The very name of Shavuot, literally: “the Festival of Weeks” — called thus in the Torah itself — expresses its connection with Passover. In rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkot. Unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Passover; yet these two days have the same meaning: summing up and emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.
The meaning of Passover is simple and straightforward: it is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence; and as such, it raises — especially in the context of the Exodus — the issue of the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. Nevertheless, this, in and of itself, only creates an existence without shackles which does not have any intrinsic content. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means inner will and aspirations. Upon leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but did not yet have a will of their own.
Furthermore, in the first weeks of their wandering in the desert, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: they experienced hunger and thirst, and they also learned that not all of their wishes could be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full divine protection, they had very little awareness. It can be said that at this point, the People of Israel could be likened to a young baby, who has only the most basic feelings of existence.
At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot not only marks the end of this primal, childish era: it is a transition into a totally different stage. An exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, an end to slavery, but without freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus, but to Jewish life in general, and, from this point onward, the great framework, towards which the entire Jewish nation is moving, is being set up.
Our Sages point out that although Shavuot is the festival of the Giving of the Torah, the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us, it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah — namely, the individual’s and the nation’s awareness of the Torah’s contents, aspirations and goals, and the inner acceptance thereof as part of our thinking, experiences and desires — is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen simultaneously for everyone.
It can therefore be said that the Jewish nation in all generations, both as individuals and as a nation, is still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy. Some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience, others — with the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are part of the challenge.
Hence, the unique status of Shavuot among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. On Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; on Sukkot, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. However, on Shavuot, the sole pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day, there are no special rites. This is so because this festival is, itself, the opening, the gate, to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems.
Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place — an indistinct point in the desert — and at a time which is not a time — because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not even state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah!
This festival expresses, then, how the Torah — which is not confined or limited by time or space — is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world, and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it.
This is no simple feat; and indeed, for millennia, both as individuals and as a nation, we have been confronting this question: how can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests,” that is, God’s “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy?
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Erev Shavuot 5776