Shavuot: The gift of time

‘You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete sabbaths. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the Lord’ (Leviticus 23:15-16).

Birds 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
Birds 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
The Festival of Shavuot, literally the Feast of Weeks, is curiously enough the only one of the major festivals whose name does not describe the historical event which sanctified that particular date, in this instance, the Gift of the Torah at Sinai.
It relates rather to the seven weeks leading up to the holiday, the days of the Count of the Omer, Grain Offering, which begins on the second day of Passover, and concludes with the advent of Shavuot.
Apparently, these days are quite significant, each marked every evening with the recitation of a blessing before enumerating day and week at the particular time of counting. Moreover, only if one has not missed a day is one permitted to count with the blessing – in accordance with the biblical directive of “seven complete, whole weeks” (Leviticus 23: 15).
This causes not a little apprehension over remembering to count each day until the very end with the advent of the evening of Shavuot. What is the significance of the Count, and why does it begin with Passover, the Feast of Matzot, and conclude with Shavuot, the Feast of Torah? One of the major biblical commentaries of the Middle Ages, known as the S’forno (Bologna, 1475-1550), suggests that we begin to count each day following our exodus from Egypt because it was only then that a particular day assumed significance. After all, a slave has no need to mark the days because he lacks the ability – or power – to determine how he will spend that time, what he will do on that day. His time, his days, belong not to him but to his master. Only for an individual who is free does each day count – and is each day therefore worthy to be counted.
From this perspective, the daily count beginning on the second day of our freedom from Egyptian slavery is akin to the very first commandment the Almighty gave to Israel, just prior to their exodus with the appearance of the new moon on the first of Nisan (the month of their deliverance): “This month shall be unto you the first of the months...” (Exodus 12:2).
In effect, the Almighty is educating the about-tobe- freed Israelites as to the about-to-be-appreciated importance of time: Count the months, make proper use of the months, sanctify the months. Now that you are about to become free, the months – time – are about to become yours. “This month shall be unto you,” shall now belong to you. Use this precious gift of time judiciously and meaningfully.
But if that is the case, why cease counting the days and weeks on Shavuot? Why not continue to count each day, and recognize the blessing of each day, and recognize the blessing of each day in freedom, every day, for as long as one is privileged to live? I believe the reason is that the recognition of time and its preciousness is a double-edged sword. Even as one counts each day and thereby reminds oneself of the significance of time, one must at the same time become mindful of human mortality, of the fact that every individual is “terminal,” that our days and weeks are ultimately limited to a specific life span; and the time by which we measure our period in this world will ultimately – and sometimes cruelly and tragically – be taken away from us. Time is a blessing, but it is also a curse; time beckons with its potential, but it also mocks with its limitations.
Shavuot is the Festival of Torah – and therein lies the antidote to our anxiety regarding human mortality.
The human being may be temporal, but Torah is eternal; every individual Jew will ultimately be defeated by the limitations of time, but “Klal Yisrael” (the Jewish historic nation) dedicated to the Torah traditions will emerge victorious over the Angel of Death as the immortal nation of the covenant. Insofar as the individual participates in Torah, he/she participates in eternity; therefore commitment to Torah has the power of removing the anxiety born of human mortality.
“Father Jacob didn’t die,” declare the Sages of the Talmud. “But his funeral is biblically recorded and attested to,” argue the skeptics. But the initial talmudic statement remains. After all, as long as his children are alive, he is alive. As long as he transmitted our Torah values and lifestyles to children and/or students, as long as he was a link in the great chain of Jewish being, as long as we his descendants are still influenced by his deeds and moved by his words, he continues to live – through the words and deeds of his descendants and students.
Passover teaches us to appreciate the potential of time; Shavuot enables us to overcome the limitations of time. When and why the count begins and ends is the secret of a blessed, meaningful and eternal life.Shabbat shalom and Hag sameah
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.