The burden and the gift

Shavuot marks severity of mitzvot, love's miracle.

The Gleaners 311 (photo credit: Jean-Francois Millet)
The Gleaners 311
(photo credit: Jean-Francois Millet)
The holiday of Shavuot is unusual among the Shlosha Regalim (The three pilgrimage festivals). It is the only one of the three not followed by Hol Hamoed, and the last of the “heavy” Jewish holidays. It is followed by four months with no holidays, only punctuated by the mournful Tisha Be’av, a national fast day on which Jews lament the destruction of the Temple.
Shavuot is also special in its duality of sentiment: on the one hand, it is a holiday of commemorating the gift of the Torah, in the scholarly tikun when Torah is learned all through the night; and on the other hand, it is a holiday of love, commemorating the story of Ruth. The Book of Ruth, traditionally read on Shavuot, is an unusual love story, reflecting the irony of the fate of the Jews, whose greatest king is a descendant of one of our hated enemies – the Moabites.
It is a festival of contrasts, since the receiving of Torah symbolizes first and foremost the passage of the Jewish people from the ignorant masses who made the exodus from Egypt to those carrying the burden of mitzvot as a torch for humanity.
In this sense it marks the beginning of Hebrew nationhood, since before arriving at Mount Sinai the refugees from Egypt had no well-defined identity.
And it is, in the same vein, the beginning of our culture: morality, duty, the commandments in word and deed.
But then, contrastingly, it marks the end of the counting of the Omer and the beginning of summer – i.e., ending the somewhat gloomy severity of the seven weeks and inaugurating the joy of the harvest.
If we add to this the romantic aspect of the story of Ruth, then Shavuot, much more than Tu Be’av, is the true love-fest of the Jews.
The receiving of the Torah was greeted with both sadness and joy. The first commandments were smashed by Moses in fury; the sin of the Golden Calf has plagued us ever since. But then there is the joy of na’aseh venishma (Exodus 24, 7: “And they said, all that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient”). This is accentuated by our collective pride that the events at Mount Sinai were of constitutive proportions not just for the Jews but for all of humanity.
What is it, therefore, that we celebrate on Shavuot? Is it a beginning or an end? And are these two not essentially one and the same? The more we delve into the essence of Jewish festivals, the more we see their conflicting meanings branch deeper and wider.
But Shavuot rises higher still in its significance, and here, perhaps, lies a central characteristic of this and other historical holidays: In Judaism, yom tov is not necessarily a happy day, otherwise we would not be commanded on every single holiday vesamahta behagecha (and you shall rejoice on your festivals).
This mixture between the ponderous and the joyous, between the memories, sometimes difficult to bear, and the sheer joy of being here to remember and move onward, is on Shavuot made all the more poignant by its compression into a single day. This brevity highlights the Janus-like face of the Jewish hag: The receiving of Torah and all that it entails – responsibility, obligation and the burden of mitzvot – and on the other hand the joy of the harvest, and of remembering one nocturnal act of lovemaking between a Hebrew man and a Moabite woman, an act that generated a dynasty so magnificent that it not only produced the greatest of our kings, but that all messiahs who walked and will probably one day walk the Earth want to be part of.
Shavuot is at once the birth of the Covenant, the gift of Torah; and the prophets say the Messiah is to be born on Shavuot. And all this takes place on one single day, at the beginning of summer, with the joy of the harvest and the miracle of love.
The writer is a poet and historian.