A holiday unmarked by date, unconfined by space
The literal translation of Shavuot is the “Festival of Weeks” because of the holiday’s connection with Passover. In rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkot. However, unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated only seven weeks after Passover. Even so, these two holidays have one and the same meaning: emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.
Passover’s meaning is simple and straightforward: It is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence and focuses — especially in the context of the Exodus — on the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. But even without shackles, an existence without purpose is meaningless. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means the possession of inner will and aspirations.
When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but still did not have a will of their own. More than that, in their first weeks of desert wandering, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: They experienced hunger and thirst, and learned not all of their wishes can be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full Divine protection, they had very little awareness. The People of Israel were just like an infant, aware only of its most basic feelings.
At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot marks the end of this primal, childish era. It is a transition into a totally different stage. An Exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, and an end to slavery without the beginning of freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus but also to Jewish life in general. This moment sets up the great framework toward which the entire Jewish nation is moving.
Our Sages point out that Shavuot is the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us — but it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah comes through our individual and collective understanding of its contents, aspirations and goals. We receive the Torah when we accept it within ourselves, as part of our thinking, experiences and desires.
This is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen for everyone simultaneously. The Jewish people encompassing all generations — as individuals and as a nation — are still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy: Some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience. Many feel the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are in it.
That is why Shavuot has a unique status among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. In Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; in Sukkot, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. On Shavuot, however — which is the only pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day — there are no special rites, either food- or lodging-wise. This is because Shavuot is, itself, the opening to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems.
Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place — an indistinct point in the desert — and at a time which is not a time — because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah!
This festival expresses, then, how the Torah — which is not confined or limited by time or space — is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world; and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it. This is no simple feat; and indeed, as individuals and as a nation, we have been grappling with this question for millennia: How can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests” that is God’s “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy?
RABBI ADIN EVEN-ISRAEL STEINSALTZ is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.