It’s a shame for Shavu’ot. Rosh HaShanah has its shofar, Pesach its matzah, Purim its Megillah – but Shavu’ot has no special mitzvah to make it colourful and popular, and Jewish opinion seems to have decided that it is a non-event.
Further, every yom-tov except Chanukah has its own masechta, and even Chanukah has a structure of laws – but Shavu’ot has neither a tractate nor a large body of halachot.
It’s decidedly odd. Shavu’ot marks the greatest event in our history, but there is no pattern of ritual to celebrate it. Yes, there is cheesecake (and other milchig delicacies) – but cheesecake is too trivial to be the answer to why tradition has not ordained a serious pattern of observance for Shavu’ot.
There are two explanations, historical and theological. Historically, our sages saw Shavu’ot not as an independent event, but as an adjunct to or completion of Pesach. Instead of the name Shavu’ot, the festival was known as Atzeret, “completion”. Pesach and Shavu’ot were part of one total experience of freedom, physical and moral.
Theologically, any symbol of Shavu’ot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, would have to represent Torah, but as God cannot be limited or constrained (Isaiah 66), so can Torah not be encapsulated or symbolised.
The only possible symbol of Torah is not a noun like a shofar, matzah, Megillah and sukkah, but a verb – in fact, two verbs, “learning” and “living”. We mark Torah not by seizing upon a symbol, but by a pattern of action.
Its first element is learning.
There is a special way of learning Torah. “What does this mean?” asks Ludwig Lewisohn. “It means a devout and seeking attention to the word of prophet or master; it means slaking a thirst of the soul. It means reading with the right and pure kavanah intention, the right and pure aspiration after the sources of wisdom and of good. It desires to understand, not to argue; to absorb, not to brag with; to find words of life and follow them, not to find formulae for dispute or victory in dispute. It desires immersion into an eternal source of spiritual joy and rectitude” (“What is this Jewish Heritage”, 1954, p.47).
How do we live Torah? Let Ludwig Lewisohn answer this question too. “That way which Jews have pursued,” he says, “that halachah is the way of sanctification of all life, in order that life may be truly human and may illustrate man’s likeness to God. The Jew’s recommitment is not a recommitment of preaching or teaching, of writing or joining parties. It is a life to be lived. And it is to be lived not consciously or spectacularly, but with quiet self-containment, with tranquillity with dignity, beyond all clamour and contention” (p.43).
Our generation has encountered many major problems and will need steady nerves for many years in order to endeavour to contain those problems and control their fall-out. But let us not fail to recognise that this is also an age of great wonders. Some of them no one could have predicted. Some have surprised even the greatest believers in the possibility of miracles. For instance, the amazing resurgence of Torah learning and Torah living.
Who, on the morrow of the Holocaust, standing amid the ashes of the intense Torah life of pre-war Eastern Europe, was rash enough to imagine that Torah would rise from the ruins like a phoenix? And yet it has happened. Jewish learning is the great Jewish growth industry, Jewish living is attracting ever more of our people, especially and significantly the young.
The two verbs of Shavu’ot are back in fashion. The Cinderella of Shavu’ot has become a princess!