When I was a lawyer in Chicago over thirty-five years ago, I attempted to obtain a new date for a trial. The judge, a scion of a great Eastern European rabbinic family, asked me the reason for my request. I told him that the original trial date was to fall on the holiday of Shavuot, and as such, I would not be able to attend court that day. He sneered at me, “Counselor, there is no such Jewish holiday!”
That is an illustration of the alienation and assimilation of much of Diaspora Jewry. The holiday of Shavuot has been completely forgotten, except by the small sector of observant Jews. Out of all of the Jewish holidays, Shavuot has no distinguishing mitzvot or ritual attached to it. It lacks the ‘glamour” of the Passover seder or the shofar of Rosh Hashanah. Yet, it is the Shavuot holiday that is the backbone of all Jewish life and vitality.
According to Jewish tradition and the Talmud, Shavuot marks the anniversary date of the revelation at Sinai and the granting of the Torah to the people of Israel. The Torah itself phrases it thusly: “Today you have become a nation!” The nationality of the Jews is founded upon its shared experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai 3922 years ago. Shavuot is the uniquely Jewish holiday. It does not represent the universal ideal of freedom as does Passover, nor is it a harbinger of all human happiness, prosperity and bountiful harvest, all of which characterize the Succot holiday. It stands in splendid isolation as a uniquely Jewish event that attests to our role in society and civilization, as the people who accepted the Torah when others refused.
It is therefore difficult to be assimilated and celebrate Shavuot. Shavuot prevents assimilation by reminding us of the event that is baked deep into the DNA of the Jewish people – the revelation at Sinai. Shavuot is therefore not just a commemoration of an historical date, but rather it poses the challenge of defining Jewish nationhood and of its relation to each and every one of us. Because of this challenging aspect of the holiday, it is easy (though painful) to understand why Shavuot just does not exist for so many Jews. It is much easier on one’s mind and conscience to simply ignore and then even deny its existence.
There are certain questions that have remained constant in Jewish life over the millennia. “Who is a Jew?” “Why be Jewish?” “Why marry Jewish?” and “Why all of the fuss, anger, hatred and jealousy in the world over the Jews?” Ignoring Shavuot and what it represents allows for seemingly easy answers, or worse, evasions of these questions. But none of those answers has yet been able to stand the test of time and circumstance.
Forgetting Shavuot has always led to spiritually dire personal and national consequences. The great Rabbi Yosef of the times of the Babylonian Talmud celebrated Shavuot with great enthusiasm, saying, “If it were not for this day of Shavuot, I would not feel chosen and unique, for many Yosefs can be found in the market square.”
This is certainly true of the Jewish people generally. If it were not for Shavuot, we would not be a special people, let alone “a light unto the nations of the world.” Shavuot therefore becomes our reason for existence, the justification of our intense role in the development of a better and more civilized world. Shavuot therefore demands some sort of mental and spiritual preparation to be truly appreciated. Since we still have some time until its arrival, now would be a good time to start thinking about it and its personal relevance to our lives.