Shavuot: The Lost Holiday

The Jewish Holiday of Shavuot begins Tuesday evening. Shavuot is one of three “pilgrimage festivals,” holidays which the bible instructs were to celebrated in ancient days by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). They, along with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the really important holidays of the Jewish year. Yet in contemporary Jewish America, we’ve let Shavuot become a much more minor festival than any of the others.

It’s become more minor in part because of timing. Shavuot falls late may to early June, just as the school year is winding up and we’re all getting ready for summer. It may also be somewhat neglected because it is a one or two day festival as opposed to the 7 or 8 days of Sukkot or Passover. And as a third strike, it doesn’t have great props. Passover has the seder and the matzah, Sukkot has the sukkah (booth) the lulav and the etrog, but shavuot has what…dairy products? (It is traditional to eat dairy products on Shavuot, for reasons that aren’t particularly clear, but probably have a fair amount to do with the fact that this is the time of year when animals produce the richest milk).

Despite this neglect, Shavuot is the holiday which is most about being Jewish. It celebrates revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Torah. The Torah is, after all, that which defines Jews as separate from those of all other religions. Passover is a celebration of Freedom, going forth from Egypt. Yet it was not this liberation which made the Jewish  people who we are. Sukkot celebrates the wandering in the desert, which is also not definitional. Yet Shavuot is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah…the one truly definitional aspect of Judaism through the ages. And yet, now, it is largely overlooked.

I decry this, and at the same time, note that I am not taking Wednesday off. Oh, I’m not scheduling any meetings, and I will try to do work in a different sort of way…less use of computer, more socializing, but it’s not a day I’ll be taking off. In large part that’s for economic reasons, but if it were truly important to me, I could arrange to not work at all that day. I know that this is partly a result of the society I live in, that even Jewish America does not make a big deal of Shavuot; it is partly a function of how I was raised, where Shavu0t was not enormously important. And certainly it is partly that there are no really cool rituals, like the seder or the sukkah.

So, regardless of my own attentions to Shavuot, I want to describe why it is important, what it should mean and celebrate for us.

Shavuot is the celebration and commemoration of the experience of revelation.  The direct experience of the Divinity. It is taught that the Divine appeared in thunder and lightening atop Sinai. That there was an awesome majesty to the experience. We are also taught that the souls of all Jews who ever were, are or will be, were present at Sinai. For me, this speaks of the way that we all experience the divine at some point in our lives. For some this will come in contemplation of the fierce power of nature, for others in the capacity of humans to do good, or to love. We may all understand revelation and the experience of the divine in our own ways, but for all of us, Shavuot is the celebration of that experience,  the reminder that there is a more essential level of reality than that at which we live most of our lives.

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