The holiday of Shavuot is coming up, so we have to ask: What is Shavuot?
In a nutshell, Shavuot commemorates the Jews receiving the Torah at Sinai. In the synagogue, the section of the Torah traditionally read aloud is the one where God descends to Mount Sinai to communicate directly with the Jewish people, giving the nation the Ten Commandments as its unique mission to God and mankind. Also, read is the story of Ruth, one of the first converts to the Jewish nation. She’s a heroic figure in our texts who boldly said, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
We could leave it there. But we barely know anything about the holiday from that! And the most Jewish way to learn about any topic is never to just “leave it there.” Ask a thousand questions, highlight inconsistencies, think critically. And never stop arguing until you’re positive you’ve uncovered every facet of the intellectual diamond buried there… and then dig a little more. It’s kind of what we do. So, let’s try to extract all the juicy pieces of Shavuot -- to unearth the rich ancient wisdom lies within.
What’s with this name? Passover is named after God “passing over” the Jewish homes during the plague of the firstborns in Egypt. Basic. Yom Kippur is literally “the day of atonement,” because God granted forgiveness. Easy. Sukkot, the celebration of the “shelter” God gave the Jews in the desert. Very clear. What does Shavuot literally mean? Weeks. Weeks?! Weeks! It’s named after the seven weeks in between Passover and Shavuot. Hmmm.
When is Shavuot? Shavuot doesn’t have a date, per se. Normally the Torah specifies something like, “on the fifteenth day of the first month, you shall celebrate Sukkot.” Not Shavuot! The Torah doesn’t actually give us a date to celebrate Shavuot. Wait, what? Then how do we know when to celebrate it? We have to refer to those “weeks” we mentioned. We “schedule” Shavuot by counting seven weeks, or 49 days, from the second night of Passover, and then observe Shavuot on the fiftieth. Seriously… that’s how we do it.
Clearly, there’s something very significant about counting those seven weeks before we celebrate the event that underlies the whole premise of Judaism and the Jewish people (hint: it’s the Torah).
The truth is, there are a lot of aspects of counting the Omer that are all very meaningful. But we’ll focus on one.
We’ll use another great Jewish technique to understand it: allegory. You know how people tend to be when they get gifts? You’ve been eyeing those new Airpods for ages. You’d never actually buy them for yourself. But then your birthday comes around, and you can’t believe that your boyfriend actually did it. Your dream comes true, right in that little white box. But it’s not long before you almost forgot it was a gift at all. You’re so used to having them, you don’t even let your boyfriend (who gave them to you) borrow them for a run. We tend to absorb gifts very wholeheartedly. And possessively. But you can’t build a relationship on a sense of entitlement. Because then all the gifts, whether they’re physical gifts you receive or just nice things your partner does for you, just disappear in the pursuit of increasing gratification.
What does this have to do with Shavuot? Put yourself in the mind of one of those Jews in Egypt. You’ve experienced endless years of suffering, slave mentality, learned helplessness, and discrimination. Then you’re suddenly swept out, as if on a magic carpet. Miracles, divine revelation, all kinds of transcendent excitement. There’s a sudden existential shift into a sense of being loved, protected, taken care of, and appreciated. At that time you can’t help but feel a sense of appreciation to the Source of all those blessings. But that feeling, at least for most people, doesn’t usually last long. And… still, you can’t build a relationship based on entitlement, on the idea that this is how it always should have been or complacency when you’re used to it being that way.
The good news is, Judaism is all about overcoming. Gratitude, in particular, is such a fundamental ingredient in successful relationships and an adaptive worldview (go ask a positive psychologist what makes people happy…), and gratitude is what Shavuot is about. We never want to forget to be grateful for freedom, for the Torah, or for the endless blessings in our lives every single day.
But it takes time to build. For 49 days after the Exodus, the Jews journeying slowly through the Sinai desert made a point to be grateful, to reflect on the countless blessings they received in all the events they had experienced, individually, collectively, whether those events were incredibly miraculous or extremely difficult. 49 days of conscientious appreciation building. Think about it: they weren’t told to arrive at Sinai ready for the Torah on a specific day. When they completed that course of internalizing gratitude, that’s when they arrived at Sinai.
Today, we don’t just “commemorate” that journey in a ceremonious sense. We experientially and consciously relive and recreate that journey. We count 49 days. We actually don’t count down to Shavuot (“38 days left!”), we count up (“It’s been 38 days and counting…”) because we’re not waiting for an event to occur, we’re building the reality of the event as we count. Every day of those 49, we practice appreciation. And after 49 days of internalizing gratitude, that’s when Shavuot can happen, because we’re then ready to commit to the ultimate mission which the Torah provides us with.
There are still a few days left until Shavuot to get on the gratitude train. And, of course, a whole lifetime to refine this very essential trait. An attitude of gratitude.
Some other common ways to celebrate are staying up to study Torah--some people stay up all night!--and eating dairy. So be careful not to get your cheesecake and kugel on the Torah.
Thank you to Kayla Soroka for writing for us!!