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Shavuot Feature: Shavuot; the Unfinished Holiday

Among the three biblical pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot appears to be short, undeveloped and damaged by history.

Biblically, it is observed for one day – now two in the Diaspora for traditional Jews – with no distinctive commandments comparable to the matzah and seder of Passover or the sukkah, lulav and etrog of Sukkot.

Sadly, the two classic Shavuot commandments of bringing bikkurim (first fruits) and offering the two loaves of bread from the new crop are unfulfillable since the destruction of the Temple. Moreover, the Torah clearly proclaims the date on which Passover and Sukkot occur, but fails to state that the giving of the Torah took place on the actual date of Shavuot, the sixth of Sivan.

Finally, there is the gnawing question: if Passover and Sukkot each extend seven days, why is Shavuot only one day? Seven days is a symbol for perfection and wholeness in Jewish tradition. Why is not Sinai, the classic moment of revelation in Judaism, celebrated for a week? Is not the unique divine-human interchange that is not to be forgotten [Deuteronomy 4: 32ff] worthy of being treated as a whole and perfect revelation?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik argues that Shavuot is undefined, hence unfinished, because the Torah is unfinished. The “Torah She B’al Peh” (the Oral Torah) is the completion of the Sinai revelation. According to Soloveitchik, the reality of the world is impaired by God so that humans can complete the cosmos.

Thus, the human is “partner of the Almighty in the act of creation” and perfecting the world “is the ultimate aim of Judaism… the telos (goal) of the halachah in all its multifold aspects and manifestations.” In order to both perfect this world and to complete the Torah, the human is to act “not as a simple recipient but as a creator of worlds, as a partner with the Almighty in the act of creation.”

By leaving the date of revelation uncertain, says Soloveitchik, the Torah ensures that the authority of the Scripture can only be celebrated in accordance with the instructions of the human court. Thus humans become full authority-bearing partners in Torah; in Soloveitchik’s words, “God stripped Himself of… His dominion – and has handed it over to Israel, to the earthly court.”

Following the logic of Soloveitchik, the people of Israel are to perfect and complete this holiday. If the historic process has deprived Shavuot of some of its main commemoration, then we must fill the vacuum.

This conclusion was already sensed by Kabalists in Safed in the 17th century. Building on the Kabalistic insight that God is in exile and the world needs tikkun (repair) by God’s human partners, they extraordinarily enriched the holiday by developing a tikkun layl Shavuot (a Shavuot night seder of study).

They prepared excerpts from the entire range of the textual tradition and decreed that people were to study all night and review a precis of the entire Torah.

Then, in the morning they rose up and reenacted an informed acceptance of the Torah of Sinai – more informed because they had studied its contents, more complete because it included the entire range of the heritage, including Oral Law, Kabalah and so on.

In the past century, the secular Zionist pioneers tried to stimulate Shavuot by returning its agricultural roots and Reform Judaism by attaching to it the ceremony of confirmation.

However, neither of these attempts was particularly effective and the holiday has slipped into further neglect.

In Orthodox, Shavuot comes in behind the others in terms of participation and attention. How, then, can this generation restore the crown to its ancient splendor?

The most powerful aspect of Shavuot is not the unilateral divine revelation but its proclamation of a covenant or partnership between God and Israel to perfect humans and complete the Torah in the process of redeeming the world. This covenant must be renewed periodically so that acceptance is wholehearted – not just a passive reception – and each generation understands and commits to its specific task.

The time has come to restore Shavuot by bringing the Jewish people together to renew its covenantal faithfulness. Three areas cry out for action. In the aftermath of the Shoah, the Jewish people came to a consensus to take power and take more responsibility for Jewish fate and security in a world where God was more hidden than ever. We need to proclaim clearly that all who take part in this process do so because they see the ongoing creation of Israel and of Jewish dignity everywhere as a continuation of our covenant mission.

The second area is in Israel-Diaspora relations.

We should renew the covenant by articulating that our destinies and values are inseparable. Israel will send money and people as needed here and serve as a magnet and full resource for intensive Jewish living and learning for Diaspora Jews there.

American Jews will continue to build a better society in Israel through a aliyah and tzedakah as well as offer political support here. Together, we must renew Jewish values and assure the quality of Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. This is the great challenge of the next century; it will take a Jewish renaissance to accomplish the goal.

Finally, the denominations that have become so alienated from each other that they talk and act as if we were no longer one people should get together to renew the covenant. Let us argue and clarify what works and what does not and explore how we can together revitalize the calendar and the way of life even as we differ.

Communitywide Shavuot, or post-Shavuot, renewal of the covenant ceremonies could provide extraordinary excitement and a surge of Jewish community and unity.

A renewed Shavuot could complete the Exodus-liberation of modern life by infusing it with the partnership of values and distinctive behaviors of Sinai.

Thus, this generation would make its contribution to the eternal covenant of God and Israel.

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