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The Festival of Shavuot

The Torah mentions three pilgrimage festivals: Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. While the first two are well known and their meaning is understood, this is not the case of Shavuot. The Torah instructs us to count seven weeks, beginning on the second day of Passover (counting of the Omer) and the day that follows should be celebrated as the festival of Shavuot (the name means “week" or "seven," alludes to the fact that this festival happens exactly seven weeks, a “week of weeks" after Passover). The Torah emphasizes the agricultural nature of Shavuot as the conclusion of the season of the grain harvest, specifically of the wheat, in the Land of Israel. In Biblical times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of joy. It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot.

During the exilic times, when many Jews found themselves living away from the land of Israel, and therefore unable to celebrate Shavuot as described in the Torah, a new theme was added to Shavuot, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. After the destruction of the Temple in the year of 70 CE, the nature-related meaning of Shavuot became a nostalgic memory, while the giving of the Torah turned to be the main significance of the festival.

There is a beautiful Midrash from that period that sheds a fascinating light on the relationship between God, the Torah and the people of Israel. 

It can be compared to the only daughter of a king whom another king married. When he wished to return to his country and take his wife with him, he (the father) said to him: “My daughter, whose hand I have given you, is my only child. I cannot part with her, neither can I say to you: “Do not take her,” for she is now your wife. This favor, however, I would request of you:  wherever thou go to live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter. Thus God said to Israel: “I have given you a Torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it, but this I would request: wherever you go, make for Me a house wherein I may sojourn.”

The plain reading of the Midrash describes a perfect harmony between God, the Torah and Israel, as Israel and God share their most precious treasure. But when I reread it lately, I noticed a potentially tragic interpretation of its message. While the bonds between God and the Torah and Israel and the Torah are very strong, as they are compared to the relationship with a daughter and a spouse, when it comes to God and Israel, the metaphor is of the relationship between a father-in-law and his son-in-law. They can be close to each other, but by no means they are as close as a father and a daughter or husband and wife.

I believe that the ancient rabbis who wrote the Midrash tried to warn us of the danger of misusing the Torah. We may become so busy with its laws, so occupied with the written words that we may forget all about God, its giver. Yes, we will have a little guestroom for Him, but how will we remember to invite Him to stay over? 

The Torah meant to help us live a spiritual life while seeking the closeness of God. This is what we are going to celebrate this year with prayers, mediations, music and study. Temple Beth Am means The House of the People, but if we don’t share it with God, we will miss the greatest gift we have ever received. 

Rabbi Alon Levkovitz

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781