Shavuot: Torah, Milk, Honey, and the Harvest

Growing up, Shavuot for me was shul and mahzorim, but mostly a day off school. I remember feeling frustrated, and thinking that the morning service was awfully long with the addition of Hallel, and with barely concealed impatience I waited for it to end, so that I could have cheesecake at the bracha. The dominant identification we had with the festival was the celebration of receiving the Torah. I admit that I was irreverent, but I didn’t want to waste this holiday stuck in shul. I preferred to go outside to play soccer. But, stuck in shul I was, and I felt like “boy did we flog that one ad nauseam”. Such was the youth of a traditional boy in the diaspora. It was hard to connect.

In the southern hemisphere, all the Jewish holidays are out of kilter, in the wrong season. On Pesach, the leaves on the trees were falling, not blossoming. On Sukkot, the sun was shining. And Shavuot? As a child at a Jewish school, I would line my basket of “first fruits”, with dark red autumn leaves, and the last fruits of the season. As a fairly observant, but not deeply religious teenager, not yet aware of its religious significance, it was a nothing holiday. Except for the cheese cake, and man, could my grandmother make a mean cheese cake! A pilgrimage festival? What did that mean?

Then I made Aliya and all the pieces fell into place. Suddenly, on Shavuot, the sun was shining. The fields were shorn of their wheat, with bales piled high, creating silhouettes in the setting sun. Some round, like a giant wheel, others square and piled like building blocks. There was a smell of harvest in the air and a spirit of hag, on the wings of the wind bringing it to us as we prepared for the “tekes” on our kibbutz, creating a sense of excitement and serenity at the same time. At last, it all made sense. Now, it is my favorite hag.

Hay bales in the setting sun

Shavuot has three names: Shavuot, hag ha’asif (the festival of harvest), and hag matan Torah (the festival of receiving the Torah). Together, they make the hag. In the ethos of Jewish life in our Land, without all three aspects, it is incomplete. Something is missing.

Shavuot: “Weeks”, or “Sevens”. Seven weeks of seven days. Seven is the most powerful number in Judaism. The seven days of the week, counted until the forthcoming Sabbath, culminating on the seventh day, when Gd saw that it was good, and rested. Seven is supposed to bring good fortune. מזל in gematrics, is 77 – seven on seven, and Shavuot, which means weeks – or sevens – embodies the belief that the hag will bring good fortune. It is not coincidence, that the period of harvest, from first harvest to the last is seven weeks. Perhaps it is superstition, but it is coincidentally propitious. And, summer brings hope.

Hag Ha’asif: For seven weeks, the farmers toil to harvest the crops. It is a celebration of satisfaction and contentment, where we can at last enjoy the fruits of our labor. NOW, the pilgrimage makes sense. In my imagination, I see caravans, long lines of farmers and families, in colorful clothes, their wagons creaking, laden with produce making the journey to Jerusalem, the capital. I imagine them singing to the rhythm of the wooden wheels on the rough road. In Jerusalem, the grain will be stored to provide for the winter months, and then they congregate at the Temple to give thanks for the good harvest. And of course, payment to the priests, who in festive robes will bless them. Community. Unity. Togetherness. A congregation. What’s not to celebrate?

“With baskets on our shoulders”. Payment t the Kohanim.

Matan Torah: on this festival we received the greatest gift. A blueprint of how to live as a people, together, with one faith and one Gd. The Torah provided structure to society. It created laws by which to live. It provided us with a tangible way to worship, to express our faith, to remember our history and the provenance of our religion. With the Torah as our guide, our lives became something more than another civilization, we became a people, with a common destiny and a common belief. It was the glue of our community.

During our 2000 year Exile and dispersal, the delicate interwoven, magical thread of these three facets of Shavuot was broken. No longer able to work our Land, we lost the connection between the harvest and the deep roots of the festival to our life cycle. Seven upon seven became almost meaningless, besides a whimsical, yearning in counting the days of the Omer, to remember what a past (or lost) glory was, no longer with a Temple . No longer the pilgrimage. We were left with the Torah, and we clung to it like a log, adrift at sea. Our Jewish existence became less tangible. It became an article of faith and the Torah became our life, because we had nothing else.

Life in the Diaspora was hard. While we jealously clung to our faith, restrictions to our existence were placed upon us by our “hosts”. We were not allowed to own property. We could not rely on working the land for our living, because we were likely to be expelled, or, fleeing persecution, we had to move. Thus, we slowly abandoned our connection to the land. We lost these skills and gravitated to professions which were more transportable, less burdensome to carry, like medicine, law, finance. Thus, the meaning of Shavuot changed and became “hag matan Torah” alone. This is how it was, for so long.

At university in Cape Town, I happened upon a copy of “The Zionist Idea”. I devoured it, reading the writings of the Zionist philosophers. My thirst for learning from these thinkers was unquenchable. I immersed myself in their vision, feeding on their enthusiasm. It was inspiring. I read them all. Four philosophers became my favorites:

Ahad Ha’am – founder of cultural Zionism. I found his argument that the Jewish state has to be at the heart of our cultural heritage, in order for it develop, compelling. Which is why it had to be here, in Israel. His vision of the spiritual value of the Hebrew renaissance, to counter the debilitating fragmentation in the diaspora, resonated deep within me.

Ber Borochov – Borochov gave voice to my feelings of the importance of national self-determination within a socialist ideology. His belief that the class structure of Diaspora Jewry was an inverted triangle, and in order for a Jewish state to thrive, we would need to reconstitute the social triangle, to develop once again the strong base of a working class, but with dignity within a classless society, was influential in my decision to live on kibbutz. I so wanted to be a part of re-inverting that triangle and in so doing, to help create a vibrant, healthy, normal Israeli society.

Berl Katznelson – I just loved his writing. But, what stayed with me the most, was his belief that one could both be Zionist and work towards peaceful coexistence with Arabs in the region. This is relevant for me today, as much as it was then when I read his work some forty years ago.

A.D.Gordon. My inspiration.

A.D. Gordon – Gordon was an inspiration. He was the embodiment of leadership by example, of someone who chose personal revolution, to live his life according to his ideology. That was what I wanted to do, and he became my ideological hero.

These four thinkers epitomized for me the vision of Jews reconnecting with the land, our Land. Both in order to complete our spiritual wholeness and to replant, and deepen our roots in it, with our labor and sweat. The land our forefathers worked, when they gathered their bushels, loaded them onto their carts and wagons and journeyed to Jerusalem. To become once again, a people anchored to their land and heritage.

And, with a commitment so deep and with a determination unwavering, this is what we have done. We can once again weave that magical thread that connects the seven weeks of harvest in our Land, from Pesach to Shavuot, with the celebration of receiving this document, some say divine document, but all recognize it as the one document which defines our lives and how we live it, even if we don’t observe all its dictates.

And we need to remember that living by the teachings and laws of the Torah, without our elemental connection to the Land, to Israel, we are unanchored. At the same time, living in – and on – our Land, which today we share – and must share with others who live on it too – without laws which define how we live, laws derived from the Torah as both a spiritual and a social document, we are unanchored.
If Shavuot is only Hag Ha’asif, without Hag Matan Torah, we are unanchored. If it is only Hag Matan Torah and not Hag Ha’asif, we are unanchored. We need to observe both, for the third pillar, that of Shavuot, seven on seven, to fulfill its spiritual completeness.

Hag Shavuot Sameach!

About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
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