Shavuot - Connecting with the Creator
In the Jewish yearly cycle we are blessed with many rich and exciting festivals.
We have Pesach, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, a weeklong festival with much activity around it. We have the Seder night and all its components: the story of the Exodus, the four cups of wine and much more. We eat matzah for an entire week, and we refrain from chametz. The week is continually focused around the Exodus.
We have Succot, when we relocate from the secure dwellings of our homes and move into temporary booths, the succa, for a week. We shake the four species everyday. For an entire week we are connected to the purpose and meaning of this festival.
We have the High Holidays, which, despite being a relatively few days in length, actually have a “build-up” of the preceding month of Elul until we get there, and their awesomeness itself is highly impactful.
Every week we have Shabbat, which, being a recurring event leaves its mark on the mundane experiences of each week, to rejuvenate us again with a spiritual recharge every seven days.
When we start to think about Shavuot, however, it seems to be a hard festival to engage us and make its impression on our beings. First of all, it is only one day long. Secondly, there are no physical changes we make or items we use to get the spirit of the holiday into our mindset (aside maybe from eating cheesecake, that perhaps makes a greater impression on our waistline than on our souls). Even more so, in virtually all Orthodox circles people spend the whole night awake, learning Torah, and it appears to be a festival reserved for Yeshiva Talmudists. Is there a deeper meaning which is relevant to the entirety of the Jewish People?
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zatzal, asked the following two questions: Why is it that we are not commanded to celebrate Shavuot in the same manner as the other festivals, and why is it that the Torah does not give a specific date for Shavuot?
He answers that all the other Regalim (i.e., Pesach and Succot) are a recollection of past events, and we use those events to impact our future. Shavuot, however, is very different. It is a recurring event, every single day, an event that is constantly impacting us.
The Derech Hashem explains that the purpose of creation is to benefit from the goodness of the Creator, and the way to experience this is to emulate and attach ourselves to the Master of the universe. The best way to do so is through learning of Torah on any level. Torah is the revelation of the will of the Creator, and it is, so to speak, a “part” of the Creator. By engaging in its study one is directly engaging with the Creator, and connecting to, and deepening, our appreciation of His will. In that sense it is an end in and of itself.
Shavuot celebrates the day that we received the Torah, the day when we merited the possibility of this unique opportunity to understand and attach ourselves to the Creator. The simcha (joy) of all the other holidays is relevant only in light of this opportunity, which is possible only through Torah. The simcha of Shavuot therefore is greater than the simcha of all other festivals. More than that, it is a constant, recurring event — not a once-off historical event that we recall every year. The relationship that one forges with the Creator, the fulfillment of our purpose in this world, is possible only through Torah. Therefore we are constantly living the event of the giving of Torah. Every time we engage in Torah study we are meeting the Creator at Sinai again.
That is also why there is no specific day listed for Shavout, as it is not limited to the day it occurred, but rather it is re-occurring.
One should not think though that this experience is limited only to Yeshiva students. Our Sages teach that when the Jewish nation encamped at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah they were, “As one person with one heart”. The commentaries explain that when they came to receive the Torah there was complete unity amongst the nation. We learn from here that the condition for us to merit the Torah is only when we are a united unit called “Klal Yisrael”. A prerequisite for our relationship with the Creator through Torah is only if we understand that the Torah was given to us as a united nation in which every single Jew plays an essential role.
It is true that the Yeshivas have a unique way of celebrating Shavuot by staying up all night. However, Shavuot is a celebration of the ongoing relationship we have with the Creator through every facet of His Torah. That relationship is relevant only to the nation as a larger, united entity, with each individual having his purpose in that experience — which is an ongoing, recurring event.