Reflections on Shavuot (2022)
It is remarkable that Jews around the world feel a sense of connection to each other.
What enables that feeling of connection? What do we share?
This is a question that Jewish scholars have anticipated for over a thousand years. In his famous commentary on the Bible, the 11th century scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), encounters this challenge in the very first verse of the Torah:
What is the reason, then, that it (the Bible) commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” — Rashi Genesis 1:1
Rashi, who wrote a commentary on nearly the entire Jewish cannon, uses his opening line to explain that the Bible feels that the Jewish people need a shared heritage or a common story.
I’d like to suggest that this theme of a shared heritage is core to the Jewish communal experience.
In the liturgy of the shalosh regalim, the Three Festivals, we make reference to each festival and it’s key characteristic:
- Pesach (Passover)= the time of our collective feeling of freedom
- Shavuot = the time we received our Torah
- Sukkot = The time of our collective feeling of joy
Pesach and Sukkot are each a time of collective feeling, while Shavuot is a time that commemorates a particular event.
What is particularly interesting about this apparent difference is that there is no obvious source that tells us that the festival of Shavuot coincided with the Israelites receiving the Torah at Sinai.
When we compare the Three Festivals to each other, as we see in the liturgy above, we can begin to ask how they interplay or why they are placed together as a series.
I’d like to suggest that in the paradigm listed above, Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah, are the foundational events that enable Sukkot and Pesach to become times of collective feeling.
How, in fact, can one even be told to celebrate a time of communal happiness or freedom? How can a people be told to feel a certain way, collectively, at a certain time?
In the opening scene of the Israelites at Sinai the Torah says “וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃” or “Israel encamped there in front of the mountain” — the Hebrew is important here because there is a glaring grammatical error in that sentence... The verse conjugates the word encamped in the singular and not in the plural.
Our friend Rashi, in what is perhaps his single most famous comment, explains that the misaligned grammar should be interpreted to mean that the Israelites prepared to receive the Torah “As one man with one heart”. In other words, in order to prepare to position themselves as the receivers of a single heritage (like Rashi mentions in Genesis above), our ancestors recognized that they needed to join together — both in body and in mind.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, ponders the different ways in which people join together. He ends up positing that there are Encampments and Congregations:
“Encampment and Congregation constitute two different sociological experiences, two separate groups that have nothing in common and do not support one another. An Encampment is created out of a desire for self-defense and thrives on fear. Congregation is fashioned out of longing for the realization of an exalted moral idea and thrives on love. In the Encampment, fate’s rule is unlimited, whereas destiny rules the Congregation. The Encampment represents a phase in the development of the nation’s history. The continued survival of a people is identified with the existence of the Congregation.”
The Israelites at Sinai, R’ Soloveitchik says later on in his essay, are the great manifestation of Congregation. They joined together in order to achieve a common goal.
This is what I mean when I say Shavuot is the foundation that enables us to celebrate all other holidays with a sense of communal feeling.
Without the Torah we wouldn’t have a way to understand our collective heritage (Genesis), without our collective heritage we wouldn’t form a Congregation (Sinai), in order to pursue our collective goals. Shavuot, in other words, is the foundation, it is what enables us to feel a collective sense of joy on Sukkot and a collective sense of freedom on Pesach.
But why does Shavuot, in particular, play this role?
Shavuot acts neither like a festival nor like Shabbat in the usual paradigm of time of Jewish time.
Sukkot and Pesach are fixed dates every year, dates which are appointed by the expert courts who set in place the calendar based on the new moon. Shabbat is built into creation, it does need need a court of experts to recognize it — it occurs on its own.
Shavuot is dependent on our collective ability to maintain the Jewish calendar. Pesach doesn’t happen if we don’t sanctify the new moon, Shavuot doesn’t happen if we don’t count the days from Pesach.
Shavuot, otherwise put, is the reflection of our sustained commitment to live by Jewish values, day in and day out.
Similarly there is no set time ,according to the Torah, to celebrate matan Torah, the receiving of the Torah. In fact, the sages of the Talmud argue about which date it actually occurred on. The key moment in the narrative of the Jewish people, as told by the Bible, is therefore not marked on our calendars. There is no pilgrimage to Sinai (we don’t know where it is) and there are no rituals (like Lulav or Matza).
Independently, Shavuot and Matan Torah are nomads in Jewish time. When brought together they are the key that unlocks the riddle of theJewish ability to feel joy and freedom collectively.
When placed in concert with each other, these two events give us the context for embracing our shared heritage.
Let us return briefly to our central prayer for the Three Festivals, the amidah:
וְהַשּיאֵנוּ ה’ אֱלקֵינוּ אֶת בִּרְכַּת מועֲדֶיךָ. לְחַיִּים וּלְשָׁלום. לְשמְחָה וּלְששון. כַּאֲשֶׁר רָצִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבָרְכֵנוּ:קַדְּשֵׁנוּ בְּמִצְותֶיךָ וְתֵן חֶלְקֵנוּ בְּתורָתֶךָ שבְּעֵנוּ מִטּוּבֶךָ וְשמְּחֵנוּ בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ. וְטַהֵר לִבֵּנוּ לְעָבְדְּךָ בֶּאֱמֶת. וְהַנְחִילֵנוּ ה’ אֱלקֵינוּ בְּשמְחָה וּבְששון. לשבת שַׁבָּת וּ מועֲדֵי קָדְשֶׁךָ וְיִשמְחוּ בְּךָ יִשרָאֵל מְקַדְּשֵׁי שְׁמֶךָ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ מְקַדֵּשׁ לשבת הַשַּׁבָּת וְ יִשרָאֵל וְהַזְמַנִּים
Bestow upon us, O HASHEM, our God, the blessing of Your appointed festivals for life and for peace, for gladness and for joy, as You desired and promised to bless us. Sanctify us with Your commandments and grant us our share in Your Torah; satisfy us from Your goodness and gladden us with Your salvation, and purify our heart to serve You sincerely. And grant us a heritage, O HASHEM, our God -with gladness and with joy the appointed festivals of Your holiness, and may Israel, the sanctifiers of Your Name, rejoice in You. Blessed are You, HASHEM, Who sanctifies[the Sabbath] Israel and the festive seasons.
Here, hiding in plain sight, we ask God to grant us a heritage so that we can collectively celebrate the festivals with gladness and joy.