Shavuot is the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. (You know-God, Charlton Heston, the Ten
Commandments, the whole bit.)
The Torah (also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Bible) is the basic
source of Judaism. Jewish law, practice, holidays, and all the essentials
of Jewish identity that have molded, guided, and preserved the Jewish
people over the millennia are rooted in the Torah.
Y2K and Shavuot: The Ultimate Nonevents
As December 31, 1999, drew closer and closer, the world held its collective
Would darkness descend upon the face of the earth? Would food and water
supplies dry up? Would armed bands of looters roam the streets preying on
defenseless idiots who neglected the warnings of everyone from Ed Yardeni
to Jerry Falwell? Worst of all, would Amazon.com be lost to us forever?
And then nothing happened. Without missing a beat, life as we know it
went full steam ahead. It was business as usual all around.
That’s kind of like what happened with Shavuot. Think about it. For over
two hundred years, the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt. The bitterness
and brutality seemed to know no end. Then finally, along came Moses with
his trusty staff. God told Moses that he would redeem the people from
bondage and that once they were out of Egypt, they would head straight for
Mount Sinai where they would receive the Torah from none other than God
Himself. Having received the Torah — the Jewish nation’s Magna Carta,
Constitution, and corporate mission statement all rolled into one — they would then set out for the Promised Land of Israel, where they would set up
house and live happily ever after with the Torah as their guiding source of
Divine law, ethics, spirituality, and wisdom.
As part of the life that the Jews would live in Israel, or wherever else
they found themselves, they would celebrate certain holidays to commemorate
seminal historical events. Since you can’t find a more central event in all
of Jewish history than the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, it only
makes sense that this event would be marked by a major holiday. And so it
is — the great and holy day of Shavuot.
And then came the big letdown. The same God who told us to eat matzah and
bitter herbs on Passover to commemorate the Exodus, the same God who told
us to live in little huts for a week to recall our Divinely protected
travels in the desert, the same God who told us to blow the shofar on Rosh
Hashanah, forgot to give us anything to do on Shavuot. Zip, nada, nothing.
When it came to the holiday of Shavuot — the holiday that marks the giving of
the Torah itself, the very source of all the other holidays and their
unique practices (not to mention hundreds of other Jewish things to do),
God came up empty-handed. No mitzvot, no special observances, activities,
or foods — nothing.
So what’s going on? Couldn’t a God who came up with stuff like shaking a
palm branch, blowing a ram’s horn, and eating oversized saltines think of
anything for us to do on Shavuot? How about building models of Mount Sinai,
drawing a picture of the tablets — something, anything! After all, what’s a
holiday with nothing to do?
It’s All About Preparation
The Time of the Giving of Our Torah
In the Shavuot prayers, we acknowledge the personality of the holiday with
the words z’man matan torateynu, “the time of the giving of our Torah.” The
emphasis here is on the giving of the Torah. In Hebrew, the word for
giving, matan, is also the word for a gift, matana. The perspective this
wording asks us to consider is twofold. The focus is firstly on God, the
giver, and secondly on the fact that what He gave us-the Torah-is a gift.
On Shavuot, God is the active party, so to speak, and our job is to be
receptive to His gift. As we have seen, there aren’t any special mitzvot
that we are supposed to do on Shavuot. We don’t do anything other than sit
back, wait for God to present us with His gift, and then accept it.
There is one little catch to all this, however. This gift of the Torah
requires some preparation in order for us to be capable of accepting and
holding on to it. In that sense, it’s more like an academic university
scholarship than a plain old birthday present. Universities offer
scholarships not only to students who have proven scholastic abilities but
also to those who demonstrate that they will genuinely value the
opportunity and will be motivated to make the most out of their gift. To
offer a full academic scholarship to someone who is loaded with
intelligence and ability but doesn’t appreciate the value of higher
education is simply a waste.
Now we can more fully understand the riddle of this holiday’s name. The
Hebrew word Shavuot means “weeks.” This is a reference to the seven weeks
that begin with Passover and culminate on Shavuot. Isn’t it curious,
though, that a holiday would be named after what takes place before it
instead of what actually takes place on it? The answer to this riddle is
that from our perspective, Shavuot can be fully meaningful only if the time
that proceeds it is meaningful. There isn’t much to do on Shavuot because
the essence of Shavuot lies in the realm of preparation. We prepare to
accept God’s gift of the Torah so that on Shavuot He can give it to us.
