Pesach is almost universally known as the time of Jewish liberation from slavery and has been portrayed in fiction and film, as well as being a fundamental pillar of our Jewish faith. Within Kiddush of every Chag and on every Shabbat night, we mention Zecher Yetziat Miztrayim – A remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. The transformative effect of leaving Egypt is both symbolic and halachic, as our national Jewish legal framework commenced from the time we we’re liberated. Although not having formally received the Torah, the gradual revealment of our spiritual duties and national mission all connect back to Pesach. Yet the very next Festival of Shavuot, a mere 7 weeks later, doesn’t have as much fanfare, popularity and fame as Pesach. The simple, Pesach-esque question is “Why is Shavuot different to all other Festivals?”
On a practical level, Shavuot is perhaps the easiest to prepare for. My maternal grandmother of blessed memory used to tell me that “Shavuot is easy because you can eat what you want (i.e. no restrictions of leavened foods) and where you want! (no commandment to eat in a Sukkah)!” So too, Shavuot is a one day (two days outside of Israel) Chag and scarcely has a specific commandment to perform. Cheesecake and blintze consumption, though delicious, are customary as is staying up all night to learn Torah. Maybe Shavuot is in need of a PR makeover?! No doubt #Shavuot could be a trending social media wave that could spark an increase in observance! Gimmicks aside, perhaps a way to reconnect with Shavuot is to understand its primary purpose – to act as a bridge between Freedom and Action.
The Festivals of Pesach and Shavuot are linked by a unique 49-day period referred to as S’firat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer). This span of 7 weeks is alluded to in the name Shavuot which literally means “Weeks”. In biblical times this period marked the bringing of a barley offering in the Beit Hamikdash. After the Temple era, to commemorate this act, the Rabbinic decree of counting the Omer was issued and later with an additional reference to the S’firot – the Kabbalistic emanations of Godliness. The seven S’firot, each with their own Heavenly attribute, are mentioned in a specific combination nightly when we count the Omer. The reason for this is to correct our spiritual deficits in these areas. This process of counting and spiritual correction commence from the second night of Pesach, after the first night Seder. The significance of this start date is not accidental, as one of the Seder’s primary objectives is to recognise our freedom. Through our release from slavery we unshackle ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually to grow and improve. But such change can only occur once we are released from our imprisonment. Now free and independent, we are presented with many choices that were previously unavailable. Recognising this watershed moment, Judaism lights the pathway for a transformative journey, by building to a goal of lofty spiritual heights. Each day of the Omer, is a step towards the preparation of receiving the greatest gift known to mankind – The Torah. This eternal book represents the belief that mankind’s role is to improve the world. The Torah is the covenant between God and the Jewish people and we are the torch-bearers of this message – that we can perfect the world through our actions. Shavuot is the time when these ideas were revealed to the world, but they we’re only made available to us after our freedom and growth. This is a reminder that freedom comes with responsibility and putting our deeds into action is the ultimate purpose of our existence.
The process of connecting our past with our present is seeing our goal as part of a journey. Much like the Jewish Peoples early history of desert wanderings, we are part of a journey individually and collectively. Our modern world affords us the freedom only dreamed of by our forbearers, where the study and practice of our religion is unimpeded. Yet today many of us remain disconnected and apathetic to this openness, whereby we substitute action for thoughts and a religious framework for feelings. The value and necessity of thoughts and feelings are apparent, but without action they are immaterial and cannot connect us with God both spiritually and physically.
Perhaps the way for us to continue the journey is to both recognise our freedom and act upon it. The ability to be Jewish through our actions is of equal value to thinking Jewish. One easy way to achieve this is to perform one small daily Jewish act starting from Pesach until Shavuot (like counting the Omer), to exercise both our freedom and action to develop change within ourselves and throughout the world. By infusing ourselves into our Peoples journey, we’ll strengthen our connection with our past and build our foundations for the future, one small step and action at a time.