Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin's 'Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra' Click here to buy the book
Why does so much mystery surround the festival of Shavuot?
Shouldn’t the single most important formative event in Jewish history be clearly dated and uniquely celebrated?
Unexpected precedent for this approach is found in the form of another two-tiered biblical festival, distant on the calendar from but in many ways similar to the festival of Shavuot.
Immediately after the holiday of Succot, the Torah mandates a one-day festival known as Shmini Atzeret. While this celebration is clearly connected to Succot, the rabbis are nonetheless emphatic in their contention that Shmini Atzeret is a “festival unto itself,” with its own identity and message. (Talmud Bavli Succa 47b–48a) We are thus again confronted with a “hybrid holiday,” a celebration which, like Shavuot, is at once a continuation of what comes before (even the title Shmini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly, references the connection to the seven days of Succot) and at the same time a separate occasion.
Furthermore, while Shmini Atzeret and Shavuot stand at opposite ends of the calendar, rabbinic thought connects them closely. Shavuot is referred to within Talmudic literature simply as Atzeret, the Day of Assembly. (Mishna Shevi’it 1:1 and countless other sources in the Mishna and Gemara.) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi even maintains that Shmini Atzeret should rightfully be as distant from Succot as Shavuot is from Pesach. Mercifully, however, God places Shmini Atzeret immediately following Succot so that the people will not have to make an additional pilgrimage back to Jerusalem during the winter season. (Midrash Rabba Shir Hashirim 7:2)
The implied equation is clear: Shavuot is to Pesach as Shmini Atzeret is to Succot.
The parallel between these two festivals, however, runs even deeper. Like Shavuot, Shmini Atzeret has no unique mitzva of its own. The silence of this festival, coming on the heels of the ritually richest time in the Jewish year (the month of Tishrei, containing Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot), is, in fact, deafening. And yet, according to rabbinic tradition, Shmini Atzeret is the culmination of all that comes before: a day marking the intimate, personal relationship between God and his people.
Neither Shavuot nor Shmini Atzeret need be marked by a mitzva specific to the day because each of these festivals celebrates, in its own way and at the close of a holiday period, the complete relationship between God and His people.
Shmini Atzeret caps the personal passage through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot, culminating each year’s tshuva cycle with a celebration of our renewed bond with our Creator. Shavuot concludes the national passage from bondage to freedom, marking the day on which God’s relationship with His chosen people begins in earnest.
Another distinct message is conveyed through the Torah’s identification of Shavuot as the culmination of the Omer period: the value of a goal reached is directly dependent upon the quality of the journey that takes you there.
Every life milestone derives its significance, in large measure, from what comes before: the days of study leading to the bar/bat mitzvah; the personal maturation that sets the stage for courtship and marriage; the years of shared love that give rise to an anniversary…
Life’s special occasions would be much emptier without the struggle, growth and rich experience leading to them.
Each year, therefore, we do not return to Sinai without first passing through the Omer. To arrive at the anniversary of Matan Torah without a prior journey would have little meaning. Each year, forty-nine days of preparation, replicating the original forty-nine days of anticipation that led from the Exodus to Revelation precede our arrival. By defining the festival of Shavuot specifically in relationship to those preceding days, the Torah informs us that the most significant moment of Jewish history, like all milestones, draws its significance from the prior journey.