The curious name of the holiday tips us off to the fact that if we are to
access the rich spiritual opportunities that exist within Shavuot, then we
must pay close attention to the time that precedes the holiday. The
essential preparation for Shavuot is attitudinal. It’s about how we view
We will now examine three of the essential factors of Shavuot preparations.
- It’s a gift.
- Days count
- A Goal, a direction, a purpose.
If the Torah is a gift, then the question is, How does this inform and
guide our preparation? The answer lies in the following perspective.
To view the Torah as a gift means that, in essence, it is for us. Just like
when I buy my daughter a new bicycle or computer, it’s for her, not for me.
‘s for her pleasure, not mine; for her good, not mine. I give her gifts
because I love her, not myself. The same is true with the Torah. That the
Torah is a gift implies that it’s for us: it’s for our pleasure, our good.
It is meant to facilitate our success in life, our achievement of meaning.
Think about it: If the Torah’s instructions include a mitzva to be
sensitive to the needs and feelings of a widow or an orphan, then who are
our acts of empathy and kindness for? Are they for us, for God, or for the
widow and orphan? Clearly they are for the beneficiaries of our kind deeds
because they are the ones in need. It can also be said that when we go out
of our way to assist others, these acts are also for us because we need to
learn to be more sensitive, responsive, and giving. But what about God?
Does He need us to be sensitive? Certainly not, because God has no needs.
God is complete and perfect in and of Himself. As such, he lacks nothing,
has no deficiencies, and therefore doesn’t gain anything when we are kind
to one another. The same is true with giving charity, fasting on Yom
Kippur, eating matzah, and not spreading gossip about people-everything the
Torah asks us to do is for us, not God.
In truth, this perspective of giftness is the bedrock of all spirituality.
Ultimate spirituality is found in a relationship with God, the
transcendental source of all ,and that relationship begins with a gift.
We’re fairly used to life the way it is, but imagine if our situation were
a little different. Imagine if we were born knowing exactly how long we
would live, right down to the last minute on the last day of our lives. Do
you think we would look at life differently? How about every day of our
lives? Certainly as the final months of life ticked away, we would begin to
relate to our allotted time a little differently than we would otherwise.
One day in San Francisco, a dentist friend, while working on my teeth, told
me that it was his fiftieth birthday. `Well then, just ten more years to
live. to really live!’ I joked through the nitrous oxide. Knowing his
delight in physical sport, I floated the possibility that his body might
have only another ten years of the energy and stamina necessary for his
favorite endeavors, backpacking and wild-river rafting. Though I was only
half-kidding, and fifty-five years old myself at the time, he was
apparently ripe to hear this, and a few months later changed his office
hours to a four-day week, finalized his divorce, and bought a new pair of
skis. I have never seen him so light hearted as when he speaks about how
much more time he has to live by giving himself one extra day each week.
|From, A Year to Live, by Stephen Levine|
Now Abraham was quite old, he came with his days, and God blessed him in
Now these were the days of the years of the life lived by Abraham; one
hundred years and seventy years and five years.
When reflecting on the life of Abraham, founder of the Jewish people, the
Torah makes a point of highlighting the days of his life. A man who was
aware of his days, and made each of them count, launched the Jewish
presence on the stage of history. Six hundred years after the passing of
Abraham, his descendants were liberated from Egyptian bondage; forty-nine
days later they received the Torah. From that time forth, the Jewish people
would commemorate the holiday of Shavuot by counting the forty-nine days
that precede the holiday. This path of counting that returns all Jews to
the foot of Mount Sinai is known as the Sefira, the counting period.
To Abraham, every day of life possessed great value, meaning, and
potential. Abraham’s attitude toward the days of his life belied an
all-encompassing love and value for life itself.
The Torah is for people who have a deep regard for days, a deep regard for
When we count the days leading to Shavuot, it’s not a “countdown” (we don’t
count from forty-nine backwards until we get to one) rather, we count up.
The first day of the sefira counting period is day one, the second day is
day two, and so forth all the way until day forty-nine.
Some people collect seashells, others collect antiques-Jews collect days.
An essential prerequisite to Shavuot is striving to become a collector of
days. To cherish not only life, but days. To embrace each day as a fresh
opportunity for achievement, for meaning, for growth-for connection to God.
After all, isn’t that what really counts?
We take for granted that people need goals in life, something to strive for.
We take for granted that people without any sense of direction in life,
people who see life as an aimless meandering path to nowhere, are in deep
We take for granted that the difference between a person who lives with a
sense of purpose and one who feels that he has no purpose at all, is
greater than the difference between night and day.
