Unwrapping Shavuot’s Meaning

A Reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher of Federation’s Jewish Education Department

When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that the festival of Shavuot is a “mystery wrapped in an enigma,” it definitely piques my curiosity. After all, Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks (or Pentecost, meaning “on the 50th day”), is one of the biblically ordained “pilgrimage festivals,” marking the Israelites’ journey to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the three stages of redemption from Egyptian bondage. But what makes Shavuot so enigmatic?

Shavuot often falls off the radar for many families. It falls near the end of the school year, close to family vacations, is not contrasted with major non-Jewish holidays, and, for many, is missing the rituals and gravitas that summon a family to gather together. So, I would like to take this opportunity to share some of the reasons that Shavuot speaks to me and brings me to celebrate the day and its themes.

  1. Freedom is best balanced with responsibility: Americans are proud of our country, the land of the free and home of the brave. There is growing debate about defining the boundaries of individual freedoms and national laws. Judaism has important ideas to add to those discussions, contrasting the American culture of “rights” with the Jewish culture of “responsibilities.” Shavuot, a commemoration of receiving the Torah, is observed after counting 49 days from Passover, and links the freedom from bondage to the Torah teachings of our responsibilities in society to reach for the divine. The Torah concedes that humans have free will, but it makes a strong case to choose a path guided by the wisdom of mitzvot to live a meaningful life. Jewish wisdom can enrich the individual, but, in turn, each individual must enrich the community. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, you may ask what Judaism can do for you, but also ask what you can do for the Jewish community.
  2. A People need roots and wings: Shavuot is also called Yom Habikkurim, the day commencing the offering of the “first fruits” in the Bible. The Torah commands in Devarim, chapter 26 that, after the Jews settle in Eretz Yisrael, they should annually bring to the Temple the Bikkurim — the choicest of the first fruits — of the seven species for which Eretz Yisrael is known. This includes wheat, barley, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and dates. A basket of these fruits is given to the Temple priest, and the farmer recites a brief declaration, recounting Jewish history from Abraham through Egyptian bondage to entering the Land of Israel. This declaration to God makes the person relive their history and express gratitude for all that culminated in the blessing of their harvest. For years, Israeli children would be celebrated as the “first fruits” of their community, parading in white clothing and wearing flowers in their hair. Shavuot is a perfect time to remember the roots of where we came from, how far we have come, and to appreciate the wings that carry our future generations.
  3. We should strive for relationships that are covenantal: The relationship between God and Israel was defined for all time by a structure known as the brit, or covenant. According to biblical tradition, Israel became a community by virtue of entering into a covenant with God at Sinai. As Rabbi Amy Scheinerman explains, “A covenant is a relationship of reciprocal love, caring, and loyalty. Individuals can have covenants with one another — marriage is a covenantal relationship — but the covenant that the People of Israel has with God involves the entire people. Jewish tradition actually uses the metaphor of betrothal to speak about how God and Israel entered into a relationship of consequences when the Torah was given.” Additionally, this covenant is an integral part of our communal relationship, in addition to our connection to God.

    As Rabbi Scheinerman notes,

    “One of the chief benefits of that special relationship is that it helps to define us as a people who have connections (relationships) with one another because we are all party to the same covenant with God. In other words, it contributes to our communal self-understanding and encourages us to examine who we are in relation to God, and who we ought to be. […] It reminds us that everyone in the community is a member of the covenant and important to God, and therefore, they should be important to us; no one should be permitted to slip through the cracks.”

  4. Jewish tradition is nimble and resilient, staying relevant through changing times: The biblical profile of Shavuot was an agricultural festival that was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem, and whose rituals had great significance for that society. Now the Temple and its service is gone, and most Jews are not farmers. Over time, Shavuot has been reinvented. The fruits of Bikkurim have become celebrations of our human fruits. Confirmation programs have become an opportunity for parents to give thanks and students to receive Torah in their unique ways. The Torah may have been given once at Sinai, but Shavuot finds many Jews pulling an all-nighter to study and find comradery in learning in Tikkun Leil Shavuot, studying all night on the eve of Shavuot. But while “studying” once meant reading specific religious texts, it means many things today. It could still be studying Jewish texts, or it could be lectures on art, culture, a performance by a singer, a discussion, or whatever comes to mind.

    Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a night gathering to celebrate Jewish culture in the broadest sense imaginable. As Shmuel Rosner observes, “Shavuot has become an exciting holiday. It is the holiday of the giving of the Torah. It is the holiday of the receiving of the Torah. Not giving and receiving in the past tense – giving and receiving in the present tense.”

And now, we can more fully appreciate one of the typical symbolic foods we associate with Shavuot – the blintz. Sure, it is one of the great foods we can use to remember that dairy products are nurturing and a perfect reminder that the exodus journey ended in the land flowing with milk and honey, where we united around the words of Torah, which are like “milk and honey under your tongue (Song of Songs 4:11).” But for me, the blintz on Shavuot and the stuffed cabbage on Sukkot (and the rugelach/kreplach/wonton anytime) is best explained by Forrest Gump. Indeed, “life is like a box of chocolate – you never know what you’re going to get.” In spite of all of life’s uncertainties and challenges, Judaism suggests we serve wrapped food, and asks us to dare to unwrap life’s mysteries. Like the Torah scroll itself, we need to unroll the outside to appreciate the gifts inside. And we are encouraged to re-wrap some of the traditional “gifts” in new and exciting forms.  Resolve that over your next year, you will take opportunities to unwrap the gifts of Jewish life.