This week we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. As one of the shalosh regalim, the Three Festivals, it is one of the most important holidays of the year. So I don’t understand why, in many quarters, the occasion passes by with barely a notice.
Shavuot is also known in English as Pentecost because it occurs fifty days after the start of Passover. It is traditional to engage in the Counting of the Omer, in which each night is numbered and counted, starting on the night of the second Passover Seder.
Shavuot commemorates the Lord’s giving of the Law (matan Torah) on Mount Sinai in the wilderness. Passover is the festival of freedom, at which time we remember how God, with miraculous acts, freed the Jews from slavery at the hands of the cruel Pharaohs of Egypt. The Lord emancipated us so that we could become His chosen people, taking His law into our hearts to be an example to all the nations.
But first we had to learn God’s law. As if the Ten Plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea weren’t enough evidence of God’s love for us, He further demonstrated His love by presenting the gift of the Law to us personally. The Book of Exodus tells us that the Lord appeared in a thick cloud above Mount Sinai, amidst thunder, lightning, loud Shofar (trumpet) blasts and the mountain smoking. All the Jewish nation gathered for the occasion, but the people were warned to keep their distance from the foot of the mountain lest they die. We didn’t have to be told twice; with the earth quaking and the mountain on fire, we were understandably very frightened.
Finally, Moses was permitted to go up the mountain and bring back the Ten Commandments to the people.
Receiving the Law has often been singled out as the defining moment of our nationhood. We were ex-slaves, wanderers in the desert, who only then acquired the unity and dignity required of a nation. Our commitment to living a godly life is the glue that has held us together from Sinai to the present day.
With the acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the culmination of our history to that time (some would say ever), it is no wonder that the event occasions great anticipation that takes the form of counting the days from Passover.
Between the excitement leading up to the event and the awesome demonstration of the Lord’s power at the moment of the law giving, it is surprising to me that Shavuot is not a more widely celebrated holiday. Among Orthodox Jews in the United States, the festival consists of two days of prayer in the synagogue, abstinence from work and enjoyment of wonderful holiday meals. In Israel, Shavuot is a known and recognized holiday. But among the Conservative, Reformed and other Jewish movements in America, Shavuot seems to be almost a forgotten holiday, not widely marked in the course of our workaday lives. Each year, I have to look up the date of the holiday just to mark the occasion.
I think part of the answer to this enigma is that, as dramatic an occasion as the law giving was, today Shavuot lacks the pageantry of Passover, the High Holidays or even Sukkot. Unlike Passover, we don’t clean our homes like crazy for weeks, then hold two Seders steeped in age-old ritual and accented with unusual foods. Shavuot is not a fast day like Yom Kippur, nor do we blow the Shofar as we do on Rosh Hashannah. We don’t decorate the Sukkah booth and shake the lulav and esrog. In fact, other than reading the Book of Ruth and eating dairy foods, there aren’t a lot of special traditions associated with Shavuot that would make the holiday stand out.
If Shavuot is the ugly duckling of festivals, perhaps it is time that we bring it back to its rightful place of glory. Perhaps we need to develop a new tradition, a standout minhag, that would appeal to children and adults alike. As special an event as Shavuot is, we ought to figure out a way to show just how important it is to the history and future of our people.
Then again, perhaps the momentousness of the occasion is enough to make Shavuot stand out on its own. Anything more would be gilding the lily.