In days of old, the three biggest holidays of the year were the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals when we would walk to Jerusalem to make offerings to God at the Temple. One of them was Sukkot, the harvest festival we celebrate in the fall. One of them was Pesach, the festival of liberation we celebrate in the spring. And one of them was Shavuot.
In those days Shavuot was known as the Festival of First Fruits. On the second day of Pesach we planted spring barley, and counted 49 days, and then harvested it and brought it to the Temple on the 50th day as a gift of gratitude to God.
Once the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E., our sages reinterpreted Shavuot. Shavuot, they said, was the anniversary of the day when the Torah was given to us at Sinai. They taught that all of our souls were mystically present at that moment to receive Torah… and that when God spoke, each person heard it in a language and an idiom and a style which they could understand.
Of those three great pilgrimage festivals, the one which most of us know well today is Pesach. (Studies show that almost all Jews celebrate some kind of Passover seder.) And many of us are coming to know Sukkot once again, and to enjoy the deliciousness of meals savored outdoors in the fall beneath the sukkah’s leafy roof. But many of us do not have experiences of Shavuot.
Shavuot is the culmination of a journey we began at Pesach. At seder we celebrated our liberation from Mitzrayim, “The Narrow Place.” Tradition teaches that we must all see ourselves as though we personally were liberated from Egypt — and surely we have all known places and times of constriction in our lives from which we might yearn to be set free.
But freedom by itself isn’t enough. We’re freed not only from, but also toward — toward covenant with God; toward Torah; toward the connective opportunities of the mitzvot. Shavuot is when we celebrate covenant and Torah. One midrash depicts Shavuot as our wedding anniversary, the date when we and God entered into an eternal covenant of connection.
The Kotzker Rebbe was asked, why is Shavuot called the day of the giving of the Torah instead of the day of the receiving of the Torah? His answer is that the giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times. As my teacher Reb Zalman of blessed memory used to say, God broadcasts on all channels; we receive revelation when and where we are attuned.
Join us on Saturday evening and Sunday morning for our celebration of Shavuot. (Details follow.) Along with our counterparts around the world, we will attune ourselves to experience revelation together once again.
See you at Sinai!
Blessings to all,
- Tikkun Leyl Shavuot: 8pm Saturday night, Williams College Jewish Religious Center. Short-and-sweet festival service followed by joyous study. We’ll pause for havdalah when the time is right, then keep learning (and enjoying espresso milkshakes!) Stay as long as you like. Planned lessons include Sinai: Ascension of the Chosen?, Is Orthodox Judaism Compatible With Feminism?, What Would Moses Do: Distribution of Equitable Wealth in Torah, and Tonight’s Revelation: Writing a New Poem of Torah.
- Shavuot Morning With Yizkor: 10am Sunday morning, CBI. Festival morning services will include a reading from Torah as well as the Yizkor / Memorial prayers we recite four times a year. This is our summer opportunity to remember our beloveds and to reconnect. There will also be cheesecake.