11 May 2018
Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” The approaching Jewish holiday of Shavuot is a fine time to contemplate that wisdom. As you read this article, you may want to play the theme from CBS’s 60 Minutes in your mind. This will help set the stage for feeling the urgency of the passage of time and ensuring that we make it count.
The holiday of Shavuot begins in the evening of Saturday, May 19. Shavuot, translated as the “Feast of Weeks,” referring to the seven weeks between Passover and this holiday, is also known as Pentecost (counting 50 days between those holidays), Chag HaBikkurim (from Shavuot until Sukkot the ancient Israelite farmer would bring the first fruits of the seven species of his harvest as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem), Chag Hakatzir (the grain harvest festival) and Chag Matan Torah (celebration of giving of the Torah). That is a lot to celebrate and commemorate on one holiday!
The biblical imperative states that, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer (a biblical measure) of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.” (Leviticus 23:15-16)
That’s a lot of math for one holiday! Why should we continue to count the days and weeks between Passover and Shavuot today?
An agricultural reason: During the times of the ancient Temple, this was the season of the ripening of grain in the field. Special grain offerings were brought and waved in different directions, as the lulav is waved during the holiday of Sukkot, to demonstrate the all-encompassing divine presence. It is a season when hot and dry winds can destroy the crops. The wind is called hamsin in Israel and is related to this 50-day (chamishim) season, when farmers look to the sky in fear and anticipation. Today, climate change has us looking to the sky with awe and trepidation, and asking questions about what season we are in. Counting keeps us mindful of nature’s power.
A Jewish historical reason: We still count these days without a Temple in Jerusalem to demonstrate our thrill for the impending occasion of receiving the Torah, celebrated on Shavuot. Just as a child often counts the days until a birthday or an upcoming family vacation, we count the days to show our excitement at again receiving the Torah through continued reading and studying. This serves as a reminder that we should renew our commitment to the Torah’s wisdom every year.
A spiritual reason: We can use this period before the anniversary of receiving the Torah to spiritually prepare and refine ourselves. In kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) each of the 49 days of the Omer represents one of the combinations of the Sefirot (divine emanations) and in a Kabbalistic prayer, the worshipper entreats God to help him or her lead a pure life and pardon them for any behavioral flaws. We can see this as a 49-step program that clarifies our behavior and resets our moral compass.
A unique Shavuot tradition involves eating dairy meals. There are many reasons behind this tradition. One that relates to a few of the names of the holiday is that milk is the symbol of life and nurturing. The Song of Songs speaks metaphorically about the Torah being placed “Like honey and milk lies under your tongue.” (Song of Songs 4:11) In the same way milk has the ability to sustain the body of a human being (i.e. a nursing baby), the Torah also provides all the “spiritual nourishment” necessary for the human soul.
For each of the names and celebrations within the holiday of Shavuot, we can find a question to help us realize what truly counts and is worth enumerating and appreciating. Here are a few reflective questions you can share with family and friends as you pass the cheesecake and blintzes on Shavuot:
- How can you make moments count?
- Who can you count on? What made that relationship so strong?
- Do you have rules to live by?
- What does the adage, “as you sow, so shall you reap,” mean to you?
- What has been the harvest of your life?
- How do you nurture you body AND your spiritual soul?
Chag Sameach, a happy and meaningful Shavuot holiday!