Count me in.
Count me among.
With freedom, we start learning to have expectations.
With freedom, we start needing a new framework too – to function within.
And so, with freedom, we have expectations in turn placed upon us,
and then, we can start to truly aspire to be more than we were.
Shavuot is a continuation, a culmination and a beginning. What began in Egypt, what is recounted and re-experienced in Passover / Pesach, reaches a new defining moment – a most overwhelming one – and it does this a mere seven weeks later, at the time of this festival.
But before we get there, let’s start at an earlier beginning…
Shavuot is clearly multilayered, as reflected in its names. Typical of the evolution of our chagim / holidays, its origins were agricultural. Thus it is also known as Yom Habikurim / the Day of the First Fruits, and Chag Hakatzir / the Festival of the Harvest. Reaping the second grain – wheat – would start seven weeks after the harvest of barley, the first grain (Chag Hamatzot aka Pesach). The word shavuot means “weeks”. As one can see, sefirat ha-omer / the counting of the omer grew out of this same orientation. Omer means sheaf or bundle of grain. As instructed in Leviticus 23:15-16, starting from the offering of barley (second day of Passover), one should count seven weeks plus one day, or fifty days, to the scheduled offering of the second harvest.
Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays / shlosha regalim (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot). This second grain harvest would commence with its offering of thanks and hope in the form of two loaves baked from the first sheaves of wheat. These loaves were then taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, with one’s procession (transportation animals and carts included) bedecked in greenery and flowers of the season now in full bloom.
While Shavuot is mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 23:14-19, Leviticus 23:9-22), it refers to this agricultural celebration, not to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. The primary emphasis placed on that aspect of the chag only developed somewhat later. Which then gave us yet another name for thisholiday – Zman Matan Toratenu – “time of the giving of our Torah”.
Among more observant Jews, sefirat ha-omer is still done daily at this time. But by now the idea had evolved into one of mounting anticipation of a different kind: we are in a state of being newly freed, then transitioning. With Shavuot we arrive at Mount Sinai to receive the framework and wisdom of Torah.
One might almost look at this as another kind of planting, growth and then harvest of a rather different material – fledgling redeemed people – which would then be further reconfigured and harnessed to the creation and growth of something higher and better. Because what we have here is an ascent – and a quite rapid and steep one at that (also likely due to brass-tacks necessity) – from physical redemption to advancement on a whole new level. A level of “project” that is an even bigger seismic shift than leaving Egypt had been. Because this next step marks the start of intellectual and spiritual redemption, as well as the further molding of a people, a future society, an incipient national consciousness.
As a demarcation point in terms of the more immediate physical redemption story, Shavuot is therefore also known as “Atzeret” – meaning both assembly and cessation. It was viewed by rabbis in the Talmud as an endpoint to Pesach, which had marked that first initial physical freedom.
The Book of Ruth / Megillat Rut is read at this time. It is such a wonderfully apt choice of text for Shavuot in its weaving of the holiday’s many themes and layers (see “Let’s Talk About It”). Not only that, but one may well consider that we too were basically all “converts”, newly committing at Har Sinai.
When we celebrate Shavuot, we are not only expressing thankfulness to G-d for both physical sustenance of harvests and higher law and guidance in the gift of Torah. Like Moshe going up that mountain, an ascent is not easy. And this one is continual and active, not static or passive. Shavuot represents a parallel ongoing ascent, albeit with many continual stumbles and failings, for each of us personally and together as a people.
At this time we are actively re-recognizing that responsibilities come with freedom, we are re-enacting a choice in framework and codes to live by, and we are reaffirming who we together share those codes with by our group identity. We are either more formally committing for the first time, as youth do with confirmation, or reminding ourselves, reviewing and refreshing our commitments and connections.
We are truly saying: “we choose”, “count me in”, “count me among”, “let us aspire to grow to be more than we were”, and as part of that, to each ascend “to do more good works / ma-asim tovim”.