Shavuot: Time for renewal of covenant and unity

In biblical times, Shavuot was primarily an agricultural celebration.

DRESSED IN their Shavuot best in the Northern Negev. (photo credit: HAIM HORENSTEIN)
DRESSED IN their Shavuot best in the Northern Negev.
(photo credit: HAIM HORENSTEIN)
The holiday of Shavuot has been a cornerstone of the Jewish calendar for 3,500 years, yet no other major holiday has undergone such a remarkable shift in character in the course of maintaining its centrality. I propose that it is time to add another dimension to the holiday so it can play an even larger role in Jewish life worldwide.
In biblical times, Shavuot was primarily an agricultural celebration. The Torah gives it three names: 
• Hag HaKatzir: the feast of the harvest; 
• Shavuot, or Weeks: marking the seven weeks from Passover when barley, the first crop, ripened and was ritually offered daily until Shavuot when the wheat finally ripened. The new crop was baked into show bread and offered on Shavuot. 
• Yom HaBikkurim: the day of the first fruits when the fruits for which Israel is known – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive [oil], [dates] honey – were brought to Jerusalem with great ceremony and rejoicing and offered in the Temple.
The Torah itself does not identify Shavuot as the day of the Sinai revelation, although it mentions that the Israelites arrived at Sinai in the third month, Sivan (Exodus 19:1). (Shavuot is on the sixth of Sivan.) 
The Torah Sheh b’Al Peh/Oral Law identifies Shavuot as the day on which the Israelites entered the covenant/partnership with God and the 10 Commandments were given.
In Second Temple times, the Sadducee leadership did not identify Shavuot as the holiday of the giving of the Torah, and insisted that only the written Scripture was revealed at Sinai. The Pharisees and the rabbinic leadership that grew out of them insisted that the Oral Torah (which particularly reflects the Divine-human partnership) was also revealed at Sinai. 
It included a fuller explanation of the written Scriptures, additional instructions, and the rules and processes whereby the Torah would be applied and developed in every generation. They taught that the Torah is primarily a covenant – a committed partnership between God and Israel – to lead the world. This was an ongoing process in which every generation participated until the final end time when the messianic perfection of the world will be achieved.
Throughout the rabbinic period, the Shavuot holy day was developed as the anniversary of entering the covenant and as the celebration of the ongoing development of Torah. The rabbis instituted the special holiday prayers and the liturgical reenactment of Sinai on Shavuot morning, featuring the festive reading of the 10 Commandments. 
In the 17th century, a major addition was made: the Tikkun Layl Shavuot – the all-night study session in which passages of the whole tradition from Torah to Talmud to Kabbalah and later were reviewed and studied.
The rabbinic “remake” of Shavuot was providential. The Jews were sent into a 2,000-year exile off the land. The liturgy tried to keep alive the memory and markers of agriculture. For example, the geshem/rain prayer ceremony was recited on Sukkot, the start of the rainy season in Israel. 
Nevertheless, medieval Jews were mostly excluded from land-owning and farming. Shavuot’s centrality could not have survived by running on empty, i.e. on the fumes of the agricultural cycle. However, as the holiday of learning Torah and covenantal commitment, Shavuot remained at the heart of the sacred calendar.
For example, the daily offering in the Temple of the Omer (measure) of barley was transformed into Sefirat Ha’Omer/Counting the Omer, a 49-day countdown from Passover/Exodus/liberation to Shavuot/Revelation/entering into the covenant.
WHEN THE Jews returned to Israel, the halutzim (pioneers) returned to farming the land. Although they were mostly non-observant, they tried to restore Shavuot as the holiday of bikkurim – first fruits and celebration of the agricultural cycle. The economic development of the State of Israel ultimately turned to urban living, commerce and manufacturing, technology and the Start-Up Nation. 
This marginalized the agricultural factor in Israeli culture. Luckily, Torah study and commitment to covenant carried the holiday forward, but mostly for the Torah-observant and learning fraction of the population. In the Diaspora, particularly, this fraction shrank; consequently the holiday of Shavuot also was relatively neglected.
This brings us to the opportunity of a contemporary expansion of Shavuot. This day marks not just a revelation of a set of observances, but how a whole people took on a commitment to be a covenant people (“light unto nations”) and an avant-garde for tikkun olam (repairing the world) for the whole world. 
We should define the basic covenant as Rabbi Soloveitchik did. He called it the covenant of fate. Soloveitchik defined covenantal commitment as shared Jewish history (embracing Jewish fate), shared suffering (mutual care), shared responsibility (help and support Jews wherever they are), and shared action (to actually reach out and act e.g. save Soviet Jewry, bring home Ethiopian Jewry, support Israel politically, etc.). Almost all Jews embrace these principles.
I propose that we add to Shavuot a liturgy of re-accepting the covenant of fate by the whole Jewish people. Israel’s government should take the lead by inviting representatives of all the Diaspora communities to gather in Jerusalem. The leaderships of different “tribes” in each Diaspora community and in Israel should join together to proclaim and celebrate our unity and responsibility for each other, whatever our differences. 
Such a formal convocation could become a major international event on the Jewish calendar and create a force for solidarity and mutual help for all Jews. We need to stress our common values and attachment, both in Israel after a bruising period of internal political polarization, and between Israel and the Diaspora, which have drifted somewhat apart from each other.
I have an interim project, more modest but available right now for my proposal. I am a member of the advisory committee of a project, called the Our Common Destiny Forum, sponsored by the president of Israel and (representing multiple Diaspora communities) the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 
The initial group authored a “Declaration of Our Common Destiny” to express the common history and shared values of the largest part of Jewry. It includes Five Shared Principles of Responsibility and Action: upholding the security and well-being of Jewry, mutual responsibility and connection, strengthening Jewish identity, serving as a light unto the nations, and working for world development and improvement.
The declaration is now being taken to Jews everywhere. All are invited to join in revising, finalizing and signing the statement. No statement can fully satisfy the full spectrum of Jewish identity and values but this one can be embraced by the bulk of Jewry, and can be further broadened through crowdsourcing. The declaration will be brought back to the president of Israel for final ratification. 
The Declaration can be accessed at: Here is a chance for an intermediate step to join in a national renewal of the covenant of the Jewish people.
Joining this process opens the door for a reenactment of the moment when Jewry stood at Sinai, open to receiving the Torah. 
The Torah says, “And Israel camped before the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). Rashi explains, “It says not ‘the people of Israel camped’ but ‘Israel camped’ - as if all Jews were as one person with one heart” (ibid). 
Here is a much needed chance in a moment of division to assert that we are one people with one heart big enough to embrace all of Jewry.
The writer is a theologian and communal activist and author of The Triumph of Life (forthcoming).