A powerful way to conceive of the cognitive, cultural, and even, in part,
the political life of a society is as a conversation. All we know of social
reality is taken from the stream of unending conversations, which
constitute it. How could it be otherwise, since people never hear or learn
anything else? With the exception of a few strikingly original people,
individuals view the world in a manner that is in consonance with their
|Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners|
We live in a society, a global society, whose conversation is built on the
foundation of notions like purpose and goals and direction; on concepts
like striving to better onesself and the world one lives in; on
dreaming-even attempting-to forge a brighter future for the generations
that will inherit the world we leave behind.
It is almost impossible for us to imagine a society devoid of these ideas.
If we were asked to conceive of people living not just without a sense of
purpose but without even the concept of purpose, we would imagine some
Borg-like race of aliens devoid of heart and soul.
Yet, once upon a time, that is precisely what mankind’s conversation was like.
All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious
thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. The
assumptions that early man made about the world were, in all their
essentials, little different in their assumptions that later and more
sophisticated societies, like Greece and India, would make in a more
elaborate manner. As Henri-Charles Puech says of Greek thought in his
seminal Man and Time: `No event is unique, nothing is enacted but once …
every event has been enacted, is enacted and will be enacted perpetually;
the same individuals have appeared, appear and will appear at every turn of
Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews
In the ancient world, people saw all of history as nothing more than one
big Broadway theatre and all of human life as nothing more than playing one
role or another in Broadway’s longest-running production. Whether you were
an actress playing Grizabella in the original cast of Cats or Grizabella in
a high school production, your lines were still the same, your part the
same, and your future the same. You were just going through the same
motions that countless others before you had gone through, uttering the
same words that many more would echo after you.
If we had lived in the second millennium BC, the millennium of Avram
(Abraham), and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, … On
every continent, in every society, Avram (Abraham) would have been given
the same advice that wise men as diverse as Heraclitus, Lao-Tsu and
Siddhartha would one day give their followers: do not journey but sit;
compose yourself by the river of life, meditate on its ceaseless and
meaningless flow-on all that is past or passing or to come-until you have
absorbed the pattern and have come to peace with the Great Wheel and with
your own death and the death of all things …
|Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews|
The Jewish nation left Egypt and headed out into the wilderness. But this
was not a people without a purpose or a goal or a mission. This was a
people who knew that, despite hundreds of years of brutal oppression, one
day their situation would be different. This was a people who saw a
mountain called Sinai not as just another resting place in the wilderness
but as an ideal to strive for, as the embodiment of a mission to whose
calling they would have to rise.
In Egypt, the Jews were subjected not only to backbreaking labor but also
to spirit-breaking labor. They were ordered to build cities on unstable
ground only to watch the product of their efforts crumble and then have to
start the same work all over again. But this was a people who carried an
ancient promise, a promise that one day, not only would they be free from,
but they would be free to. For forty-nine days the Jewish people traveled;
not just away from Egypt but to Mount Sinai. With each passing day, they
moved closer and closer to their goal. But even more, with each passing
day, they reaffirmed their belief that life could have a goal. That life
didn’t have to remain the way it had always been. That one doesn’t have to
be a prisoner of one’s past. That there is no script called fate and that,
in fact, the scenes of a much brighter future are waiting to be written.
The Torah that we received at Mount Sinai is nothing less than a
revolutionary manifesto for changing the world. Our people have the great
task of teaching humanity that we have just begun to scratch the surface of
human greatness. In biomedicine and molecular physics, as in so many other
fields, we are just beginning to realize that while we have come so far,
there is still much farther to go. In the realms of morality and
spirituality, human dignity and human consciousness, the same is true.
The Jews started it all-and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care
about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer
and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through
different eyes … think with a different mind … And we would set a different
course for our lives. There is simply no one else remotely like them;
theirs is a unique vocation. Indeed, as we shall see, the very idea of a
vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.
|Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews|
The Torah, our gift from Sinai, is a never-ending call to reach for more
and more of our ultimate potential.
So the name of the holiday is Shavuot, weeks. And the soul of the holiday
can be found in the days that precede it, days during which we strive to
lift our vision. With each passing day we look for yet another way to ready
ourselves to accept God’s gift, and to embrace the privilege of being part
of a people capable of inspiring the entire world.
This article was written by Shimon Apisdorf, award-winning author of the
Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit, the Survival Kit Family Haggadah and
other informative and thought-provoking books that prepare their readers to
appreciate and enjoy the Jewish holidays unlike ever before. For more about
these books, see www.leviathanpress.com.
Text Copyright © Shimon Apisdorf and Leviathan Press, Inc.