For the first time in three years, we are hosting an open house on Shavuot for our beloved Oceanside community. During the last two years, we did not host this event because of COVID restrictions, and we are excited to celebrate with the community once again. I wonder, though, if there is any religious significance in celebrating with our community by sampling cheesecake and other desserts during Shavuot. I know that for those non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews who are not familiar with the holiday, we explain to them that this is the holiday of cheesecake, because every Jewish holiday must revolve around food! But I wonder. Isn’t Shavuot the holiday when we stay up all night learning Torah to celebrate Matan Torah? Is it really about the social gatherings? Is there anything religiously significant about a social celebration on Shavuot? Perhaps Shavuot is about kabbalat ha’Torah, but it’s actually much more than that.
The holiday of Shavuot as described in Parshat Emor is unusual in at least two different ways. First, it is specifically connected to the omer sacrifice. We celebrate the holiday of Shavuot seven weeks after we offer the omer sacrifice. Secondly, in the last pasuk dealing with the holiday of Shavuot, the Torah states that when we reap the harvest in our land, we should leave leket and peah for the poor and the stranger, meaning that we should gather neither the grain from the corners of the field nor the sheaves that we have dropped. Essentially, the Torah is teaching us a halacha of charity in the context of the holiday of Shavuot.
In his sefer Meshech Chochmah (Vayikra 23:21), Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that certain mitzvot connect us to God and certain mitzvot connect us to each other. Mitzvot in the first category include tzitzit, tefillin and mezuzah and mitzvot in the second category include acts of kindness and separating terumah and maasrot for the poor, the Kohanim and the Leviim.
These two categories are reflected in the difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov. On Shabbat, we must not leave our “techum,” our place, we cannot carry from one domain to the next, and food related melachot are forbidden. The result is that every person is by himself and focuses on his relationship with God. However, on Yom Tov, food related melachot are permitted and we can carry from one domain to the next. We can cook food for many guests and carry the food from one place to the next. Additionally, there is a mitzvah for all Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On Yom Tov, we celebrate our relationship with each other.
These two categories are also reflected in the difference between Pesach and Shavuot. During the plague of the firstborn when we were redeemed as a nation, we were all commanded to remain in our private homes. On Shavuot when the Torah tells us that “vayichan Yisrael k’neged hahar,” that we camped by the mountain, Rashi points out that “vayichan” is singular because we were all united and witnessed God’s Divine presence as one nation. How do we celebrate this wonderful historical event? Through the mitzvah of matnot aniyim, gifts to the poor, like leket and pe’ah. In the context of the holiday of Shavuot, we are commanded to be charitable, to care about the poor and the less fortunate. For seven weeks we prepare for matan Torah not just through our relationship with God, but through our concern for other Jews so that we can accept the Torah properly at the culmination of this process.
Perhaps this is why Rabbi Eliezer rules (Pesachim 68b) that during all holidays, we should spend the whole day entirely engaged in either spiritual pursuits or physical pursuits, like eating and drinking, but on Shavuot we must engage in some physical pursuits. Rabbi Eliezer believes that the holiday of Shavuot is unique in that even though we celebrate matan Torah, we also celebrate our relationship with others. We prepare for the holiday through care and compassion for others when harvesting and we celebrate that relationship with others on Shavuot through eating and drinking with others.
As such, on Shavuot, the tikkun leyl Shavuot is religiously significant, and the open house is religiously significant. With COVID mostly behind us, let us tap into both values on this upcoming holiday. Let us find more Torah study opportunities to enrich our spiritual lives, and let us proactively look around and see what we can do to embrace those who find themselves on the margins of our communities. Hopefully, we can truly model the image of “k’ish echad b’lev echad,” like one man with one heart, with a real sense of unity in each of our communities.