Shavuot celebrates the receiving of Torah. But it was not always so.
Torah relays the unfolding of Creation and the Jewish people who enter into a Covenant with G-d and then journey to the Promised Land. It was an arduous journey by a people struggling with post-traumatic stress, fears, insecurities and ambivalence. More than once they petulantly threaten to return to Egypt, rhapsodic in their fantasies of the comfort they once had in Egypt. Moses, the supportive leader, nudges them on, along with G-d’s miracles, ensuring food, water, and occasional punishments to encourage faith and tenacity. The desert becomes an alchemic process where the people must mature spiritually.
After crossing the Sea of Reeds their first stop is Mount Sinai to personally meet HaShem and receive the Ten Commandments and Torah. After three days of preparation they “Saw thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and trembled…they said to Moses, ‘You speak to us and we shall hear, let G-d not speak to us les we die.’” So Moses goes to the top of the mountain, on their behalf, to receive the tablets and Torah, returning forty days later to find a raucous celebration of a molten calf. In his rage, Moses smashes the tablets, incredulous that after receiving the gift of freedom and entering into the Covenant, the people express the ultimate rejection of HaShem, to not only refuse to listen to G-d’s voice but to replace G-d with an idol. In fact Moses receives a second set of tablets and the rabbis teach he returns on Yom Kippur, highlighting the theme of forgiveness central to this Holy Day. So how is it we celebrate with such a stain in our past?
Originally Shavuot was a celebration of the first grain harvest, Chag HaKatzir, and the offering of first fruits, Yom HaBikurim. Then we’re instructed to rejoice after counting seven weeks since Passover. Shavuot means weeks, so the name Chag Shavuot. We are told to bring sacrificial offerings and have a day of rest, a holy convocation for G-d, expressing gratitude and joy.
When the Holy Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the people were dispersed, the rabbis saw an opportunity to reshape an agricultural and sacrificial religion into one focused on study, prayer, and mitzvot. The Torah became the center of Jewish life so celebrating its gift of G-d’s words and teachings, as a treasure, became an essential feature of this holiday. What better way than to align Shavuot with Passover, the liberation from slavery, with the goal of receiving laws and statutes that would create a container for our new found freedom and a relationship with the Holy One.
The rabbis, in their genius, found a way to heal the wounds of rejection and redeem the sin of the people. By celebrating receiving Torah, each year, we reframe history, turning what once was a blemish on the people into a reaffirmation of loyalty and partnership. As a metaphor for a wedding, Shavuot creates a re-commitment ceremony with G-d (the groom), and the people Israel, (the bride), and Torah binding their relationship.
On Shavuot we also read the Book of Ruth, a woman who voluntarily follows the laws and the G-d of her mother-in-law, after her husband has died even though she is a non-Jew. In her zealous behavior, we are reminded of ‘choosing,’ once again, our own treasured tradition. Ruth, considered the first convert, is rewarded for her righteousness by becoming the great grandmother of King David who is believed to have died on Shavuot.
It is also the custom to study all night from the Prophet Ezekiel as well as passages from Torah, reinforcing its place in our hearts. Some communities pass the Torah to each person so they can have a personal moment of recommitment, while others unroll the whole Torah, holding it up, to witness every glorious letter.
As someone who sees Judaism through the lens of healing and nurturing spiritual wholeness, I believe we learn there is a great psycho-spiritual healing in reframing difficult and traumatic events so they can be re-visited, honored, and even celebrated.