When I was a child we had a Fisher Price set of multi-colored, multi-shaped blocks where we needed to fit the correct shape into its matching hole. The red triangle into the triangular hole, the orange star into the star shaped hole. And, try as I might, the blue cylindrical shape would never, under any circumstances, fit itself into the green square hole. Sure, I’d tried numerous times to do it, only to find it so tightly wedged into the hole that I’d require adult assistance or, if unable to get a helping hand (hey, parents sometimes need to “go” to the bathroom too) slamming the toy with all my toddler might to dislodge the stubborn cylinder.
I use this example in trying to understand one of the least celebrated, yet most important of all the Jewish holidays: Shavuot.
Like the little engine that could, this holiday seems to have very little go-power, leaving it slowly chugging along while the other, flashier holidays of Passover, Purim and Hanukkah rapidly streak ahead. I believe the reason for this lag is, in part due to the fact that Shavuot, like the cylinder above, does not fit into the expected format of how many of us see our Jewish holidays.
Like a typical Bruce Willis film, most of us think of our Jewish holidays with one all-too-familiar story line: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. What throws the monkey wrench into Shavuot is that it simply does not fit this pattern. Shavuot’s beginning did not revolve around an evil despot. There was no attempt at annihilation. No bloodshed. No war.
So what is the holiday of Shavuot and how are we to celebrate it?
Much like the heated anticipation of two lovers longing for their wedding day, Shavuot, literally meaning “weeks,” marks the long awaited end of a seven-week countdown from Passover to Shavuot culminating in our arrival at and acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It was these seven weeks which gave the wedding participants time to ready themselves for the most sincere and deliberate commitment of their lives. The day where the entire nation, our great-grandparents, enthusiastically agreed to accept the Torah upon themselves and their children forevermore.
It is the wedding day between the Jewish people and God, where we made the commitment to one another that we, the Jewish people would always remain faithful to the precepts of the Torah.
So, how is this marriage celebrated? I would respond, in good Jewish fashion, with a question for you: “How is the night of any wedding spent?” Typically, it is spent with the couple expressing either subtly or directly: I do not want one moment of this evening to be without you next to me. And, in similar matrimonial fashion, the Jewish people have adopted the custom of remaining awake all night in the engagement and study of our beloved Torah. It is quite telling that in no other experience does our tradition express itself as passionately and unabashedly then in our engagement in the pursuit of the Divine wisdom contained in the Torah. The intense craving, passion and hunger that the Jew whose every fiber is in love with and dedicated to the Torah is only rivaled in the descriptive nature of an all-consuming romance.
It is worth noting that the word Shavuot has an alternative meaning: oaths. Like the pledge of commitment and faithfulness at a marriage, the holiday of Shavuot reminds us yearly, who and what we committed ourselves to as a nation: God and the Torah.
Simply put, this is not a day where we simply gorge ourselves on delectable dairy (or at least not exclusively), but a day to reconnect with what it means to be Jewish. It is a time to reflect upon what the Torah means to each of us and a day to recommit to our marriage vows. Happy Anniversary.