and other fruits is relatively easy, whereas in olives, the juice must be squeezed from the pit – and this requires more measured and deliberate effort. That is, one must "stop" a bit in order to extricate oil from olives, and thus it is called atzirah. Only one who "stops" will merit to extricate the oil and the "hidden light" from the olive pit.
On this upcoming Festival of Shavuot, the holiday of Atzeret, let us all "stop" the mad rush of life, and "extricate" from within our hearts the oil of the light of Torah and the connection with G-d.