parasha

A Holiday of Process – Shavuot

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is celebrated at the end of this week.  It is an unusual holiday in the Jewish calendar.  Every other holiday has a date, but Shavuot does not.  It is celebrated fifty days after we start celebrating Passover.  But since the number of days in the Hebrew month is subject to change, the holiday of Shavuot could, in theory, fall on one of at least three different dates.  For us, this has no practical implication since for the past approximately 1,700 years, the Hebrew calendar and the number of days per month has been made permanent.  But in principle, as is reflected in the Bible and in the literature of Chazal, Shavuot is a “wandering” holiday with no actual date.

When we examine this, the lack of a permanent date symbolizes the significance of the process in relation to the goal.  A holiday that has a date points to a permanent phenomenon, regularity and recurring order.  In contrast to this, a holiday that does not have a date and is dependent on counting fifty days beforehand, places the weight on the counting, the process, the progress toward a goal.

We learn from the sources that the Jewish nation was in a diminished spiritual state when it left Egypt.  Actually, had we been asked if this nation seemed suited to the eternal purpose G-d had destined for it, we would probably have answered in the negative.  And yet, G-d chose the Jewish nation, due to the promise made to our forefathers, and in the merit of faith in the nation’s ability to move forward to a higher spiritual level.  Indeed, the fifty days that passed from the day of the Exodus from Egypt to the day of the Revelation at Mount Sinai – the fifty days of Sfirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer – were fifty days in which the nation underwent an accelerated process of liberation from the emotional and spiritual enslavement to Egyptian culture until it was capable of standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and hearing G-d’s voice declare: “I am the Lord, your G-d, Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage…”.

Therefore, on the holiday of Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah with emphasis on the process.  We expect of ourselves, and actually of every Jew, to take the following steps: to release ourselves from the ties that bind us, and to move forward toward receiving the Torah. In a wider sense, this is not a one-time occurrence.  Every person, every day anew, stands between the past and the future and chooses if to slide back or step forward.  Will the faith I had yesterday be increased today, or G-d forbid, become weaker? Will today be a day when I give to others or keep for myself? Will tomorrow be more moral than yesterday? On Shavuot, we celebrate the historic event of receiving the Torah, but every single day, we decide if we are receiving the Torah and adopting the world view and lifestyle it proposes.

This concept is nicely reflected in the story of Megilat Ruth which is traditionally read on the morning of Shavuot. This scroll tells the story of Ruth, a young, Moabite women who loyally followed her mother-in-law even after she lost all her assets and became a beggar.  The young woman came from a foreign nation and culture, acted with loving-kindness toward her mother-in-law, and ultimately merited becoming the “mother of royalty” as the ancestor of the King David dynasty.

In this story as well, we see the story of a young woman who underwent a process.  The Moabite nation was certainly not known for its acts of morality or loving-kindness.  In truth, it is a nation that originated with an act of incest and its culture was a by-product of this.  But there is no person on earth who does not have freedom of choice, and Ruth the Moabite chose loyalty and thus became a symbol of a person willing to sacrifice all they have for the benefit of someone else.

This story is appropriate for Shavuot, not only because it speaks of the roots of King David who passed away on Shavuot; and not only because the central events in the story of the megila occur during harvest season – the season of Shavuot; but also because it tells the story of a person who courageously chose the moral choice and followed it all the way to its beneficial end.

Shavuot offers each of us the opportunity to celebrate our existence as Jews and our Jewish heritage, to think about how we can strengthen the connection between ourselves and our Torah, and to consider how we can pass this connection on to future generations.

Chag Shavuot Sameach! 

 

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